Thinking the Unthinkable

As in 2010, with the devastation caused by the Haitian earthquake, 2011 has begun on a disastrous note with the Queensland floods drowning cities and towns, bringing death, destruction and disbelief in their wake.

Quite rightly, coverage has been – and continues to be – extensive as the waters rise hour by hour. The consequences of this latest natural disaster will be felt throughout this coming year and beyond, along with the ongoing – but less publicised – floods in the Philippines, caused by heavy rains that began on New Year’s Eve. More than a million people have been affected there, with 40 confirmed deaths and many others unaccounted for or missing.

In 2010, New Zealand had more than its fair share of disasters, with the Christchurch earthquake followed by the tragedy at Pike River and again, the consequences of both those events will be felt for many months ahead.

As communicators, our role in a crisis is clear. What tends to be forgotten is the sustained effort required after a disaster has ‘peaked’ and is replaced in the mainstream media by the next event, happening or mishap. The global attention span is short. We are reminded of past events at anniversary intervals, such as this week’s ‘year in Haiti’ reports, but the problems still exist. For the most part, once the initial ‘shock and awe’ events have peaked, so too does mainstream media interest. Thankfully for those involved, online conversations are longer lived – for example, the #eqnz Twitter hashtag continues to act as an important information focal point for those affected by the Christchurch earthquake, particularly with ongoing aftershocks, reinstatement of property issues and community concern as to when things might start to be fixed.

Most practitioners will have to handle crisis and post-crisis communications at some point in their career. Some crises will be of significant magnitude, others smaller but of no less significance to those involved. While emphasis is rightly given to pre-crisis planning, drills, test reaction times and channels, the process of ‘being prepared’ often fails to include planning the effective communication of the actions needed or being taken to address the consequences of the events that befall us.

Extreme events are occurring with unnerving and monotonous regularity – last night in Brazil floods and mudslides have left over 250 dead. The immediate tragedy for those most closely involved will – in our global society – affect all of us in the long term whether that affect is on rebuilding our homes, food price rises and shortages or simply where we choose to – or are physically able – to live.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a couple of New Year’s resolutions that I think would be useful for every public relations and communications practitioner:

  • Get Fit: audit your own skills, competencies and abilities. Do you know enough about the communications channels, possibilities and pitfalls we must deal with on a daily basis to allow you to cope in an emergency and its aftermath?
  • Practice: Think ahead, undertake risk and issues audits; plan, practice and devise long-term consequence strategies so that both stakeholders and organisations are served with care, compassion, understanding and real problem-solving actions at a time when they are going to need these things most.

And if, like me, you feel more than a little frustrated and helpless watching all these things unfold and want to do something real and practical to help, then the very least we can do is put our hands in our pockets. I’ve added donation links to organisations supporting the events I’ve mentioned and they are listed below. If you have more to add, please let me know or add it to the comment thread.

Red Cross NZ – Australia, Haiti, Christchurch

World Vision – Haiti

ChildFund NZ – Sri Lanka

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