6 lessons learned from Katrina (and how they apply to the oil spill)

June 30, 2010

[AP Wide World Photos]
[AP Wide World Photos]

Nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed sections of the Gulf Coast, area hotels and destinations are again facing a crisis that’s threatening everything from wildlife to tourism.
To reconcile the BP oil spill disaster, a panel of PR professionals — in a teleseminar hosted by PRSA’s Travel and Tourism Professional Interest Section last Friday — discussed how lessons learned from Katrina are applicable in calming the effects of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy today.
“What we’ve learned from Hurricane Katrina is that we need to have a one-voice strategy,” said John Deveney, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, adding that he’s impressed by the collaboration of local governments, media and businesses affected by the oil spill. “This strategic partnership of sharing information is what we’ve found successful in [the past], and it’s what we’re using here.”

Deveney, whose firm Deveney Communications helped manage the PR woes caused by Katrina in New Orleans, continues to work with the Louisiana Office of Tourism.

“The focus of the response in Louisiana is one of partnerships,” he said. “The golden rule of what we’re doing is communicating often and reliably — not just with media — but with all stakeholders.”
Mary Cracchiolo-Spain, the regional public relations director of MGM’s Mirage Mississippi Operations, added that crises make planning and communication — basic tenants of any PR campaign — more crucial.

“Perception becomes reality for some people,” she said. “Key challenges are dispelling rumors and responding to negative media coverage.”

Cracchiolo-Spain’s hotel reopened just one year after Katrina struck the coast in 2005. She said MGM learned that taking a sympathetic voice in messaging is essential to managing any crisis.
“We are very mindful of the psychological aspects [that crises] can have on our employees and communities,” she said.

James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, discussed the theories why some crises explode while others seem to vanish.
“All crises follow patterns — from robberies to weather disasters — that you can use to forecast and plan for [other] crises,” he said.

Lukeszewski, president of the Lukeszewski Group, a PR consultancy that specializes in crisis management, said that failing to manage the “victim relationship” is what tends to aggravate crises.

“You have to stop the production of victims and put the fire out,” he said. “You must put protections in place. It’s job [number] one.”

Controlling your crisis
Together, Deveney, Cracchiolo-Spain and Lukeszewski offered the following takeaways that will help you manage your catastrophe — whether it’s an oil spill, a hurricane or a routine crisis.

  • Communicate with core audience. During Katrina, MGM spent the first 48 hours relinking communications with the public by establishing an 800 number and creating a website dedicated to the crisis. Now for the oil spill, the company rerouted the hurricane hotline to a new oil-spill information center.
  • Form strategic partnerships. Deveney said that in Louisiana, coastal parishes are coming together with other stakeholder groups to conduct media monitoring and image audits.
  • Establish a hub for information. To reduce the amount of media volume on a crisis, develop a one-stop source for simplified facts, background information, story ideas, contacts and news releases. The Mississippi Beyond Katrina website is an award-winning example.
  • Be sympathetic to employee needs. Don’t forget that a crisis can impact human lives in addition to the bottom line. Communicating with employees will prevent rumors, and trust will flow to customers.
  • Define roles. The leader must be empowered to make executive decisions, and the spokesperson must set the tone for the crisis.
  • Validate victims. One way to manage the victim relationship is simply to apologize — early and quickly. Often, a public apology is all that’s needed. “Apologies are the atomic energy of empathy,” Lukaszewski said. “Apologies limit litigation and settle people down.”
Philip Volmar
Philip Volmar is a graduate of Brigham Young University's award-winning PR program. He specializes in digital public relations and integrated marketing.
Email: pvolmar at gmail.com


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