While my grandparents were poor by most definitions, my grandfather would go to great lengths to protect one of the last remnants of his family's possessions in the north woods town of Minocqua, Wisconsin. It was a summer cottage, for which he mortgaged his city home in Milwaukee every year in order to keep and maintain it until he retired. My uncle also owned a nearby home.
As one of the few four-season families in the area, my uncle was a natural leader. In addition to being to a small business owner, he served as a volunteer fire chief, mayor, and led teams to mark snowmobile trails across the partially frozen lake every winter. My grandfather, who was a former engineer and seasonal painter, was much the same.
Both men had experience in disaster planning. Coming from a small somewhat isolated community, it was a skill set that could not be left to other people. I even remember my grandfather putting his skills to good use when tornadoes interrupted a Boy Scout paper drive in the heart of Milwaukee. People immediately turned to him to lead.
Nowadays, there are fewer men like my uncle and grandfather, especially in urban areas. Disaster response tends to be left to professionals. But in considering the Gulf Coast catastrophe, it seems we need more citizens to understand response.
In fact, looking back on my recent guest host conversation on The El Show with Geoff Livingston, I think we might have invested some time on disaster planning beyond discussing how communicators can address unethical behavior. Communicators, even public relations professionals, need to establish a role within any disaster planning. It's vital that they do.
The Four Basic Tenets Of Disaster Planning.
1. Mitigation. Mitigation focuses on long-term measures to reduce or eliminate risk. These might include technologies or policies, set in place by companies or government.
2. Preparedness. Planning, organizing, training, evaluating, and improving activities that will ensure the proper coordination of efforts during a disaster.
3. Response. Response includes the mobilization of all necessary emergency services and first responders in the disaster area. Organized response requires a structure (leadership) and agility (creativeness).
4. Recovery. Recovery aims to restore the affected area to its previous state before the disaster. This almost always occurs after a disaster; it is the opportunity to assess where mitigation, preparedness, and response broke down.
Where Disaster Planning Broke Down With The Spill.
1. Mitigation. It seems obvious that neither the government nor BP (and subcontractors) had properly mitigated the potential for such a disaster. While policies were in place, it seems clear the regulatory agency did not have the technical expertise to oversee the procedural breakdown that led to increased risk at Deepwater Horizon.
2. Preparedness. To date, it seems obvious that the preparedness is almost non-existent. While the initial response saved most of the crew aboard the rig, neither BP nor the federal government has a plan for a large-scale coastal disaster. While this incident seems to have been caused by negligence, it strikes me as appalling that the government is largely unprepared for such a disaster.
3. Response. Given the failure of emergency response in the wake of Katrina, which was largely due to a complete breakdown in communications technology (I know because I've worked with the National Emergency Number Association, among other emergency response associations), it is perplexing that a new administration consisting of people who were hypercritical of and capitalized on Katrina would have done nothing to improve their ability to respond to a crisis. There is no communications technology breakdown this time. But there is a complete breakdown in appropriate federal leadership and agility over the response.
4. Recovery. Recovery is not simply litigation as our government has recently demonstrated as the answer for every problem ranging from the border issues in Arizona to the Gulf Coast oil spill. There is an apparent need to understand where the government's disaster planning continues to break down, not only with this administration but also prior administrations. The fundamental responsibility of any government is to protect its people — not from themselves — but from threats beyond the control of citizens. This time around it seems negligence played a role in the breakdown, but what about next time?
Where Any Communicator Can Effectively Play A Role.
Communicators, along with public relations professionals, have a real opportunity here to place a greater emphasis on tangible skills over manipulating public procedures. But to do it, they move beyond push marketing and puffery and embrace the much harder work that used to fall to people like my grandfather and uncle.
In many cases, they won't learn these skills from a textbook or building social media communities. It requires an ability to move from behind the desk, meet with and appreciate the men and women on the front lines, collect their input and consolidate it into a workable plan that anyone can follow.
More importantly, through their investigative work, communicators need to provide the oversight within their companies to point out where mitigation, response, and recovery is especially weak. Nothing needs to be smoothed over. If anything, people tasked with this work need to be as hard as nails, providing proper assessments to the executive team.
As I mentioned last week, bad PR is only a symptom of bad planning, I hope this helps move the conversation away from understanding and toward proactive responsibility. Communicators need not only be internal reporters, they can cut themselves from the same cloth as my grandfather and uncle.
Where Any Citizen Can Effectively Play A Role.
I might offer up the same advice to anyone. It seems apparent that while many local governments and some state governments have disaster response plans that we can count on, these plans are not scalable in the face of a disaster such as Gulf Coast oil spill, the aftermath of Katrina, the border breakdown in Arizona, or even the flooding in Tennessee.
Once they become too big for local and state agencies, the federal government is ill-equipped to respond beyond providing oversight. That means there is a greater need for citizens, each and every one of us, to have enough skills — like my grandfather and uncle did — to protect ourselves and our families in the wake of a disaster.
After all, if I was writing a family disaster plan today, the most obvious conclusion I would have to draw upon from the recovery efforts so far is that there are organizations doing all sorts of things that increase the risks to our health and happiness. And when their own mitigation breaks down, they do not have a plan to save you. We are on our own.