Tragedy in Japan: Addressing Natural Disasters

The situation in northeast Japan is grim and may soon get worse.

At the time of this writing, the earthquake and resulting tsunami has led to early estimates between 900 and 1,800 dead. That does not include the nearly 9,500 people unaccounted for in the coastal town Minamisanriku. Japanese authorities are also presuming that two nuclear reactor meltdowns may already be underway. Broadcast media have already speculated on the possibility of another Chernobyl-like disaster.

The people of Japan will need help. If history is a guide, help will come. It will come from the U.S. and other governments. It will come from citizen donations that will funnel through charitable, religious and disaster-aid organizations. It will also come from emergency management and corporate-citizen efforts of many companies that have the resources to pitch in.

I’ve written many “natural disaster” crisis communications plans for organizations. Below, I provide a brief summary of the typical contents of these plans. Perhaps this summary can help an organization that wants to pitch in — but may not know how to start organizing.

These plans are typically split into two halves:

1. Emergency Management
This part of a natural disaster plan typically focuses on “getting our people/partners/communities to safety.” These plans are usually “owned” by risk management, health and safety, security and/or business-continuity disciplines — but communications and PR departments usually share key responsibilities. Typical content includes:

  • Assessment – What happened? Where? What scale? How many employees, business partners and customers are possibly affected? What is the current state of our ability to reach these audiences?

  • Team – What team should gather in this situation? Who leads? What is everyone’s role?

  • Goal-setting and Strategy – What can we do? What should we do? How do we prepare for the worst case? What types of equipment must be considered to support recovery?

In addition, action plans are usually created in grids that are prioritized by audience. These grids consider these things:

  • Physical barriers to support each audience

  • Each audience’s worst-case scenarios

  • Strategies and tactics to address each audience

  • Messages to get to each audience to help ensure their safety and welfare.

2. Corporate Citizenship

This half of a natural disaster plan typically provides guidance to “activate our resources to help others through the disaster” as a good corporate citizen. Many times, these plans are owned by senior management and communications, PR, public affairs, and community relations teams. Typical content includes:

  • Assessment – Where can we really make a difference? Would a reduction of fees of goods and services provide more impact than a contribution to a nonprofit?

  • Team – Who can support this initiative? Who leads? Can the company’s different disciplines work together toward this common goal? What senior management endorsement is needed?

  • Goal-setting and Strategy – What is appropriate for our company to “own?” Where should our company just support initiatives of other organizations? How do we define success?

As above, action plans for corporate citizenship are often prioritized by audience to consider these things:

  • Opportunities to support each audience

  • Potential barriers to provide support

  • Strategies and tactics to address each audience

  • Messages that enable each audience to be aware of the support being offered.

Of course, there’s much more depth of these plans that I can’t offer here — and these plans are highly customized to the type of organization and industry. However, I do hope that this outline can be helpful.

If you have thoughts, questions or other helpful tips on providing support during a natural disaster, please share them in the comments section below.