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The Importance of Communicating in a Crisis

February 26, 2014
This month, I want to talk about the tremendous opportunity we are afforded when crises like back-to-back snow storms hit our communities.

In every crisis there exists a core issue. It is our job to understand that issue and the way it affects our organization. Beyond that, it can also be our job to flip that crisis into an opportunity. 

This can’t always be done, of course. But if you can achieve that flip, you can really give your organization a chance to shine. 

In Milton, our mission statement includes being responsive and responsible to our residents at all times – especially in the tough times. Thus, with the two storms – which were completely different and required different responses each time – we had a chance to show residents we were there for them. 

In the first storm, people felt all alone out there – they were abandoning cars and trying to find a safe place for children who couldn’t get home on buses. We had to get word out to them in whatever way we could that: 1. we were out there and 2. we would get this thing under control.

So we took to CodeRED and our Web site to deliver an overall safety message. Then we began delivering specific road updates and answering dozens, if not hundreds, of questions on Facebook and Twitter (our best tool at the time because we don’t currently have a real-time GIS road update tool the public can use – but we’re certainly working on it).

We worked until traffic died out around 10 p.m. on Tuesday, then got right back at it early Wednesday morning (and just to be clear, we had it easy – Public Works slept in their trucks for three hours, then went back to work). By Wednesday it was clearing up. By Thursday everything was back to normal. But we had made serious gains.

In two days we added more than 500 users on Facebook and Twitter – our Facebook page traffic alone was up some 400 percent. Our Web site logged about 30,000 more hits than usual, a 50 percent increase.

But most importantly, we received only sporadic anger – less than six separate messages (and even then we were able to calm down all but one resident). Instead, the amount of support and thank you notes we received was overwhelming. Our efforts were even singled out by local media when asked who did the best job during the crisis.

During the next storm, things were much calmer. Everyone stayed off the road, and all those new relationships we established really paid off. We reported only one accident and received an outpouring of support from residents for our round-the-clock road work and timely updates.

Luckily, we didn’t have to utilize CodeRED because no situation ever rose to the level of city-wide emergency. Instead, we were able to provide updates via e-mail and answer questions on social media. We also recognized power outages were going to be the biggest issue and spent a good amount of time watching the utilities to share their information over and over.

By day two, we were able to shift to sharing snow pictures – a far cry from the emergency updates of just a few days before. And because of that responsiveness, we added another 226 users in two days.

Here’s the thing: We weren’t alone in turning these weather events into opportunities. I know there are great stories across the metro area of hard working folks who were able to turn this disaster into a win for their community. So let’s hear them, let’s learn from them.

Because it’s going to happen again – it won’t be snow, it won’t be unimaginable traffic, but something will throw the metro area into crisis. And we can be prepared.

Thank you for your time. I’d love to hear from you.
Jason Wright is Communications Manager for the Georgia Tech Research Library. Up until November 2015, he was the Director of Innovation and Engagement for the City of Milton where he oversaw all aspects of the city's branding and communications efforts, including transparency, automation, design, photography, printing, web services and social media and public outreach.

Prior to Milton, Wright spent seven years working in the magazine and newspaper business. Most recently he was editor of both the Milton Herald and Alpharetta–Roswell Revue and News, where he wrote, edited, photographed for and oversaw design of the weekly papers. Prior to that, he worked as a writer, editor, designer and photographer for local, regional and national publication.