When an announcement goes out that inclement weather has closed roads, schools and businesses, including yours, your crisis communications plan should already be activated and in motion. If a weather-related incident or other critical event occurs, it’s too late to decide what needs to be done and to spend valuable time making decisions that you could have anticipated. Use this guide to steer crisis communications before, during and after an inclement weather emergency so that you can keep your employees safe and your stakeholders informed and help guide your business back to normal as smoothly as possible.
Don’t wait for a storm to hit
Having a plan to address inclement weather is one of your most important communications strategies. Severe weather is the leading business continuity concern and it can bring a business to its knees, especially if adequate preparation is not in place. Depending on their length and severity, weather events such as blizzards, hailstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, landslides and wildfires can cause power outages, unsafe conditions, logistical challenges, loss of sales and property damage, in addition to reducing employee morale and productivity.
Such events are also very expensive. According to a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. weather events in 2017 cost a record $300+ billion. And extreme weather is only increasing, thanks to climate change.
And yet, according to a 2017 survey from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife, a majority of small businesses have no emergency plans in place in case of natural disaster or severe weather. While larger businesses often have business continuity and disaster recovery plans, many of them don’t account specifically for weather-related events.
Such startling facts undoubtedly extend to business communications, with too many businesses waiting to create a proper crisis communications plan until they’ve experienced a crisis. Don’t put your organization in that position. Ensure that you have a proper plan in place now.
Emergency notifications ensure continuity
One of the most important pieces of your crisis plan is an Emergency Notification System (ENS), which provides efficient, accurate communication for organizations of every size. With an ENS, you have the ability to provide multiple, targeted messages to various employee and stakeholder groups precisely when you need to, using multiple channels. On top of that, it permits two-way communication, so you know who is safe and who may not be.
Consider this use case: Air Liquide, a world leader in gases for industry, health and the environment, has facilities on the U.S. Gulf Coast that experience repeated disruptions due to hurricanes and other dramatic weather. The company needs to be able to alert employees about hurricanes and other interruptions to ensure their safety and direct them in case of a change of work venue. It also needs a system that is part of ongoing communications to more than 200 customers along its pipeline system.
For years, Air Liquide employees called clients one by one to notify them of looming events, a process that could take more than two hours to complete. Critical messages about a loss of power were a challenge to deliver in a timely manner, with no guarantee that customers actually received voicemails. And, the process did not ensure that those most affected would be called first.
Now, using an ENS, Air Liquide’s key stakeholders receive notifications within minutes of an event, and the company is assured that messages are both delivered and received. Air Liquide can stay in constant contact with employees and stakeholders during foul weather and other business disruptions, regardless of their locations.
An ENS provides reliable, accurate communication when you and your stakeholders need it most. No matter where you are, you can send text, voice, email and other emergency alerts to recipients within moments. Just as important, you can get word back to determine crucial next steps, or to assess whether people are safe and out of danger.
Take advantage of ENS versatility
When you use an ENS as part of a communications plan, you are giving your organization the very best chance of recovering from an inclement weather incident as quickly as possible. Systems are versatile and can be customized, with features that include the following:
- During a disaster such as a hurricane, some channels might be down or overloaded, but it is highly unlikely that all of them will be unavailable at once. Your ENS system can send alerts through multiple channels, increasing the odds that your message gets to key stakeholders, including customers.
- You can build custom recipient groups so that the right stakeholders receive the appropriate messages. Or, you can consolidate communications lists so that every stakeholder receives the same information at the same time, avoiding confusing multiple message chains.
- An ENS provides time-saving predefined scenarios aligned with your emergency communications plan. Prepared message templates are ready to go when you need them, so you waste no time activating your disaster response (keep reading for more information about templates). You can focus on addressing other aspects of the weather emergency at hand.
- With an ENS, you can target groups of employees, customers or suppliers in specific geographic areas. This is especially applicable in weather-related emergencies, where the severity of warnings or expected impact may differ depending on the area. The most effective systems can interpret National Weather Service bulletins to geographically target only those in the path of the weather event. They can automatically plot contact addresses on a map, allowing administrators to choose specific areas they want to include or exclude from an alert or notification.
- An ENS can provide you with two-way communications, another critical aspect of personal safety. It can help you check that people are safe; an effective system should be able to collect responses and report the results, so your emergency team can tally who still needs to be contacted.
When you incorporate the reliability and speed of an ENS into your crisis communications plan, you help ensure business continuity in a very real way, and you boost stakeholders’ confidence, because they learn to count on and trust you. It’s a win-win solution in a difficult situation.
