Three Crisis Communications Lessons from Winter Storm Juno

As winter storm Juno descends on the northeast, many cities and their residents are bracing for what has been called a “potentially historic” blizzard. We’ve seen this whiteout become the top story of almost every media outlet and heard many government officials announce safety plans. It should come as no surprise that emergency situations like this remind us communicators of the need for crisis communications plans.

Severe weather events aren’t the only occasions that demand preparations. The lessons we’ve learned during winter storm Juno can easily be applied to other crisis situations. Just as Olivia Pope from the hit TV series Scandal has a tried and true method for handling a crisis, we’ve got a few guidelines that will help you navigate the rough waters of any predicament.

1. Expect the unexpected.

Americans in the northeast region are no strangers to ice and snow; we know what to expect and how to handle the winter months. The same can’t be said for those living in the southeast. Assuming ice and snow only appear in locations above the Mason-Dixon line, they were completely unprepared to handle the Polar Vortex and harsh winter weather in January 2014.

This rare occurrence demonstrates crises can happen to anyone. Only when you recognize that it can happen to you can you begin to prepare properly. You must consider anything and everything that can go wrong and determine how to handle these problems. Crafting a crisis communications plan in advance will help you manage the situation effectively so you don’t experience a personal crisis as the major crisis unfolds.

2. Be (over) prepared.

Preparations for winter storm Juno were underway before the worst hit. Multiple airlines suspended operations in the region. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed a curfew for all private vehicles, while Boston Mayor Martin Walsh closed schools for two days. Governors in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York declared a state of emergency. And countless people flocked to grocery stores to empty the shelves of bread, milk, eggs and other necessary supplies.

These folks understand that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. It’s a simple idea that is preventable if you take the time to fully prepare for any situation. Pay attention to every detail as you develop your crisis communications plan. From selecting and training a spokesperson(s) to providing real-time updates via social media during the crisis, you need to identify each task, determine who is responsible and construct a timeline if possible.

3. Adjust as needed.

When Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New Jersey and New York in 2012, many lost power and were in dire need of assistance. While emergency personnel responded to calls for help, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker discovered and responded to additional pleas on Twitter. He may not have expected to receive such requests via social media, but Mayor Booker stepped up to help those individuals.

Though you may have an established crisis communications plan, you can’t predict exactly how a crisis will unfold. This means you need to be able to think on your toes and adapt as the situation demands. You should continue to follow your plan as outlined but also take the time to assess your tactics and make necessary changes as the crisis unfolds to ensure your plan remains effective and meets your goals.

These lessons learned and corresponding tips encourage a both proactive AND reactive approach, for preparation and adjustment are both significant when managing a crisis. Evaluation is also important after you’ve handled the situation. Determining what did and did not work and updating your crisis communications plan as needed is critical to ensuring your future success.

Any sort of crisis can come at any time. You and your audience(s) might not be ready for such a situation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get through it together and come out the other side shining – possibly with a better reputation and stronger brand loyalty. That is if you follow these guidelines, maybe check out Olivia Pope’s playbook and take action so “it’s handled.”