From Hurricane Katrina to COVID-19: Lessons in Public Relations  

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Betsie Gambel (fourth from left) meets with the Gambel Communications team.

NEW ORLEANS – The past several days have been haunting: Hurricane Katrina all over again. As a 30 plus year public relations veteran, I consider Katrina one of the most important times in my career. Indeed, I find the same feelings hold true now with COVID-19. One big difference, however, is that 15 years ago I was an employee; now I am a business owner with the precious livelihood of staff in my hands. Another difference is that the New Orleans area could beckon help from the world, and a cavalry answered our call. With worldwide communities struggling for their own survival, New Orleans is no longer a unique victim. To these points, the work we do for our clients must, above all, be valuable. Especially for tourism and hospitality clients, whose restaurants and attractions are at a standstill reminiscent of Katrina days, how do we renew their brands in an abyss?

While we are generally accustomed to short-term crisis issues, for long-term situations like COVID-19, we can take lessons from Hurricane Katrina, and just as with Katrina, we will be dealing with its implications for a long time. Katrina was that milestone that brought us back to basics: front porch meet ups, grassroots advertising, person to person phone calls and the onset of texting. Today it’s Zoom, webinars, social media and virtual anything. What we learned is that the conversation becomes singular- the dialogue, the news, the attention is the coronavirus. Anything else now is irrelevant. It is incumbent upon us in the PR world to uncover those nuggets that may be latent – still relevant but not as evident as washing your hands for 20 seconds. It’s also our task to insert interest into the obvious, even something simple as adding New Orleans lyrics to hand washing. 

Inexpert communicators may be satisfied with their companies’ existing messages, whether through traditional media or social platforms, not bothering to modify messaging to suit the coronavirus conversation. Think about how often of late you have received a random email or served a social media ad that has no relevance whatsoever to what we are facing. These marketers continue to market their brands with pre-COVID strategies in an active COVID environment.  

What businesses need to do first and foremost is evaluate the situation as it relates to their brand and audience. There’s a time and place for everything including identifying an opportunity versus being opportunistic. Sometimes it is even better to lay low than to forge forward. With the coronavirus, now is the time to be authentic and sensitive, putting your best foot forward even it comes with a price tag. Yes, be realistic and informative, then evolve using your communication platforms for good, injecting positivity to humanize your brand. Now is not the time for ostentatious, brash PR ploys. 

The time will come when a communication strategy can veer from COVID-19, and it takes an astute communicator to feel the pulse of community readiness. Just like with Hurricane Katrina, COVID-19 fatigue will eventually set in and a different strategy will be called for. Execute public relations efforts carefully, providing thoughtful and creative strategies that address the needs of the consumer – where he or she is emotionally. Save the bolder campaigns once fear has been allayed and normalcy is returning. 

Categories: Guest Blog, Today’s Business News