The total extent of the damage from Hurricane Matthew may remain uncertain for some time, but there is certainly no question that Fox News anchor Shepard Smith ruffled feathers while warning viewers about its dangers.
In his effort to urge people living on or near Florida’s eastern coast to evacuate before the storm made landfall, he laid out a vivid and terrifying scenario.
“This moves 20 miles to the west, and you and everyone you know are dead — all of you — because you can’t survive it,” he said. ”It’s not possible unless you’re very, very lucky. And your kids die, too.”
As a marketing communications firm based in a hurricane-prone area, rbb is no stranger to natural disasters. We’ve lived through numerous storms and witnessed firsthand how effective communications before, during and after a major weather event can minimize the impact for affected communities.
But as emotions often run high during an emergency situation, we’ve also seen that there is a fine line between communications that provide comfort, confidence and long-term affinity for a brand, and ones that harm corporate reputation.
Here are three rules of thumb for communicating during a natural disaster.
1. Sound the alarm but don’t be alarmist
While it is important to not mince words about the seriousness of a storm like Hurricane Matthew, Shepard Smith may have taken things to the extreme. Smith’s words have been met with a firestorm on social media. Some praised him for trying to knock sense into stubborn residents who didn’t want to evacuate, and many more questioned his tactics – noting the numerous young children who were exposed to a morbid and scary message.
By contrast, Governor Rick Scott’s message to Floridians, while still strong, was a little more tempered.
“My biggest concern is people aren’t taking this seriously enough,” warned Scott at a hurricane briefing on Thursday afternoon. “I don’t want people to lose their life.”
2. Communicate early and often
“Better late than never” does not apply when communicating about a major weather event. At the first sign of a damaging storm, it is key for companies to begin communicating to all customers and employees that might be impacted.
Even with natural disasters like earthquakes and tornados that don’t allow for a lot of advanced warnings, companies are wise to provide their customers and relevant stakeholders ongoing communications and updates on the situation.
Multiple forms of communication should be tapped for this outreach, ranging from toll-free, 24-hour hotlines to email and texts alerts and social media posts.
3. Don’t overdo branding in the wake of a disaster
Companies should always consider lending a helping hand following a natural disaster. Not only is this good corporate citizenship, but when done right it can create lasting loyalty among those impacted.
However, it is key to act with compassion and make sure any communications about the charitable actions or offerings you are providing are focused on the community first. Let others do most of the talking about the positive role your company played.
A great example of this is Anheuser-Busch’s efforts to send cans of water to weather-impacted areas. The water is transported from Anheuser-Busch’s brewery in Cartersville, GA, which periodically pauses production to can drinking water so they can be ready to help communities in times of disaster. Not only do the donated cans of water have very limited branding, but also the company’s communications about the donations are brief and focused on where and when the essential supply of drinking water will be delivered.
Bottom line, in the wake of a natural disaster, it is not just what you say, it is how and when you say it. Being thorough, yet tempered and sensitive in your communications will always go a long way.