A year ago tomorrow, Aucklanders watched in disbelief as the city endured catastrophic flooding that caused terrible loss of life and property across the city and surrounding areas.
It was a chaotic, emotional and devastating time for so many, compounded by the ineffectiveness of communication from the entities tasked with leading people through such disasters.
The effects of this linger on a year later. Many families remain displaced, and homeowners continue to work through the stressful and long aftermath of discussions around red and orange stickers, rebuilding, fixing and insuring flood-prone properties.
From a sunny, warm and dry Auckland today, it is interesting to reflect on how the lessons from that crisis response may have been applied over the last 12 months.
Our experiences of communicating through crises have taught us two key things that serve as foundations for effective crisis and issues communication.
First, organisations that have a frontline role in communicating during a crisis must have a deep focus on staying true to the organisation’s purpose and values. If these things don’t exist, are misunderstood or weakened, it becomes very difficult to quickly find the “north star” that should guide an effective and empathetic response in a time of immense stress.
Second, is ensuring there is excellent preparation at a systemic level.
Having a crisis communication plan is important, but it is usually only effective if it is tested well and adapted over time to the lessons learned from robust testing. In situations that involve multiple parties (like a natural disaster), it is crucial for those parties to know each other and how to deliver a co-ordinated response and communications front.
No organisation can ever plan for every scenario, but every organisation knows what its worst case scenario would be. People are fallible. Acts of God happen. And it rains, sometimes enormously heavily.
There is no value to be gained from ignoring these realities. The most important task for any organisation considering how it should respond to a potential crisis is to ensure that the crisis communication system within the organisation is geared up to manage a response effectively, no matter the nature of the crisis itself.
Words don’t resolve crises, good systems do. Good systems take time to build, and practice goes a long way to help make them perfect.
Twelve months on from these devastating floods, almost 12 months on from Cyclone Gabrielle, and now four years post-COVID, are we still investing in the critical step of crisis preparation? Or has complacency set in as other business priorities have taken over our leadership focus?
If your organisation hasn’t road-tested your crisis plan in a while, it’s worth remembering how things unfolded a year ago, and asking how you might fare if the heavens opened again tomorrow.