Natural Disasters and Public Relations

What is the best way to get information out during a natural disaster?

Last Thursday, all University of Florida students got text messages and emails from UF Public Safety with updates and alerts about the approaching storm: Hurricane Matthew. While Gainesville had been on Tropical Storm warning, UF took precautions by cancelling classing from 3 p.m. Thursday. Campus was closed until Sunday.

Many businesses throughout Florida closed in preparation for the storm—INCLUDING DISNEY WORLD, something they have only done three times since their opening in 1971.

So, when it comes to natural disasters, what is the best way for businesses to handle the release of information and/or precautions?

What to do:

  1. Release the information that you have available.

It is important to keep the public informed about your business’s stance during the storm. Are you open? Closing? If you are unsure about certain facts, just release what you have at the moment. Let the public know that more information is to come when it becomes available. However, try to release as much information at once because as the storm progresses, people may not be able to access it due to power outages or other circumstances.

  1. Keep your brand out of the situation.

Unless you are a business that is providing shelter or disaster relief, do not try to insert yourself or promote your brand in the situation. Disasters are generally unpleasant for most people. Besides the slight excitement that a student may feel when they find out school is closed, most disasters are met with feelings of worry or anxiety. No one wants to hear about your latest addition to the company when people are in serious danger.

  1. Get information out to as many people as possible.

Especially for universities and areas with high risk of being affected by the natural disaster, it is important to get your information sent out to as many people as possible so that they can be properly informed. If people may depend on your business’s services, you must try to get the information spread. You may be asking, “how do I do this?” Here are a few ways:

  • Online News Release/Your Website: Write up a statement when you have all available information that the public needs to know. Include the answer on if the business will stay open or will close during the storm. Post it onto your website.
  • Social Media: Keep your followers informed online by posting the news release onto your social media profiles. Post updates if more information becomes available and let the public know when/if your business will reopen.
  • Text messages: This is most effective for schools, government organizations and local, small businesses. Just as UF sent out texts to let students know classes would be cancelled, if you have a text message list of local customers, send out a quick text letting people know that you will not be open during the storm. Provide a link back to your website in case people want more information.
  • Email: If you have an email list, send out the statement this way as well. Include any other resources that your audience may need such as a list of local shelters and/or emergency hotlines, if this is relevant to your business or organization.
  • Contact local media: If you are a school or non-profit acting as a shelter or if you have pertinent information for a wide audience, contact local media to get your message out.


What NOT to do:

  1. Don’t wait until the last minute.

It is important to release information that your public wants to know as soon as you can. If you’re waiting until the last minute to state whether you will be closing for the storm, people may get upset. Their anger could come from concern for your employees or if they just want to know if they’ll be able to get to your business. It is possible that access to information can be cut off when the storm progresses, so it is important to release a statement as soon as you are able to.

  1. Don’t use fear mongering as a tactic.

Fear mongering: Deliberately instilling fear into the public about a situation. People are already afraid. They do not need your business or organization to instill more fear in them. While it is important to let your audience know information that could be crucial such as the effects of the natural disaster to come, being over-dramatic or insensitive may cause them to actually be upset or turn away from you.

  1. Don’t over-inform or spam people with information.

If you are sending text messages or emails, this is especially important. No one wants 15 emails in their inbox. Phone battery life may even be crucial for some people, so don’t spam your audience. Gather all of the information that needs to be sent out, send as much information that you need in a readable way and if updates must be sent, send them in intervals. Leave a time gap of an hour or so for information that isn’t crucial. If the information is absolutely necessary, then it is okay to send it, but keep it short and always link back to a host website for people who want to know more.

Overall, it is important to keep the public informed. Your business or organization should hold the safety of individuals as a top priority. Make sure that when the natural disaster is over you have a smooth transition back into normal operations. Always be sensitive to the feelings of the public. This disaster caused fatalities and some unfortunate families to lose everything. Get your information out in a way that won’t disrespect or upset your audience.

Written by Jasmine Melendez, edited by Hannah Ross


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