PR Wars Podcast: Communications in a disaster

If you work in public relations, you will encounter disasters. But for a government communications pro, a state of emergency turns the pressure up. On today’s PR Wars, we talk with Mike Steele, the Communications Director for the State of Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. In this role, a disaster is another day on the job.

A.I. generated show transcript: “We want the truth.” “We want the truth.” “We want the truth.” “I have news for everybody. Get over it.”

Announcer
It’s time. Welcome to PR Wars coming at you live from Atlanta, Georgia. Now, here is your host… Chris Shigas.

Chris Shigas
Hello, everyone. Welcome to PR Wars. I’m Chris Shigas. Disaster. If you work in public relations, you will encounter disasters. There are natural disasters and manmade crises. But for a Government Communications Pro, a state of emergency turns the pressure up. On today’s PR Wars, co-host and communications cajun Brad Grantham and I will talk with the Communications Director for the State of Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. In this role, a disaster is another day on the job. So Mike Steele, welcome to PR Wars.

Mike Steele
You bet. Thank you,

Chris Shigas
As a communication director during an emergency, Louisiana has had its share, hasn’t it? Yeah. How are you feeling today coming out of all these hurricanes and disasters that that you’ve had to face? And COVID?

Mike Steele
Yes. So this year has been, you know, especially challenging, and I’m sure there’s millions of people around the world that kind of feel the same way. But for our agency, it really has been tough. We basically haven’t stood down since March, since we first started dealing with the first wave of the COVID-19 effects. So technically, you know, we kind of look at things in terms of how often were we activated for an emergency. With this year, in particular, it’s basically been the entire, you know, last three quarters of the year. And and on top of COVID, we’ve had, you know, a record number of landfalls, as far as tropical systems are, are concerned. And then a mixture of other minor events with minor, you know, tornado outbreaks and flooding events and those type things that we’ve had to deal with. So absolutely. It has been a major challenge this year.

Brad Grantham
So we go back to March, and COVID-19 starts taking off throughout the United States, not just Louisiana. But in those early days. Louisiana was hit harder than most states at that time. So take us back to march. When the case has started spreading, the hospitalization started going up more specifically in New Orleans, and then it started spreading throughout the state. How do you communicate clearly, through a time like that, where there’s a lot of chaos and confusion, not just in Louisiana, but across the nation in the world? What was your strategy?

Mike Steele
Yes, so one of the things about our agency and also working for governor john Bel Edwards, he’s very proactive. He has a very clear understanding that when you’re dealing with an emergency, if you ever get behind the emergency, you likely will never catch up. And so it’s good when you have leaders that understand that type of strategy. Also, there’s the governor’s Chief of Staff, Mark Cooper is also an ex director for our agency. And then of course, we have the leadership in our agency. You know, a lot of them have military backgrounds, you know, very distinguished background. So it’s good when your leadership understands those types of situations. With that being said, no one had a clear picture of exactly what we were dealing with with COVID at the beginning of the that emergency. I think one of the things that did help us well, we had a number of things that hurt so we obviously had Mardi Gras right around that same time. It was the beginning of kind of the spring outdoor Carnival, you know, festival type season here in Louisiana, people were just starting to, you know, kind of get out of winter and travel more, you had a number of big sporting events in the state around that time. So I think we got hit worse just because we we get such an influx of people during that time of the year. If there was a benefit, because of the frequency of how often we deal with emergencies and even when you take a look at a hurricane season like this where you have back to back to back events happen. It creates a lot of it creates a lot knowledge on how to deal with very complicated situations. And so when our staff looks at purchasing, you know, peepee, in masks gowns, you know, sanitizer, all those things that everybody was kind of fighting for initially, our staff has very strong ties to be able to reach out to different sectors, and acquire those things. And I think that really helped us kind of initially well, while the federal government down to the state government was trying to get their hands around this situation.

