What Disaster Services Can Teach Us About Public Relations

For nearly a year, I volunteered with the American Red Cross’ Disaster Services Team, responding to calls in the middle of the night for all kinds of emergencies, but most likely to be fires. The experience taught me some indelible lessons about managing expectations, which can be applied to the triage situations PR professionals may at any point encounter on behalf of clients:

1)      Like disaster survivors, clients in distress want to be “made whole” immediately. Keep in mind, and keep reminding them, that regaining equilibrium, and then momentum, won’t come in a night; it’s at least a two- step process. Your goal, to try remedy the present crisis, begins with an initial step toward stabilization, then must proceed to and incorporate a follow-up plan for longer-term action.

2)      Emotions must not overrule good judgment or utilization of resources. By definition, disaster services situations can be truly riveting: from loss of property, or worse, to loss of life, and the concomitant anguish that accompanies both. In PR, hopefully, circumstances rarely achieve this scale; yet, even in overwhelming circumstances, PR practitioners, like volunteers, must keep cool heads and exercise prudent judgment about how best to address emotional needs and utilize finite resources. In other words, PR people must acquire highly developed instincts for discernment and become a quick, but thoughtful study in assessing and applying the most strategic response.

3)      The human cost of disaster is never fully realized at the scene of the situation. The toll and bleak reality of such perilous circumstances often only become evident in the days following the crisis event. It is only through scrupulous follow-up that we can plan and act appropriately to mitigate and manage the fallout that naturally occurs.

4)      Be prepared, pain is ongoing. Little things count. In our role as PR people, we must continuously seek to stay ahead of emerging needs by constantly monitoring the situation and challenging ourselves as to what more can be done to anticipate and relieve suffering and emotional distress. For example, as disaster volunteers, we not only arrive on scene with resources to secure food, clothing and shelter for clients, but we’re also equipped with small touches, like Kleenex, bottled water, comfort kits (toiletries for first nights stay) and Teddy Bears that can serve as a diversion for young children. Moreover, using resources at our disposal, we can help survivors secure in short order replacement medications, eyeglasses, or any number of other necessities that may be needed to give a sense of stability. These little touches reinforce the humanity of the person-to-person engagement as we go about our required documentation.

This approach also often entails listening more than speaking; providing encouragement and hopefulness, in both verbal and nonverbal ways, where needed.

5)      Use technology to full effect. Increasingly, data shows that more and more people turn to social, mobile and digital media for help and information during a crisis. Your crisis plan, as a part of your overall PR, should proactively address these channels in the ways that parallel the way that people use them.

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