From the Front Line: Crisis Communications During Hurricane Harvey

Houston's Energy Corridor in the days following Hurricane Harvey. Is your crisis communications team geographically diverse? (Erich Schlegel - Getty Images)

Houston's Energy Corridor in the days following Hurricane Harvey. Is your crisis communications team geographically diverse? (Erich Schlegel - Getty Images)

The last time I experienced a hurricane, I was a Houstonian attempting to flee from one. I spent 10 hours on the road, trading homemade chocolate chip cookies for a baseball cap when I realized I'd forgotten sun protection.

I live in Austin now, so before Harvey landed I filled up my gas tank, because #prudence and #experience, and I marveled at Austinites stripping grocery shelves of water, bread and beer.

Then the power went out. Two days in a row. And our tree uprooted. And the wind didn't stop blowing, and the rain didn't stop pouring. But all of this was nothing, NOTHING, compared to what my Houston friends and neighbors experienced.

And this time around, I had a job to do.

"For ConocoPhillips, Harvey a test of remote operations"

Last week, ConocoPhillips Chairman and CEO Ryan Lance spoke about conducting business remotely as the company's Houston locations remain closed due to flooding. “You can run virtually for a long time if you’ve got the right systems and personnel,” Lance told Reuters. He was right. His crisis communications team proved it.

As a content strategist with oil and gas experience (and the digital and social content lead for ConocoPhillips), conducting business remotely has been a big part of my work life. From a writing standpoint, I've always seen the value in being a little bit removed - it's why companies hire outside firms. Being able to see a company in its best light - for what it can be rather than bogging down in politics or the day-to-day - is valuable.

Distance can be illuminating. And in a hurricane, distance can be tactically critical. Here's why it worked for ConocoPhillips:

  • Because our communications team members office in three cities - Houston, Austin and Bartlesville, Oklahoma - when my power went out, my colleagues were able to pick up my slack. And as they faced mandatory evacuations, flooding and power and internet outages all their own, I was able to return the favor. 
  • Because we were accustomed to working remotely with each other, those processes Ryan Lance mentioned were in place, and even from homes, hotels and temporary workspaces we transitioned seamlessly to the job at hand.
  • Because our company invested in both team-building opportunities and crisis communications training, we were prepared and equipped to step up and do our best work under difficult circumstances - when our best work was most important to our entire company and community.
  • Because it's exponentially easier to manage crisis communications when your company is making the right choices for the right reasons, we came out of this experience stronger and more unified. 

As we get more distance from Harvey, there will be a review of the processes in place. There will be opportunities to improve. But my most immediate takeaways are these:

1) In a crisis, you want to be working for leaders who make good decisions for good reasons even under stressful circumstances

2) Geography can be an important asset - even when it means you're three hours from the corporate headquarters (and in a historic hurricane, especially when it means you're three hours from the corporate headquarters)

3) Social media is critical in a crisis. And the work put into building strong channels pays off with the very first message that reaches and informs your audience.

4) In the heat of the moment, the training kicks in, and together, you know more and can do more than you thought possible.

Questions about crisis communications during Hurricane Harvey? Reach out.  

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