Chris Shigas
So let’s, let’s talk about the strategy of your communication responses. So when you look at like a pandemic, or you look at a hurricane, or things, and those are types of things that you can plan that, okay, here’s communication before the event, here’s communication during the event, here’s communication after the event, and really in crisis calm from your position, you’re kind of juggling two things. One objective is to get out critical news information that the public needs to know, there’s also a form of strategic communication, where you are encouraging the public to an action, right, you want them to stay safe. And here’s some ways that you can protect your family, maybe it’s an evacuation, and you want to encourage people. So when you’re preparing these communication pieces, how you’re juggling and how you’re approaching you as a new source, but also you as a strategic communicator, encouraging public safety. Yeah,

Mike Steele
so right off the bat with this event, one of the things we typically do for a larger event or a larger emergency would be to activate the join information for the state. So my role at ghostship is actually to be in charge of that Joint Information Center. And that’s where you have the communications employees from all the various agencies, that a lot of them actually come to go SAP and we actually work in the same room, we release information. Now, as a unified group, with all the different agencies, it’s mainly the cabinet agencies, but especially the agencies that are involved more with an emergency response, obviously, there would be a big component to this with Louisiana Department of Health, and under them the Office of Public Health. But because of COVID, we couldn’t take that same strategy. So we were trying to do a lot more things on a virtual basis, the governors communications team has been really strong in their leadership, falling in line with what the governor is trying to do. And so they kind of rounded everybody up. And so that I guess the big three agencies involved in this would be us Louisiana Department of Health, and, of course, the governor’s office and his staff directly. So we would discuss things we would talk about what’s the best way to send this information out? The governor staff has a very robust social media presence, we do as well. And so everybody was using their, their social media channels. Um, I can say, you know, kind of looking back at it, it’s, it’s tough when you don’t have everybody on the same page, right, like it share, there’s a million opinions about COVID-19 and

Chris Shigas
impact, the severity, right,

Mike Steele
the severity, just everything about it not get that even, you know, my opinion on exchange, probably 10 times over the past couple of months. And I know, people were struggling with that, when you’re looking at the issues with the economy, you know, it’s it’s a, it’s a balancing act. It, you know, just concerns me as a as a citizen, as somebody who’s born and raised in Louisiana, you know, when you see people kind of attacking each other, because of those differences. That’s tough to deal with sometimes. But hopefully, you hope that message gets to them, so that people can make just good strong decisions for their families, and their loved ones and the people that they deal with. And that’s really all you can ask, when you’re dealing with a regular emergency. Just because an evacuation orders given doesn’t mean everyone’s going to get out of harm’s way some people may choose to stay, you try and give you the information and hope that people just make a good strong decision based on what they’re dealing with.

Brad Grantham
Let’s dive in a little bit to both COVID and the hurricanes. When you guys are working behind the scenes, and you’re deciding, you know what channels we’re going to use, we’re gonna use social for this, we want to put this on TV, we will make sure this one’s on radio, we’re going to tell how do y’all divvy that up? Is it like a editorial meeting? Like we’ve had back in the day? Like, here’s the messages we want to get on these channels? Or is it more just word of mouth? Let’s do this, this this, or is it really kind of written down?

Mike Steele
Yeah, I think for us, there’s there’s a lot of we’re given a lot of leniency on our social media channels to just push information a lot of times it’s just reposting information. You know, it may be from the National Hurricane Center or our, you know, Louisiana Department of Health with COVID. And so there’s a lot of leniency. When it comes to our social media accounts, it gets a little more restrictive when you start talking about actual press releases, where you’re going to have quotes from your leadership involved, that type thing, because the governor is so proactive, a lot of press releases related to, you know, a presidential disaster declaration requests, those type things that we may have pushed out in the past, the governor staff kind of has taken the lead on that now. And so our staff kind of works with him on crafting that information and getting it out to us. It’s like, it really doesn’t matter what channel it officially goes out on as long as it’s getting out to the public. A lot of times when it goes out on the governor’s channels, we received that information now on gossips accounts because that actually hits our local OAP directors, it hits all of gossips employees, it hits our regional coordinators that work in various parts of the state. And we have, you know, somewhat different media lists, and maybe the governor staff does. So we’ll, we’ll reshoot that information out on those channels, just to try and make sure it got out to as many people as possible.

