Even as homeowners up and down the Jersey shore continue to rebuild from Hurricane Sandy, federal forecasters say they expect between six and nine Atlantic hurricanes this year. Mayors of towns big and small would do well to prepare now for the next storm - and not just for the emergency services, supplies and cleanup that are vital in any emergency.
In fact, one of the most important pre-storm steps they can take is to get their communications plans in order. How they will communicate with residents? What they will say? And when?
Think it's no big deal? The mayor of Ventnor is facing a potential recall in part because his city failed to communicate with displaced residents for nearly two full days after Sandy made landfall. Frustrated homeowners who evacuated the island had no idea whether their homes were in one piece, when they could return or why they were not being allowed to go home. The result: Rumors, conspiracy theories and anger filled the vacuum left by the lack of information. It was a scene replicated to varying degrees in communities across the state - even as local officials, including those in Ventnor, handled the subsequent cleanup and rebuilding of their communities quite well.
So, how should cities and counties approach storm seasons (or any public emergency)? They should plan, beginning immediately, to take the following steps:
1. Tell residents how you will communicate with them. Facebook. Texts. Telephone calls. Radio. Carrier pigeon. It largely doesn't matter, so long as people know where to find the information and it is accessible to them.
2. Give the emergency response a public face. Constituents don't want nameless, faceless communications from government. The mayor and/or other appropriate emergency officials must be seen and heard before, during and after any public emergency - just as Gov. Chris Christie was the face and voice of the state during Sandy. People are more apt to accept and trust information if it is delivered by a person they know.
3. Communication must be consistent. Every communication from leaders must contain three key components:
Current status. What is the state of the emergency and how has it changed since the last update?
Steps taken. What have government and emergency officials done since the last update?
What's ahead. What must be done to fix any remaining problems?
Taken together, these three steps will ensure residents are well-informed every step of the way during a hurricane or any other public emergency.
Tony Jewell, the founder of Boardwalk Public Relations, is a former state and federal government press secretary.