Strategies & Tactics

In the Eye of the Storm: How Florida PR Pros Met Unprecedented Challenges During the 2017 Hurricane Season

January 5, 2018

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Florida communications professionals found themselves literally in the eye of the storm in 2017 as they faced down a trio of killer hurricanes. It was the first year on record that the United States was hit by more than one Category 4 hurricane, and Harvey, Irma and Maria cut a terrible swath of destruction that likewise obliterated usual communication practices. So what did PR pros do when they found themselves in the middle of these monster storms?

Some relied on traditional and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Others took advantage of emerging digital platforms, such as Nixle, Nextdoor and Virtual Badge. The real PR warriors, stripped of electricity and cell towers, relied on their own resourcefulness — even if it meant standing on street corners talking to the public and reporters one-on-one. After all, millions of people were depending on communicators to receive life-saving messages.

Here is a snapshot of how communicators coped during Hurricane Irma.

Preparing for the storm

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his communications team earned high praise for helping residents across the nation’s third-largest state prepare for Hurricane Irma. As Politico reporters noted, it was the kind of “catastrophic natural disaster that helps make or break any governor’s legacy.”

Optics, content and timeliness never mattered more. Scott was a constant presence on TV and on Twitter, providing preparation advice and storm updates starting days before the storm hit Florida. Wearing his Navy cap, he reassured the public while overseeing the largest regional evacuation in U.S. history.

The governor was a reliable source for the latest weather bulletins and status reports from emergency-operations centers across the state’s 67 counties. As the mass evacuation drained gas stations, Scott prevented widespread panic by letting people know that he had ordered law-enforcement officers to escort tankers to expedite deliveries to filling stations.

Getting information to the public

Alyson Crean, public information officer for the City of Key West, rode out the storm at her police station. The National Weather Service in Key West tweeted:


***NOWHERE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS WILL BE SAFE***


As PIO, however, Crean did not have the option of evacuating. She was the messenger for the city and the police department, and residents, business owners, boat owners and tourists depended on her communications.

Prior to the storm, Crean had posted warnings on the city’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. She distributed news releases and ran public-service announcements on local radio. She shared video PSAs on social media and the city’s television channel.

But after the storm, Crean faced an entirely different world. “Communications throughout the lower and middle Keys were completely severed,” Crean said. “Cell towers were out. All internet access was down.”

Most of the Keys were without power, drinking water, medical services and flushing toilets. The hurricane’s 130-mph winds had leveled homes, uprooted trees and pushed boats onto roads. Although there had been a mandatory evacuation, about 10,000 “Conch Republic” residents had stayed.

The city established an analog phone line to communicate with emergency officials — one of the only working phone lines for the island. Residents were without cell-phone service for more than a week, and Crean had to wait four days before she had cell service and could post again on social media.

One radio station rigged a generator and was able to broadcast locally. So, although the roads were dangerously full of debris, Crean drove to the station several times a day to update the public about where they could find food and water.

Along with the mayor and city manager, she went around the seven-square-mile city answering questions on street corners.

“It’s old-fashioned, but when there is no other means, it’s an effective way to get the word out,” she said. Crean arranged to meet reporters regularly outside City Hall to pass on the latest information. Her advice: Be open to using all means of communication available.

Finding new ways to communicate

After hitting Key West, the hurricane took aim south of Tampa Bay. Stephen Hegarty, PIO for the Tampa Police Department, found that residents and visitors were drawn in record numbers to a new text-alert system.

Hegarty said the City of Tampa, which had mandatory evacuation zones, used a subscription text service offered by Everbridge called Nixle. Hegarty texted messages to 888777 under the title
“TampaReady.”

“We went from zero subscribers to 63,000 in two days,” he said. “People were hungry for information, and this was pushed out to them, so they didn’t have to check email.”

A citizens’ information line was established, and communications coordinators arranged media interviews by phone, in person and over Skype with the mayor, police chief and fire chief. Updates were provided in English and Spanish.

Hegarty said planning was critical. That included having media-relations staff for two shifts, since round-the-clock coverage lasted through the weekend. Many reporters and broadcasters camped out in their newsrooms or were embedded at emergency operations centers.

Another challenge: As power shut off across the state, it became necessary to ensure that press releases could communicate information without visuals for those listening on the radio.

Tom Terry, chief meteorologist for ABC affiliate WFTV-Channel 9 in Orlando, said his station was simulcasting with local radio stations, so early on he was reporting the hurricane’s path by creating descriptive pictures.

“Having apps for other devices, like Roku, was helpful,” he said.

Technology allowed some communicators to work from home when their workplaces lost power. Sherri Owens, communications officer for Lake County Schools in Central Florida, posted remotely to the schools’ website. She also activated an automated-call system programmed for emergencies, which delivered phone messages to school employees as well as to the homes of 42,000 students.

Owens’ tip: Having the right technology to reach your audience is essential before an emergency.

Facing unprecedented challenges

Businesses serving the public faced their own set of challenges. For instance, Walt Disney World Resort’s communications team not only had to notify thousands of tourists about the park closing but also had to communicate with more than 70,000 employees.

Disney’s comprehensive tactics included social media, phone calls, website updates, notifications sent through the My Disney Experience mobile app, media alerts and more. Internally, they created a new, storm-related website that reached tens of thousands of employees. The site not only included work schedules but also included local school closures and other practical information.

“It’s invaluable to have a multidisciplined group that can collaborate with each other and bring a variety of skills to the table,” said Andrea Finger, communications director, Walt Disney World Resort.

On the communications front, Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy was equally proactive. Duke’s communications managers had their hands full, as three-quarters of the 1.8 million customers it serves in Florida lost power.

“Irma was the most devastating storm to ever hit Duke Energy Florida,” said Ann Marie Varga, APR, the company’s communications manager. “It was unprecedented.”

The largest mobilization in the company’s history included an army of 12,000 line workers and other support personnel. Varga said the company brought crews from 25 states and Canada.

As Hurricane Irma approached the state, the company issued 13 news releases in English and Spanish, conducted hundreds of interviews and had a dedicated storm website, which received 1.2 million visits.

But even the most veteran PR practitioners could not anticipate all the problems that came with Irma. For example,

  • Utility-repair trucks were delayed by evacuees clogging the roadways, leaving and returning home.
  • The damage was more significant than anticipated: replacing 2,000 power poles and 1,100 transformers, and inspecting, repairing or replacing 1,000 miles of power lines.
  • IT issues required Duke workers to manually track outage reports and repairs.

When repairs went past a promised deadline in some areas, the media lit up. One irritated columnist wrote, “…fire your hopeless PR staff and start over with someone who understands communication in this new era.”

In reality, Duke was more than responsive, deploying representatives at the state and county emergency operations centers. The company president and government-relations staff worked directly with the governor. Community-relations managers worked with elected county officials. Staff constantly monitored social media and posted frequent updates.

Crisis communications pros know criticism comes with the territory. Varga had this advice for colleagues who find themselves under fire in the eye of the storm: “Don’t take it personally,” she said. “This was a natural disaster of epic proportions. All we can do is our best.” 

Doris Bloodsworth, APR

Doris Bloodsworth, APR, is an award-winning writer and president of Crosswords Communications Co. in Central Florida. She graduated with highest honors with a degree in journalism from the University of Florida. Email: dorisbloodsworth@gmail.com.

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