Brad Grantham
You’ve had COVID-19, you’ve had five named storms, or is it six? Okay, so you’ve had five storms,

Mike Steele
still got that out there when he still had that out there.

Brad Grantham
And two of those storms hit near Lake Charles, Louisiana. One is a category four. The other is a category two, I believe. And then you had one, was it last week, the week before? towards towards the ronzi lose track, right. But when these storms come in to Louisiana, you have reporters from all over the United States descending in kind of parachuting in from Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, all over wherever their bureaus are, they’re coming to Louisiana before the storm during the storm and sticking around for a couple days after as the head of communications, how do you adjust your messaging and you know, the need to get that information as soon as possible to them? How do you kind of pivot to kind of help them? And then the second component to that question is what is your biggest challenge, and communicating with them or, you know, whenever they’re asking for when those storms

Mike Steele
are coming your way, all of that just about everything you listed is is a challenge at times, but it’s just things you have to work through. For two of the events this year, we didn’t actually call for backup to come in there’s there’s a very robust system across the United States that states can can use to assist each other. And it’s called the emergency management assistance compact. So we can reach out to other states for everything from emergency operation center, personnel to communications people, like like myself, and you can actually have them deploy to your state to help out. So Kelly Kane is kind of my counterpart in Oklahoma, we actually contacted her to see if she could come down and kind of be a backup for me at times or whatever. So that was a big help. That was one of the lessons learned for me over the years is don’t wait until the last minute, you know, get help before the situation arises. And so she was she made a big difference as far as helping me out. But one of the things that was very difficult to work out was we, early on, you know, starting in that February, March, Windows started looking at ways to to deal with hurricane season, we knew it was going to be a challenge to shelter people this year, when it was going to be a challenge to respond. Just everything about a COVID environment makes everything more difficult. And so we were already addressing some of those things all the way back in in, you know, February, March, April, all that range before hurricane season ever got here? Well, a lot of our local media and regional media, and already done those stories about, you know, here’s what we’re going to do and everything else. So in the middle of the emergency on the first couple of storms, you had a lot of national media that weren’t familiar with Louisiana, and they were calling to try and go back and do that story on the whole planning process. And when you’re limited on personnel and the number of people that can actually answer those things, you know, especially in in, you know, when things are really starting to get hot and heavy. You know that that takes up a lot of time and it was you know, I felt like maybe there should have been a little more background done by some of the reporters to say like, okay, these stories have already been done. They’ve already kind of answered a lot of this kind of stuff, and it would at least give them a head start. Start on doing those stories instead of just hitting us out of the blue, you know, in the middle of a crisis, I guess. So that was definitely a challenge. And, you know, we had those types of media inquiries coming in from all over the world, because we were one of the first agencies to deal with a big wave of COVID. And then a tropical threat, as well, of course, Louisiana would be first. But that’s the way it worked out.

Chris Shigas
When, when I’m working on a crisis, empathy is an important part of the communication process to put yourself in the mindset of the person you’re communicating to. And in this case, in your case, it’s the public, the people of Louisiana that that you’re working to protect, when crises go on for an extended period of time, where you have multiple crises in a row, I find myself constantly writing in that form of empathy, it can mentally take a toll on both on you and your team. And one of the things that’s important as a professional to look out for is your team, how are they holding up? Are they mentally strong? Or do they need to step back for a minute, and that’s okay, that’s definitely

Mike Steele
a factor in I’m sure it comes into play a lot. It just so happens, I’m surrounded by a team of people that really just, you know, you’ll see people get frustrated, or you’ll see people, you know, even in some cases, make a joke like, Oh, my God, you know, how are we get hit with this again, or whatever. But then, minutes later, they’re rolling up their sleeves and really getting after it. Even with the FEMA personnel that we worked with, you know, a lot of the FEMA teams that deploy in and take part in emergencies and everything. You know, a lot of those employees actually live in Louisiana, there were definitely times where people needed to just kind of step back and catch their breath and everything. But you know, looking back, that was a great question, by the way, because looking back at it there, I can only remember a hand and full of times where, you know, it was someone was just kind of on the brink of exhaustion, our operations staff, you know, like I said, the fact that they had to work through all those PP issues. And when everybody was trying to acquire the same things, and they really came up with some unique ways to get that done. You know, there were definitely occasions where they maybe should have been exhausted, but you know, you didn’t really see it, they, they will all kind of look after each other and kind of keep the ball rolling. But I think we’re fortunate with the personnel we have because of that,