Plan before you have to act
No matter what kind of communications system you use, here are several steps you can take to build the foundation of an effective emergency plan. Review them before inclement weather hits your business:
- Create internal emergency-response teams, identifying the roles of everyone on the team and what their roles are during weather-related emergencies. Be sure to include IT representatives on the team.
- Train key employees on technology to mobilize crisis-response teams quickly, alert staff and suppliers, and account for personnel safety.
- Implement HR policies for employee notification, remote-work policies, information and ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities.
- Create and distribute shelter-in-place, evacuation and medical emergency procedures.
- Keep a current list of contact information for all response-team personnel, employees, utility companies, FEMA, the local Red Cross chapter and local first responder organizations.
- Build and maintain off-site support for business continuity.
Once you have an emergency plan framework in place, you can spend time honing it to ensure its effectiveness. Here are some pointers you can use before you have a crisis—the more thoroughly you address some of these areas, the more effectively you can respond when an event starts to unfold:
- Put your cybersecurity measures in place, such as backing up records. If you are not already using cloud storage, think about it. Are you ready to respond if a weather incident takes down your IT systems?
- Encourage all your stakeholders, including employees and residents, to register for the notifications you’ll send. You can reach only people for whom you have information. Regularly request that stakeholders check and update their contact information. This helps ensure reliable, speedy delivery of messages at the right time, to the right person, on the right device.
- Think about your specific needs. You know your organization and community best. For instance, the more quickly word gets out about a wildfire, the better the chance of swiftly managing it. A good disaster preparedness strategy includes actionable plans for safety and considers unique characteristics of your area, like the landscape.
- Educate your employees. Train the right people on how to use your notification system, including how to respond appropriately. Organizations that educate employees get significantly greater response rates – which is what you want when checking on the safety of your employees.
- Test your plan and system. Many organizations test as often as twice a month to make sure that employees and stakeholders are familiar with the system – what messages look like, what information they contain, and so on — and that contact data is current. Conduct tests during normal business hours and address any glitches to be sure it will work when you need it. Also, conduct drills for different types of weather events.
- Learn from experience. If your organization has experienced a crisis, review what took place, then adapt and update your plan, based on lessons learned.
Message templates to use before a storm breaks
As we’ve mentioned, pre-incident planning involves creating or reviewing message templates for your mass notification system. Use templates to create messages that address every phase of a weather event, so that you are not spending valuable time trying to craft a message during a crisis.
Long before a hurricane makes landfall, for example, you need to start sending out emergency notifications. Such pre-storm warnings are critical to the safety and security of your employees. These are template message examples you can input into your customizable emergency notification system:
- A hurricane has been forecasted to impact [CITY, STATE] on [FORECASTED DATES OF STORM]. Please work with your manager on alternative working arrangements.
- We are in the path of [STORM NAME]. Stay alert to emergency messages regarding evacuations, office closures and relevant instructions.
The goal is to provide information regarding business continuity. Since you are not sure about the severity of the storm, the preparatory plan should be to keep your business running while protecting your employees.
Your plan should identify specific resources and procedures necessary to respond to different types of weather-related disasters, as they often require different types of preparedness and response. Long before a tornado, hurricane or blizzard watch or warning becomes imminent, devise communication strategies aimed at making sure people get the essential information they need when they need it.
For example, consider snowstorms and blizzards. Heavy snow or ice can result in loss of power or water and an inability to travel to and from work, but such conditions rarely come without warning. The National Weather Service issues four types of alerts similar to the alerts issued for hurricanes – winter weather advisory, winter storm watch, winter storm warning and blizzard warning – and you can plan actions based on every type of alert, at every stage of the storm.
On the other hand, you might have just a few minutes of warning when it comes to a wildfire. While fire sirens don’t tell you what to do in an emergency, timely, prerecorded, optimal emergency notification systems can, and do.
What to say during an inclement weather crisis
Once severe weather has hit, you should switch your focus to communicating in a slightly different way. For example, you will now want to communicate with employees remotely, because many, if not all, of them will be at home. In addition, you need to have a plan to provide emergency support for affected employees.
Remember, you cannot predict exactly what will happen, including the force and effects of the weather, so you need to have plans in place that can address what you expect, with flexibility to respond to what takes place.
You will want to send messages that include updates about the severity of the storm and how long your business will remain closed. In addition, remind your employees and other stakeholders to follow local weather safety alerts to ensure that they are protected from severe weather. You may also send messages that inform employees how to receive assistance during their time of need.
You will also need to craft messages and strategies that fit your business. Perhaps your organization has remote employees worldwide. In that case, you can include special messages to them about how much of business as usual they can expect to conduct. What’s vital is that you sustain communication at every stage of an incident.
Your ENS provider can tailor systems to your needs. For instance, during Hurricane Irma, one company used a custom program to post audio bulletin board messages for employees, who could phone in for important information.
