Developing a Communication Strategy
Communication is always compromised in a post-disaster situation. The lead economic recovery organization, or multiple economic recovery organizations, play(s) two important roles in communicating with businesses in a post-disaster situation:
- Listening to businesses to understand their needs
- Quickly disseminating relevant information to businesses regarding available resources and service providers who can help with cleanup, financing, and rebuilding efforts.
In addition to communicating with the business community, the lead economic recovery organization, with its partners, will need to develop a two-pronged communications and media plan for the recovery process. This communications plan includes information directed at an internal audience (within the community) and messages directed at an audience external to the community.
In a post-disaster response environment, communication to businesses should be frequent, consistent, and provide useful information to help businesses and other economic recovery stakeholders to rebuild. Lack of information compounds an already stressful situation and gives the impression of a vacuum in leadership.
Step 1: Establish a website and possibly a toll-free number attached to a call center to provide disaster response and recovery information to businesses
Businesses will need access to critical information for their own recovery process such as the timing on restoring utility service, the city’s inspection and rebuilding requirements, a list of local- and/or state-licensed contractors, how to select and pay a contractor, how to deal with insurance companies and more.
Businesses, particularly small businesses, also need information on how to navigate local, state and federal government assistance programs, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) technical and financial assistance and/or a state bridge loan. They need to be aware of the location and services of an established business recovery center, a one stop shop for providing such business assistance in a post-disaster environment.
In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina, the local economic development organization, JEDCO, co-sponsored a website for all organizations to submit information in one central location. The organization also advertised a toll-free number (staffed by employees of the local utility) for local businesses to use to get answers to their questions and their two established business recovery centers.
Local business leaders also need to be aware of response efforts and involved in the decision making process of plans to rebuild the community. Even when decisions about the response or recovery process have not yet been made by local government, it is still important for local officials to communicate with community stakeholders about the progress rather than to provide no information at all.
Communities should seek to market these recovery resource(s) in the local media, through communication channels of individual businesses and business groups, and using grassroots efforts. Communities that have developed these strong communication channels before a disaster will be in a better position to outreach to businesses after a disaster. Thought should be given to effective communication methods when electronic communication lines are not working. Some Florida communities canvass with flyers to advertise local business recovery centers immediately after a hurricane to ensure direct contact with local business owners. A summary of key information should be made available in hard copy format to distribute to businesses without access to email, Internet or phone.
Step 2: Establish a tiered business call program or surveying effort for business retention purposes
As part of the pre-disaster planning process among economic recovery partner organizations, the economic recovery group may want to decide which businesses will be contacted and by which partner.
In Cedar Rapids, following the flood in 2008, the regional economic development organization instituted a three-tiered business call program to call on the region’s major employers. The three tiers represented different levels of impact that local businesses experiences (those directly impacted; those indirectly affected; and those whose suppliers or customers were affected).
Depending on the type of disaster, economic recovery stakeholders may want to consider reaching out initially to businesses that are critical economic anchors in the community as well as those businesses that provide essential services, such as gas stations and grocery stores.
In any case, this call and/or survey campaign is an important effort for assessing the needs of the business community, connecting businesses with resources, and informing the public sector of needed resources and services. Methods of communication for this campaign may include telephone (land line and cell); direct mail; website and email; town hall meetings, conferences or workshops; local media (television, radio, newspapers, and online media); and door-to-door canvassing when warranted.
Step 3: Develop a communication strategy among key community leaders to ask for assistance from state and federal governments
Economic recovery partner organizations in touch with their business constituents provide key links to inform local government officials – the most likely liaisons to higher levels of government – about the resources required for the local economy to recover.
These recovery partners can ensure that public officials are thoroughly informed about the community’s economic recovery needs and ask for appropriate resources. The target audiences are those in a position to provide that assistance – primarily, the state’s political leadership and the federal government.
Messages should communicate the disaster’s economic impact (quantifiably, to the extent possible); any plans the community has made for economic recovery; and request specific assistance from the appropriate agency(ies).
It is recommended that the community incorporate information from the following two efforts in their communication strategy:
- Use a post-disaster economic impact analysis – an independent, third-party assessment of the disaster’s economic consequences – to support the community’s efforts to secure resources from state and federal governments. Galveston, Texas, produced a six-page recovery report one month after Hurricane Ike, which included impacts to the community, an economic climate profile (pre- and post-storm), major initiatives taken after the storm, and issues to address going forward. The State of Louisiana and GNO, Inc. have performed economic impact studies to quantify the impact of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill as well as the moratorium imposed by the Federal government after the spill.
- Determine which local and state departments are taking the lead on different recovery issues. Don’t assume that communicating with one agency will provide the most comprehensive or accurate information on how funds will be used for economic recovery purposes. This is where it pays to build relationships in advance of a disaster with state and federal officials who can provide advice and resources.
Step 4: Develop an effective “Open for Business” communications strategy to counter negative public relations and image issues
Communities need to understand how their economic assets are perceived to be damaged by the national public, and craft effective marketing campaigns to change perceptions.
External messages need to dispel common myths and promote opportunity. It’s important to inform key markets outside of the impacted region that certain industries are still functioning, or that the region has largely recovered.
- Determine the target audience for the message(s) and seek funding to plan and execute the strategy. Marketing efforts to impact a community’s brand image can cost hundreds of thousands dollars to over $1 million to effectively reach a national audience. Therefore, it is critical to understand the target audience and how to effectively reach them with limited marketing resources. This task should be the responsibility of the lead economic recovery organization or a regional marketing organization.
- Publicize information about incentives available for business investment. Mississippi, for example, effectively used Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone credits to attract businesses after Hurricane Katrina.
- Aggressively promoted any new business activity, such as business expansion, in the national media. The lead organization, with its partners, should construct and distribute a recovery story that is interesting and affirmative.
- Effective use of the “sympathy card” to get stories of recovery out through national media outlets will be important.
New Orleans was effective in getting major tourist attractions, such as Jazz Fest, up and running after Hurricane Katrina so that visitors could see that the French Quarter was intact.
IMAGE BUILDING AND MEDIA MANAGEMENT
Target Audience could be: Congress and voters, tourism/convention industry, business decision makers, tourists, investors and developers, international businesses, opinion leaders, and displaced citizens and workers.
The specific messages developed should be delivered to specific audiences through appropriate modes of communication.
The creation of the appropriate message from the disaster-impacted regions, developing key short-term and long-term strategies, targeting audiences, sending key messages, identifying delivery systems, and measuring success.
Appropriately develop and deliver images and media messages. A coordinated authority should carry out the strategy. The states should operate as a united voice to create a common front for the message, as many topics lend themselves to multi-state marketing. The media should focus on workers, citizens, and businesses inside and outside the region.