The first major Atlantic hurricane of 2018, Florence, may have been downgraded to a category 1 storm by the time it made landfall, yet its gale-force winds and torrential rains were powerful enough to devastate parts of the Carolinas; communities were flooded, residents were stranded and more than 40 lives were lost.
History would indicate that storm season might just getting started.
While many regard hurricanes as a summer phenomenon (Katrina, Harvey and the underrated Irene all made landfall in August), September and October storms can deal devastating blows when we least expect them (Sandy). Plus, if we learned anything from last winter, it’s that the end of hurricane season no longer means a break from the threat of major squalls. Thanks to rising sea levels and climate change, the next 100-year storm might just be around the corner.
For commercial real estate developers, property managers, and business owners with property or other assets near the ocean or in other areas prone to hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes or even fires, this reality means that extreme weather preparation is a virtually endless cycle that cannot be ignored. So to those watching the forecast, we offer the following communications guidance:
Have a plan. If you have a Disaster Recovery and Crisis Communications Plan, make sure it is current and covers extreme storms. If you don’t have a plan, now is the time to create one. Questions this plan should address:
- Who is on your Crisis Response Team?
- What is everyone’s role?
- What information are you sharing?
- What information can you prepare in advance?
- Who is communicating with employees, tenants and the media?
- Who is monitoring social channels? (More on that later.)
Drill, drill, drill. “Practicing” for a major storm should start now and be an annual activity at a minimum. Whether a full-on simulation or a table-top exercise, you don’t want an actual storm to be the first time you put your plan into action.
Table-top exercises and drills show you which parts of your plan work well and which ones need to be retooled. They also give your Crisis Response Team a chance to work together before a situation occurs.
When we do table-top exercises, we invite everyone who works on a property to participate, including engineers, elevator technicians, parking attendants and janitors. All of these people will be involved in readying the building for the storm, powering it down if necessary, recovering and returning to operations.
Be ready to communicate. Effectively managing a crisis is not just about the tactical response. Communication plays a significant role in getting the right information to the right people quickly so they can take appropriate action.
Start with the basics:
- Make sure you have emergency contact information for your employees, tenants and vendors.
- You want cell numbers (critical for text) and emails for everyone, but also home (for those who still have landlines) and business phone numbers where available in case cell networks are overloaded or shut down.
- Outline your action plan.
- Does your building have sustainable design features, i.e. mechanicals above grade, storm water mitigation, etc.?
- What steps are you taking in advance of the storm?
- When are you getting cars out of underground garages, powering down the building, moving elevators to higher floors during the storm, lining up generators, what tenants should do to prepare, etc.
- Where should tenants look for updated information? Text, email, Facebook?
You want this information electronically, on your hand-held device and in hard copy – in the office and off-site. Going forward, it should be updated at least quarterly. If power is knocked out or shut down in advance, you will not be able to communicate with employees or tenants through work email.
Many owners and managers have learned this the hard way when they tried to communicate in the days after a major storm and either didn’t know how to reach people or had out of date contact information. It sounds like a little thing, but it makes a HUGE difference.
Communication early and often. Outreach to employees, vendors, tenants and other critical audiences starts as soon as you have reliable information that a storm is on its way. When you know a bad storm is coming, put your communications plan into action.
As soon as safely possible after the storm has passed, send a communication to tenants with whatever early information you can confirm about the level of damage to the building, its systems and surrounding area.
Early on, you will need to manage expectations. Tenants will be anxious for re-entry to check on their spaces and for re-occupancy.
Clear and frequent communication about the extent of damage, how you are managing clean-up and recovery, and external factors that may impact the speed of recovery, make all the difference. Tenants who are frustrated by lack of information can take to social media to air their grievances (again, more on that later).
Assume everything you write can end up in unintended hands, including in the media and on social media. So, take care with the information you give and commitments to deadlines you make.
Social media fans the flames. During last year’s winter storms, videos of flooded Boston streets were posted to Twitter long before they aired on TV. We all remember the Twitter video of a dumpster floating through the Seaport.
Astute companies or their PR partners were monitoring social channels and were able to get ahead of the message on flooding, either by posting updates to their own channels or contacting media outlets proactively. This is especially important for buildings under construction or going through leasing and sales. You don’t want prospective tenants questioning the safety or reliability of your building because they saw a picture of your flooded street on Facebook.
Tracking what is being said about your company/property, setting the record straight, and factoring that into your communications with tenants is a critical element of surviving the storm after the storm.
No comment is a comment. Media use what they find on social media channels in their reporting. Reporters also call building owners and managers for estimates on damages and time of recovery. Expect those calls and be ready for them.
You should also be prepared for (1) media to come on property and (2) how you will politely ask them to leave. That means you’ll want media procedures in place to ensure security, maintenance and other building staff know how to engage with media properly and not end up on the evening news saying, “no comment.”
In the same way you look to fortify your buildings and make them as storm-ready as possible, you should make communications a pillar of your Disaster Recovery Plan and response. Doing so will improve your ability to weather the storm, no matter what time of year it hits.