Communicating During Crises: Five Lessons
This article was originally run in Credit Union Magazine.
For credit unions along the East and Gulf coasts, it has been quite a year for implementing contingency operations.
The 2008 hurricane season was one of the most active on record. In just more than six weeks, seven named storms affected communities throughout many coastal states. As cities shut down and residents evacuated, credit unions launched crisis plans-several on more than one occasion.
Ask these credit unions what their key focus was during such challenging times, and communication likely ranks top on the list.
So says Angela Head, vice president of marketing and information systems for $326 million asset Shell Federal Credit Union , Deer Park, Texas: "Communicate, communicate, communicate to staff and to your membership. You can’t do it enough during times like these."
Prepare for rough weather
Before Hurricane Ike barreled onto the Texas coast, Shell Federal launched into disaster-and communication-mode. Employees and members received key messages from the credit union about the impending storm and plans for credit union operations.
"Using our e-mail list of some 50,000 members, we sent out e-mail blasts before and after Ike hit," says Head, who worked closely with DigitalMailer, Herndon, Va., to deliver the messages. "Before the hurricane, we used e-mails and our Web site to share information with members on storm preparations and credit union accessibility.
"Afterward," she continues, "we stayed in contact via e-mail and the Web site, constantly giving updates on our hours, which branches were open, shared-branching locations, and other storm-related information."
Head says having the ability to communicate immediately with members via e-mail and the Web site was critical, especially during Ike’s aftermath when things changed quickly. "We had prepared our options ahead of time and were ready when we needed to get the word out."
When lightning strikes twice
At a Key West, Fla., credit union, the unexpected happened not once, but twice in three weeks. Three weeks before it faced a mandatory community evacuation in advance of Hurricane Ike, it had experienced a similar situation in the face of Tropical Storm Fay.
In both instances, the credit union relied on DigitalMailer's emergency e-mail alert system to keep the credit union in touch with its more than 15,000 members. It also got the word out to members using local radio stations, branch signage, voicemail messages, and Web site notices.
The most important thing to communicate to members is that their money is safe no matter how bad the storm or crisis may be.
Five lessons learned
Remember these tips when communicating during crises:
1. Plan ahead. Prepare communication items in advance: voicemail messages, branch-closing signs, Web site notices, and e-mail alert templates. When the hurricanes approached, Shell Federal updated its information and was ready to go.
2. Communicate early and often. When a weather situation or a natural disaster looms, communicating with members takes on new challenges and urgency. Communicate before the storm hits and keep at it after the storm passes. Update messages regularly and use different outlets to reach members wherever they may be.
3. Keep your e-mail list up to date. Assign a key staff member to keep member e-mail addresses current. The time to learn you have outdated e-mail addresses is before the unexpected occurs.
4. Realize that natural disasters don’t follow a 9-to-5 schedule. Ask service providers about their availability after hours and how they confirm members receive your messages.
5. Expect the unexpected-and remain flexible in changing situations. One issue Shell Federal didn’t anticipate was the widespread extent of the area’s loss of power.
"Our capabilities were up within 48 hours after the storm, but most of the community had no power," says Head. "Our branches were structurally sound but unable to open due to no electricity."
Reacting quickly, Shell Federal stationed staff outside of closed branches with Internet-accessible laptops to direct members to shared-branching locations. (The credit union’s recent remodel included a gas-powered generator on site.)
This past hurricane season, Shell Federal and other partner credit unions near coastal communities learned firsthand lessons on the value of communication during contingency situations. Its experiences serve as an important reminder to keep communication top of mind in planning for any business contingency.
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