When Communication Matters Most: 5 Crisis Communication Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

By Matt Eventoff

The effectiveness of any leader is not determined during a campaign appearance or positive earning announcement, but rather during a time of crisis.

Three days ago my hometown was decimated. My place of employment as a teenager now resides in the Atlantic Ocean. Much of where I spent my childhood no longer exists. Where I married the love of my life now rests in the Atlantic.

My parents are in my residence, watching the community where they raised us for 30 years from a television, as they can’t live in theirs. My heart breaks every hour for my friends, neighbors and those people who I have never met that have been so severely affected.

There is no better situation during which to judge communication acumen than during times of crisis. This is when it matters most.

We elect politicians to lead us through crisis, not just for the ability to perform during campaign appearances. Leadership often begins when politics ends.

Our Governor has been called a lot of things, but during this crisis, there is only one word to describe him – Leader. From days before the storm to every minute, literally every minute, since the storm, a true leader, and an example of how to lead in crisis. A leader – from a communication perspective and every other perspective. Thank you Governor.

Our President is at the precipice of one of the biggest events in his life. Within one week his own personal history will change dramatically, one way or another. So where was he? Not playing politics, but leading. He is a man who was initially elected largely due to his ability to communicate. Paradoxically the President has also stated that his biggest weakness during his first term has been his ability to effectively communicate his message. He’s getting it right when it matters most. Thank you Mr. President.

What lessons can we all take away about effective communication during a crisis from Hurricane Sandy?

1) Visibility – the Governor looks like heck, sounds like heck, has a horrible cold, and has been visible, quite literally 24/7. Radio, television, print – regular press conferences, updates, coordination, answers, etc. Not just platitudes and motivational speeches, but real updates and answers.

2) Leadership – often in a crisis, big or small, there is a question as to who is in charge. That does not exist here. It is clear who is in charge, it is clear there is a plan, and it is clear that there is order. What does this mean? It means some semblance of stability, in a completely unstable situation.

3) Humility – the Governor has been an incredibly harsh critic of the President, and the President and surrogates have been incredibly harsh critics of the Governor. You cannot overstate how harsh they have been. And when millions of people are hurting, the two men not only compliment each other, but also put aside differences to do what is right. There are plenty of nefarious suggestions as to why this “bromance” is occurring. “Why” doesn’t matter, “what” matters, and the “what” is cooperation, communication and stability for a ravaged region in a crisis.

4) Internal Communication – during any crisis your ability to communicate internally is crucial, as an organization’s biggest weakness is usually insiders communicating messages that run contrary to organizational messages. My friend and media expert Brad Phillips has a terrific post about the importance of this here. Federal, State and local officials throughout the Garden State are all sending similar messages, and I have to believe that is due to the level of communication that is happening between said officials.

5) Planning – We started with 2.5 million people without power. That number decreases every hour. I have driven throughout the State and see line trucks, tree-cutting trucks, contractors, etc., either deployed or waiting to be deployed. There was no way to prepare for something like this, but there is also no question this State was as prepared as could be expected. There has been effective communication throughout this disaster – that sends a message, and is one of the reasons that people have been patient so far.

Not everyone has led publicly. Thousands of heroes are getting the work done, rescuing people and saving lives. Their stories are being effectively communicated through others, and to thank them with words is insulting. You are heroes and should be recognized as such.

The men and women putting sleepless nights restoring the power to all of us, making our roadways safe and getting us back to some semblance of normalcy, you are heroes as well. Thank you.

Then there are elected officials who lead not via press conference and site tours, but through communication and getting things done. An example of that here in the Garden State is Senator Kevin O’Toole.

The Senator is known in Trenton as one of the most effective communicators in the Legislature, and has demonstrated why behind the scenes for the past 72 hours. Serving as a communication hub between residents, local officials, police, fire, educational leaders and the Front Office, he has displayed everything that is right in a leader – making sure everyone knows what is happening, what resources are available, and helping to cut through red tape to get those resources deployed. More importantly, he has led through finding what resources are not available, finding them out of state and coordinating getting them on the ground here.

I would also like to thank our local television station – NJ 12. The coverage, availability, and access to those without power made a huge difference. NJ 12 has proven itself during our most trying time, and has illustrated that the Network can compare with any of the “majors” in New York and Philadelphia. I can only speak for my own household, but you have a daily viewer for life here.

I would like to thank NJ BIZ, which continues to be the go-to source for New Jersey business news, and will be a crucial resource to all of us in the coming years. We are lucky to have you as a resource.

My heart is touched as I watch brave business leaders throughout my State who haven’t slept in the past 96 hours like Joe and Mike Jingoli, Frank DiCola, Chris Paladino and hundreds of others, do everything possible to help employees and their communities before even thinking about business.

Having spent weeks on the Mississippi Coast following Katrina, I have an idea of what is to come, and know how hard the next few years will be. Communication challenges at the outset hampered the recovery during Katrina and I am hopeful that effective communication from the outset this week will continue to speed the recovery process after Sandy.

I am heartened by the teamwork millions of people around the State that I am so proud to call home are already showing, opening homes and hearts to friends and complete strangers. We will get through this and be even stronger.

MTV owes this region a year of nonstop, daily coverage around stories of neighbors helping neighbors, to show the world the real Jersey Shore.

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