Neil Foote, President & Founder, Foote Communications
Houston – the nation’s fourth largest city: Flooded. Paralyzed. After the disastrous post-Hurricane Katrina scenes 12 years ago, we are experiencing a horrible sense of déjà vu. The world is witnessing an event that so many of us thought could never happen again. We thought no natural disaster could cripple one of our nation’s largest cities.
America, once again, is taking a severe hit to its brand as the world’s wealthiest nation. We are watching heart-wrenching images broadcast around the world on TV, in photos and via social media of the young, the old, families, and children wading through chest-deep water. We are watching brave public officials – police, firemen and women, the National Guard, the Coast Guard and Good Samaritans from around the country risking their own lives to save others.
We are experiencing a real-life exercise in crisis communications playing out before our eyes. “I believe city and county officials did an excellent job of communicating to the public before and during the disaster,” said Misty Starks, a Houstonian and owner of Misty Blue Media, a public relations firm. “They were timely, authoritative and honest, even when the information they gave was difficult. I applaud all the leaders for working well together to help save lives and lessen the devastation.”
Starks’ description lives up to one of the textbook definitions of how any entity is supposed to handle a situation that undoubtedly is like one it has never dealt with before. We have heard Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other city and state officials clearly outline their strategy. We’ve heard them make a sincere plea for boat owners to assist their already stretched public officials save thousands of people from their homes. These same officials have been transparent of their intent and the magnitude of the crisis – thanking their residents for their patience, and reassuring them that they will get the help they need to survive. They have fended off critics who say the city should have evacuated its residents. What’s been impressive – unlike during Hurricane Katrina – is that city and state officials are sticking to the same talking points – another page out of the crisis communications handbook.
It’s time for companies to step up and lean in. Houston is home to 49 Fortune 1000 companies, the most outside of New York (72). It is home of 13 of the Forbes’ World Billionaires. It is a focal point in this country for energy, chemical and shipping industries. Not to mention one of the world’s most iconic singers – Beyonce. Houston Texas’ J.J. Watt has raised more than $1.5 million for flood relief. There are already stories of a local businesses stepping up. Gallery Furniture, a local chain, taking in evacuees to sleep on their floor models. Some local moving companies are using their trucks to pick up people from flooded neighborhoods to get to higher ground. Some global brands haven’t wasted any time. The Houston Chronicle reports that Airbnb has a site where people can find a place to stay and Apple is allowing users to contribute to the American Red Cross via iTunes.
Clearly, so much more is needed now – will be later. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Houstonians of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds, will be homeless for weeks, possibly months to come. “I’m upset,” said one Houstonian who had just stepped off a school bus in Dallas to a TV reporter. “All I have is the clothes on my back. I don’t have any money. And all I have is my dog here.” The man speaks for many. His words must not fall on deaf ears if we want to continue to uphold the high standards we all have in upholding the brand we call America.
Here’s how you can help.