Emergency notifications in action
Here are some other actual examples of how companies have used custom messaging during hurricane season:
- Evacuations – Due to Irma’s size, many companies evacuated their islands or other locations. Notifications tracked employees, asking them whether they were still in Miami or whether they had left. A Tampa-based company used the system to track employee accountability.
- Shelter Information – Several organizations launched alerts about open shelters, emphasizing that the shelters were pet-friendly. This is a key example of how an organization can show their stakeholders and their family’s empathy and concern while providing useful details about the disaster.
- Power Outages/Updates – After Irma hit, stakeholders became restless about when they’d have power back. Several communities and organizations launched alerts about power outages and updates.
- Flooding – For multiple counties in Florida, flooding was a huge issue. An ENS can inform their stakeholders about its scale and locations, along with appropriate actions.
Message templates to use during a storm
During a storm, you may very well be keeping in contact with stakeholders remotely. In addition, you must have a plan to provide emergency support for affected employees. Message templates that can be useful during a hurricane include:
- [NAME OF OFFICE] will remain closed until [DATE, TIME] due to the destruction caused by [NAME OF HURRICANE]. Please follow local weather safety alerts to ensure you are protected from severe weather.
- If you are affected by [NAME OF HURRICANE], please contact [PERSON OF INTEREST] to find out how to receive assistance during this time of need.
If your business is affected by a hurricane or other inclement weather, it’s likely your employees are too. As such, be sensitive to their situation as you work to continue business functions. Your consideration and concern can help them recover more quickly.
Communications to help speed recovery
Even though a storm or other weather incident may have ended, and your communications plan worked, the real challenge can begin in the recovery process, as you keep an eye on getting the doors open and operations up and running again.
Your communication plan should outline procedures not only for recovery, but also for follow-up. For example, mop-up operations after a fire has been extinguished or a hurricane has passed can take weeks. Some employees may not have power at their homes or may have lost their homes. Communicate about what they should do about resuming work and remind them of available services.
Let’s look again at some real examples after Hurricane Irma:
- Storm Debris/Pick Up – Continuing communication in the aftermath of a hurricane or any major weather incident is key to a successful response effort. After Irma, organizations used ENS messaging to launch alerts for scheduled storm debris pickups, again providing stakeholders with key information.
- Re-Entry – updates can be launched about the evacuation of and re-entry to cities, helping stakeholders stay safe and informed.
- Restoration Efforts – To help residents and employees get back home and back to work safely, notification systems launched messages about efforts to restore neighborhoods and business locations.
Your mission at this point is to provide services to resume productivity. However, you must remain empathetic to the needs of your employees who may have suffered serious losses both professionally and personally. Fortunately, you can do both with the use of message alerts.
Message templates for post-storm recovery
For your business, your main goal is to resume operations as quickly as possible. To help do this effectively, you can implement the following message templates into your emergency notification system:
- Due to [NAME OF HURRICANE], our office is closed. Contact [MANAGER OF DEPARTMENT] for information about working remotely and when to return to the office.
- If you are unable to travel to the office, please contact [MANAGER OR PERSONNEL] to discuss alternative working arrangements.
- If you require assistance with maintenance, repairs or tech damage in your office, please reach [MAINTENANCE DEPARTMENT] to schedule repairs.
Maintain effective communication to refocus
Once your organization has resumed normal operations and most of the incident has been resolved, your communications can shift to final updates that help refocus everyone on productivity. You should also spend time evaluating your plan’s effectiveness.
You can use these tips:
- Gather your team to review what worked and what didn’t – because odds are good that some aspects of your plan could be strengthened, while other parts functioned perfectly.
- Make plans now on what you will do differently next time, whether or not it’s the same kind of critical incident. Perhaps you experienced a hurricane, but what you learned could extend to any kind of emergency, including a cybercrime.
- Test your revised plan, incorporating any updates you made. If changes were made to policies or procedures in response to the weather incident you just navigated, be sure to communicate those changes clearly and frequently.
Strong crisis planning means strong recovery
You may be familiar with the startling statistic that approximately 40 to 60 percent of small businesses never recover from a disaster. If they are to recover, those businesses need to resume operations within five days. Just five days. Think about how quickly those days pass if you are scurrying to figure out how to recover from a major weather incident.
If you have a plan in place, you will save time and give your organization the best chance of surviving a weather emergency or some other form of crisis, and your business will become operational quickly.
The strength of your crisis planning determines how quickly your organization reopens its doors and gets back to business. Don’t wait. Be sure your crisis communications plan is as strong as it can be, ready to steer you through any kind of storm.
Learn about OnSolve solutions at www.onsolve.com
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