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Managing Disasters, Both Natural and Manmade

Most of us are comfortable in the confines of our workspace, and fortunately so – workers in the U.S. typically spend a third of their lives at work. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to work from home, but essential businesses, including credit unions, remained staffed and operating as the world adjusted to a new way of life.

Whether you are reading this article from your home workspace or your credit union office, like the rest of us, your work-life has changed dramatically. Our day-to-day work lives have changed more rapidly in the past two years than in other periods of such seismic change, including the advent of personal computing, women joining the workforce, or the post-Industrial Revolution. Masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, and vaccination mandate debates were not top of your priority list in 2019. Now they are commonplace.

Think back a few years about how you and your team members worked. The credit union was operating on regular work hours, nothing out of the ordinary. You would see members coming and going into the credit union taking care of their financial business, stopping to chat, smiles and laughter. In comes COVID-19, and all of that changes.

Now that we are all mostly adjusted to handling our lives while managing the pandemic, we can start planning for the next crisis or disaster. Let us look at disasters that we can’t control and find ways to handle the unexpected. This article will focus on both natural and man-made disasters and how one can prepare for them.

First, natural disasters. They come in various shapes and sizes and range from minor to major damage and disruption to lives and businesses. For clients in areas that often experience severe weather, we encourage them to review remote operation options yearly and set up systems to manage communication efforts remotely.

Access to social media accounts and websites are critical in times of crisis. Make sure the team members or your outside partner assigned to those areas have all the logins and passwords needed to quickly update your digital presence about closures as well as operations. Second only to ensuring the wellbeing of employees, this step cannot be overstated. Members will look to your digital outlets for news about their money, so be sure to update them as promptly as possible.

While we collaborate with clients all over the world, our offices are in areas impacted by severe weather. As such, we have considerable experience communicating with our clients during major natural disasters, including hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ida. Here is a quick checklist of learnings we have experienced with clients that you should consider when dealing with a natural disaster. If you would like more in-depth insights on how we could help you plan for these types of emergencies, contact me at john@deveney.com.

  • Is your server housed on-site? Having it safely housed outside of the area or duplicated there may preserve access to files and avoid headaches for your team and your IT providers.
  • Having a way to communicate with your team and members is vital, especially when electricity is off because of a disaster. Do you have portable power available to operate essential functions if needed? Those of us in hurricane country know that storm-related power outages can equate to inoperable ATM’s and getting cash prior to landfall is necessary. Other severe weather occurrences do not come with as much advance warning as hurricanes.
  • Most backup generators require gasoline or natural gas, so having access to a generator must also include fuel availability.
  • Do you have a way to allow your members access to their funds in the event of a significant and prolonged power outage? Is there a partnership or agreement you can solidify now that would help your members in an emergency?
  • Do you have an emergency communication plan, and can team members access it readily without electricity? Having a printed copy of the plan in addition to the online version is critical. Team members responsible for managing social media, website, and HR (and their backup team members if possible) need to have this plan available 24/7 along with the login and passwords for vital online functions. Creating an “emergency binder” for those team members to have both at work and home is essential – we all know disasters happen at any time, not just during work hours.
  • One important lesson learned from past disasters is that we cannot always depend on cell phone networks/towers to remain operational. As a recent example, most customers with AT&T during Hurricane Ida lost service while other providers remained operating.
  • Having resources outside your immediate area can help with communication during a natural disaster, especially when your site is without telephones and electricity! This person or group can serve as a way for team members to check in, communicate, or update digital outlets if necessary.

These tips apply to any number of natural disasters: tornadoes, floods, fire, ice, snow, but as always, what is the most important is the safety of your team members and then your ability to serve your members. They depend on your ability to safeguard their financial futures and communicating with them during a disaster will relieve them of some of the anxiety they will inevitably face.

Man-made disasters also come in many forms and are no less devastating: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez spill, airline or train crashes, riots, etc. Anything that can impact your ability to operate the credit union and serve your members can be calamitous, and you should address it. It could be an extremely local event – a car crashing into a branch of your credit union, a water line breaking, or something impacting the larger community.

In the past year, we have seen examples of disruptions from protests and civil unrest. This article is not addressing the causes of those actions or their validity; however, for this article, we will consider them as disasters because they could directly impact your ability to operate your credit union. So, too, could something that involves the name of your credit union, or its location.

In 2019, we were engaged to represent a company that found itself in the middle of a major disaster, not of its own making. Our client intended to lease a building that was under construction and would operate a hotel there. Tragically, the building collapsed during construction, killing three workers, injuring others, and creating a firestorm of finger-pointing and blame as the city and contractors tried to determine why the building collapsed and how best to clear the site. While our client did not own the building or hire the construction crews or inspectors and merely intended to lease the building once completed, they faced an immediate crisis of misidentification and the possibility of being included in legal action surrounding the collapse. Immediate and accurate communication were of utmost importance to ensure media coverage was correct, and so was compassion.

Disasters bring out the best – and unfortunately sometimes the worst – in people. Our client was not at fault in any way, yet the media and public immediately associated their corporate name with the tragedy. They’d been a long-standing member of the business community and found themselves falsely associated with a disaster that made worldwide news, jeopardizing their brand. Our counsel to them and other clients in a difficult situation is to focus on the humans involved and provide assistance where needed. They prepared and delivered hundreds of meals daily for nearly a month after the collapse, bringing comfort, food, and needed respite for first responders and family members at the site. As their PR team, we contacted news agencies and made sure they knew our client’s role as a future tenant of the building rather than its contractor. Multiple lawsuits were filed, none of which included our client.

Hopefully, you will never have to deal with this type of international news-making man-made disaster. However, how our client addressed this tragedy applies to anyone and any disaster.

  • People come first. It is easy to look at the damage to the “Three B’s” (buildings, businesses, and bottom-lines) in a disaster. That aside, every disaster is about human beings. Keep that in mind for your response.
  • Correct errors. If an event impacting your credit union is in the news, it is in everyone’s best interest for accuracy. It is better to ask for a correction than allow an error to become fact.
  • Communicate with your team, credit union members, and the public. Keeping them informed will reduce their anxiety, stop the spread of misinformation, and most importantly, reassure them that their finances are safe.
  • Help where and when you can. This also refers to point number one. Our client did not have to provide hundreds of free meals, but it was the right thing to do, and it made exceedingly difficult days a little better for those working during the disaster.

No one wants to face a disaster, regardless of its cause. As a leader in your credit union, the preparation you undertake now will determine the effectiveness of your disaster response and, potentially, your future. 

About Author:
John Deveney, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, IABC Fellow is recognized internationally for crisis and issue management across a variety of industries. 

In 2006, John was honored as “Agency Executive of the Year” by PRNews after he served as the first responder managing media during hurricanes Katrina and Rita — from the evacuation of the city to a military blockade and the aftermath — for both the tourism industry for New Orleans and the Louisiana Office of Tourism. He led the only on-site communication operation and media center that managed more than $400 million in media scrutiny in war-like conditions. 

In 2010, John and his team created the strategy and led the team that managed the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s response to the BP oil spill. That effort reshaped public perception and preserved Louisiana’s $9.4 billion tourism industry. 

DEVENEY has been named PR News’ Firm of the Year and PRWeek’s Top 5 Boutique PR Firms in the country. John is in the PRNews’ Hall of Fame and is the only professional ever to merit the lifetime achievement recognition of being inducted into both the PRSA College of Fellows and IABC Fellows. To learn more, visit us at www.deveney.com. 

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