Crisis Communications in Challenging Environments

When a crisis strikes, either man-made or natural, immediate action and effective communication to key stakeholders is critical. Websites, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have dramatically increased the speed of critical information disseminated during a crisis. These platforms can inform millions of people about a situation within mere seconds to a few minutes.

Floyd LeBlanc, vice president of corporate communications, has worked over 30 years for CenterPoint Energy. His background includes 14 years of experience in operations and 16 years in communications. LeBlanc’s role in communications has included a substantial level of crisis management, ranging from small issues to more complex scenarios.

Imagine for a moment what happens in the utilities business when a company asks to increase electric charges. "Being regulated to utilities, we can’t just raise our hands and adjust our rates. We have to request rate increases and that can come out like a crisis. It can be intense," said LeBlanc.

LeBlanc and his team are responsible for handing communication activities including media relations, public relations, crisis communications, corporate advertising and branding, website management and employee communications.

"Other individuals who can assist with representing a company during a crisis include an operations expert, senior government affairs representative and the CEO," said LeBlanc. "Each person should possess knowledge and expertise on the subject at hand and be well versed in the specifics of the matter being addressed."

For the CenterPoint Communications Team, their work continues even when the power goes out or when one of Mother Nature’s natural disasters disrupts daily life. When Hurricane Ike hit the Galveston coast, more than three million people experienced outages. Additionally, one million Ohio residents were affected by the storm.

"People did not think about impact beyond our immediate area. We heard from employees in the Atlanta area that there were lines at the gas station, even with clear weather. But, fuel travels across the country," said LeBlanc. He goes on to say CenterPoint dealt with national level government officials and they were urged to move quickly.

When it came to moving quickly, LeBlanc could not have imagined CenterPoint Energy without a website during the 2008 hurricane. Not having web resources, especially during a situation involving millions of people, is not a good option. "It was interesting that 95 percent of Houston customers were without electric service, but our website was overloaded. How does that happen when so many customers are without power?" said LeBlanc. "It was possible because family members in other states were getting website updates. Additionally, residents without power had their computers connected to generators and others were using smartphones to retrieve information."

Surveys conducted by the American Red Cross show Americans are relying more on social media, mobile technology and online news outlets to learn about ongoing disasters, seek help and share information about their well-being after emergencies. By September 2009 CenterPoint implemented an external and internal social media plan. This plan also included an emergency Twitter hashtag.

One piece of advice LeBlanc suggests is having prepackaged messaging in place. If a crisis does occur, you can monitor what’s being said about the situation in the news and social media. Listen to input you are receiving from customers and adjust your messages accordingly. "You have to look for gaps in information and close those," said LeBlanc.

Does your company have a well-designed crisis communications plan in place? If so, does the plan integrate social media tools? Join us at the May 24 luncheon to hear other effective crisis communication tactics your company can implement. Low-price early registration ends May 21 at 11:45 p.m., and the final registration deadline is May 23 at 5 p.m.

Maegan Clemens, IABC Houston Newsletter Editor
(832) 628-6080
Author: Maegan Clemens, IABC Houston Newsletter Editor
Phone: (832) 628-6080