Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, jack frost nipping at your toes... or in the case of many comms people it was communicating some of the worst flooding for a generation. What were the lessons learned?
by Andrew Daniels
Being a football referee you do get obsessed with the weather – is my game going to be on at the weekend? Will they be doing a pitch inspection? When will the away team be setting off? These are all questions you start thinking about in the run up to a game and as we headed towards the Boxing Day fixtures it became apparent there’d be little chance of my game being on…but we weren’t quite expecting what we got.
When the email came through a few days before Christmas from my colleagues in the emergency planning team to say that there was some wet weather on its way over Christmas my mind tried to pretend it wouldn’t happen. I was looking forward to a break and spending time with my family but I knew deep down we had to be ready – there’s one thing that makes dealing with a crisis situation harder and that’s not being prepared.
It was on Boxing Day morning as I was eating my breakfast that the call came through – there are only a few names that flash up on my phone and give me that feeling of something bad is happening and Simon Clark (my colleague responsible for emergency planning) is one of them.
I’m sure like many people I was watching events unfold on the television and social media ‘wow, have you seen this?’ was a common phrase as we’d see places we were familiar with under water.
I‘ve seen many posts on comms2point0 about the importance of social media and websites and this was a classic example. Where were people looking for information? It was social media and websites. Updating these channels became our two main priorities and it quickly became apparent there were two separate elements to deal with:
We had the emergency situation developing in Croston, where there was a risk to life. If you’re not familiar with how we were affected in Chorley, Lancashire – we were the ones that had a Chinook helicopter airlifting sandbags in to fix a breach in the River Douglas (see images, video are how we remember things).
Secondly, we had residents in other parts of the borough (over 20 separate places were affected) concerned about rising water levels and surface water gathering on the roads.
Our message had to be clear – our priority was the areas where life was in danger – although it might not have been a nice message to those seeing puddles turning into ponds – but because we were keeping them informed they began to understand.
The rest of the Christmas and New Year period was a mix of keeping people up-to-date in real-time and then turning our attention to making sure people knew what help and support was on offer.
Here are a few things I learnt over the Christmas I’ll never forget:
Be prepared – it can be too easy (particularly at a time when everyone is winding down for Christmas) to presume you can put your feet up for a couple of weeks. Do you have a plan for how you monitor social media and the like when the offices are closed? Can you (or your colleagues) update your website remotely?
Images and video are king – this was our biggest area for improvement – that’s what people wanted to see and we didn’t have any at first. I’m sure many of you will remember the flooding by a particular image or video clip.
Social media and websites is where it is at – our social media reach was like the river water levels – peaking at around three times what we normally receive when the worst of the weather hit. Our website views were also at three and four times what we experienced at the same time last year – with more than 70 per cent looking at the emergency information. Another interesting trend we found was that people were coming to us for information in the first 24/48 hours but then the community took over with @CrostonNews being the place to look for what was happening in the local community
The traditional methods work too – it’s always important to have a mix of communication channels. The good old hand-delivered letter was an important way of keeping the residents in the worst affected areas up-to-date with help they could receive and a reassurance that we were there for them.
Know your colleagues – it is times like this you need good relationships with communications colleagues at other organisations. Would you know the people to speak to in the emergency services, Environment Agency, Network Rail etc? That was another learning point for me so I’m getting to know them better.
Say thank you – many of our staff gave up precious time with their families to help out and the feedback we had from residents in affected areas was extremely complimentary about our organisation. It’s those people we were pulling away from their families that made that happen – don’t forget to say thank you properly.
I’m writing this as the rain batters down (again) – some things might not change - but it is important we learn from everything we do and make changes to how we approach our work.
Andrew Daniels is communications manager Chorley Council.