Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Collaboration: A Tale of Two Floods (Part 1)

Over the course of the past year and a half, we’ve seen a number of natural disasters in the U.S., particularly in the South. Tornado and storm outbreaks, along with flooding, have carved a broad swath of damage. For government communicators, these types of events are extremely challenging when it comes to disseminating information quickly and accurately. In these situations, collaborating with other agencies and communicators is essential.

One example is the flooding that hit Nashville in 2010 after heavy rains drenched the area the first two days of May. The record setting rainfall approached 20 inches in some areas during that two-day period, and the Cumberland River reached its highest level since 1937. The heavy flooding that ensued was responsible for the deaths of 10 people in Davidson County (21 total fatalities were reported in Tennessee). Downtown Nashville was flooded heavily, and Davidson County was declared a Federal Disaster Area on May 4.

As the sole Public Information Officer for Nashville’s Metro Water Services, Sonia Harvat has her hands full even under normal conditions. She’s literally a one-person PR department, which isn’t unusual in our line of work. Metro Water Services provides water to more than 174,000 homes and businesses in the Nashville area, and is also responsible for collecting and treating wastewater and providing stormwater services.

“Throughout this crisis, I felt the most important message for us was ensuring that our customers knew that their drinking water was safe and encouraging water conservation due to the fact that we had lost one of our two water treatment facilities,” said Harvat.

However, in addition to her duties as PIO of the water company, she was also part of the PR team in the Office of Emergency Management "war room.” The team was responsible for disseminating information from all of the agencies represented at the emergency center. This included collaborative news releases that included information from all of the agencies.

Harvat says that collaborating on these news releases helped cut down on (not eliminate) rumors and speculation.

“It was not uncommon to send out a 10–12 page press release and at least three releases were sent a day.”

Harvat found information from several entities to be critical to her own communications:

  • Power outage updates for water/sewer facilities from Nashville Electric Service.
  • Information from the National Weather Service and Corps of Engineers was instrumental in determining areas to evacuate and in planning sand bagging operations.
  • The Sheriff’s Department and certain volunteer organizations provided the manpower necessary to sandbag the Metro center levee and critical infrastructure.
  • The Metro Planning Department provided GIS services and maps instrumental to response and recovery.

In return, she provided critical information to other agencies:

  • Road closure information to the fire and police departments to assist with emergency response.
  • The fire dept also looked to Metro Water regarding water availability in the event of a fire.
  • Continuous communications with the Metro Health Dept regarding the safety of the tap water and service availability for hospitals, etc.
  • Sharing of information with outside organizations such as environmental groups, advertising agencies and the restaurant association that proved instrumental in helping spread the word regarding water conservation.

One stroke of good fortune for Harvat was placing the agency’s Director, Scott Potter, in front of the camera and convincing him to speak directly to the public rather than reading a prepared speech. This gained the communities’ trust and understanding.

Another lesson learned was in how the agency connected with the community. For example, Director Potter went days without a shower, even as he spoke at one press conference after another urging customers to conserve water. As a result, said Harvat, “the community understood that Metro Water Services was affected by the flood just as they were – we were in it TOGETHER.”

“We used all the resources at our disposal in reaching out to the public and found that the community was more than willing to help,” Harvat observed, giving examples such as public service announcements on local radio stations, an ad agency that designed and posted free billboards, and taking advantage of community groups and homeowners associations willing to spread valuable information.

“There is no such thing as too much information or too many forms of communication,” added Harvat.

Metro Water Services: Another example of “Good Communication… Good Government.”

Next Week: Part II as we examine how Memphis responded to flooding in May 2011.

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