Lessons from Hurricane Irma: Behind the Scenes at Schwartz Media

Following Hurricane Irma, PRWeek reported on the steps our firm took to prepare ourselves and our clients for the storm. We sat down with our president, Tadd Schwartz (TS), and partner Aaron Gordon (AG) for an in-depth discussion about what companies can do to prepare their business ahead of a natural disaster — and how we put these ideas into practice at Schwartz Media Strategies during Irma.

Q: As crisis counselors thrust into a crisis of your own, what was the game plan for managing through Irma?

TS: We’re Miami natives who have lived through close to a dozen hurricanes – plus several near-misses – and we’ve been through three storms since we launched our firm 12 years ago. We’ve seen how a storm can disrupt our state’s economy and way of life, so we took no chances. Our crisis plan was straightforward. First, we made sure our employees and their families were safe and out of harm’s way. Next, we set detailed plans into motion for each client which addressed protocols for communicating with internal and external audiences before, during and after the storm.

AG: Those two points were critical, but we also took steps to ensure we could continue working in the event that Irma took our physical operations offline. That began with proactively evacuating our office on Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami and establishing connectivity off-site. A company like ours is indispensable to clients in a crisis, so we did everything we could to maintain continuity no matter what was happening with the storm.

Q: How did you decide that evacuating the office was the right move, and what was your continuity plan?

hurricane flagAG: The long-range forecast was looking pretty grim for South Florida by the evening of Sunday September 3rd, which gave us a full week to plan for a major hurricane. Activating a crisis plan is a big commitment for a company, so it’s tempting to take a ‘wait and see’ approach, but we were especially proactive given Irma’s size, strength and track. Our management team met on Monday afternoon to talk through our evacuation plan and we briefed the full staff first thing Tuesday morning.

TS: Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning were spent prepping the office, which gave us three days to safeguard our homes and prepare our clients for the impending storm. We did our best to keep the staff calm and focused, realizing that some of our members are from out of town and have never experienced a hurricane – let alone a category five. Staying composed is critical in a tense time, because clients feed off your energy.

Q: What advice did you offer to clients ahead of the storm?

AG: Hurricanes are unpredictable, so we had to activate media, marketing and social media plans with the assumption that their businesses could be modestly impacted at best, and decimated at worst. That’s a pretty broad range of possibilities, but that’s what we were dealing with. Failure to prepare wasn’t an option considering we had no idea whether we would be in regular contact with clients over the days ahead.

TS: Our clients are diverse, which meant we were preparing for many different scenarios. Real estate clients were facing the threat of catastrophic damage to their properties and construction sites. Law and professional services clients were concerned with maintaining communication with clients. Finance clients, like Apollo Bank, wanted to be ready to help companies in need of capital after the storm. The InterContinental Miami was focused on sheltering guests from around the world and then opening its doors to displaced locals once the storm subsided. Walmart was determined to support relief efforts while getting its stores back online as quickly as possible. The list goes on, and no two plans were alike.

Q: How did you keep in touch with clients and employees during the storm – and what was your message to them?

AG: Our staff was incredible. We’ve got 17 people and 10 of them evacuated outside Miami. We had managers stationed in Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago and North Carolina. One of our members, Alessandra, traveled to stay with family in Peru. Paola got stuck in her native Puerto Rico when Irma skirted the island, and she continued to work from there until she could get back to Miami. My family evacuated to Chicago with one-way tickets, knowing we could be away from home for a while. We asked everyone to stay safe and stay in touch as best as possible – with clients and each other.

TS: Point being, we were prepared to keep our business going in the event that communications in Miami were interrupted for an extended period. Despite power outages, we were able to maintain contact with our employees who rode out the Hurricane in Miami. Once the storm passed late on Sunday, we activated daily team calls to assess conditions on the ground and coordinate post-storm plans for our clients. We were in touch with each client by phone, email or text beginning on Monday morning. We made sure everyone knew we were ready and able to lend support.

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Q: To what extent does a company’s public-facing communications strategy change following a storm like Irma?

AG: We’ve been conditioned to think digital-first, so many clients’ natural instinct is to communicate with their audiences through social media or email. The reality is that South Florida was dealing with widespread power outages for a solid week – and internet and cell service was spotty. We did what we could using digital channels, but we also counseled companies to establish contact with their clients and contacts by phone and text. We even worked WhatsApp into our crisis response plans, since some people had better luck with the messaging app versus basic texting.

Q: What happened after the Hurricane passed? Is there a take-away lesson that businesses can learn from?

TS: Southeast Florida got lucky, only encountering category one winds. A direct hit by a category five hurricane would have been devastating. Businesses should look back and take stock of their storm preparedness plan. What steps can you take now – when you’re not in crisis mode – to improve your readiness. Some measures, like creating an office evacuation plan or moving your server to the cloud, can prove invaluable. Hurricanes are a common threat in Florida, but crises come in many forms. We’ve counseled clients through recessions, cyber-attacks, high-stakes litigation, and more. Each crisis brings its own set of challenges, but a prepared client can turn a challenge into an opportunity by keeping information flowing internally and sending a clear, consistent message externally.