Chris Shigas
well, let me pull it back a little bit from from like a career track. You have a lot of young public relations people, and maybe they start off in an agency type environment, and they’re proactively pitching media for a consumer brand or something. And it’s difficult, right? Because you’re trying to pitch these stories, and maybe the media is not interested and that kind of thing, a government communicator could be an attractive career path. I mean, you’re having the media come to you, right? That probably sounds good to a lot of agency people. And you have a track from journalism, to to a government communicator, which is probably even a more direct fit, right? Because journalism so much is engaged with government relations. Tell me about that transition from journalism into the role that you have today,

Mike Steele
especially in the in the early half of my career, like I did a lot of storm coverage. I was in the middle of a lot of hurricanes. You know, we’ve joked about it at one point, going back to probably Andrew was probably the last hurricane where I didn’t either either have a news, you know, sign that I had to work on an emergency management side that I’ve had to work, like, that’s how long it’s been going on. And Andrew hit Louisiana in like 1992. And so I was familiar with a lot of the basics, on emergency response in emergency management’s role, I had to learn a lot more about recovery. And just all the parts that come after the cool part, right, the response kind of cool bar when you’re seeing people, boats and helicopters and everything. There’s so much more that comes after that. That’s where I really had to make myself more knowledgeable.

Chris Shigas
And sometimes, as a journalist, you can see the responses of public officials that you’re like, Ah, you shouldn’t say that. You should say this. And you actually can then utilize that that experience when you’re in the role, right.

Mike Steele
Yeah. And I think from the empathy standpoint, thing you talked about was, you know, we’ve had to be really careful, because we’ve had multiple tropical threats and some resulting in hurricanes that actually hit the coast this year. So it was important to tell the public, hey, we have recovery people that are still going to keep working on this recovery process. Just because a lot of our attention now is on the latest emergency and in response Like the immediate needs the life saving work that has to go on right now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your response, your your recovery process is going to slow down for the events that have already happened. And so that’s that’s been kind of a juggling act this year that we really haven’t faced before.

Brad Grantham
So when journalists, again, are parachuting in, I want to leave our audience with some tips if they’re thinking of governmental style, communications, what are your biggest challenges during these events? Whether it’s COVID, whether it’s hurricanes, whether it’s whatever may come next week, hopefully not another hurricane? What are your biggest challenges that you have? Or you could, you could say, maybe pet peeves, but not really, but that you wish journalists knew, or you wish future communication professionals knew that would make their lives a little bit easier, and your life’s a little bit easier.

Mike Steele
So for someone coming into my job in another state right now, my first bit of advice would be, don’t be afraid to say no, because especially when there’s, you know, a pending event, you know, when you have a hurricane threatening, you know, the state or something like that, it’s, it’s really easy to try and want to do all of the media requests and everything that come in, but at some point, it just gets overwhelming. And so there’s certain times where you just have to say, like, Look, I’m sorry, I’m not going to have time now. We’ll try and adjust and do something a little later. I do have good leadership that will step in and help out with some of those interviews Ned time thing, but it’s just impossible to get to everybody in every situation. Another thing is, you know, we’ve had times, especially with big three storms this year, where people were looking for data, you know, everything’s driven by data these days, they want to know, how many homes were damaged, how many businesses were damaged? What’s your oil industry look like oil and gas industry look like? those type things? You can’t answer those questions right away. You know, I think we’ve become so accustomed just information being available one that, that we realize that when people are still trying to, you know, rescue people with a helicopter or boat or something, you’re not always going to have all of that information. It takes days, even weeks. And a lot of times it may depend on which local officials we’re dealing with, obviously, some of the New Orleans region, the local emergency management offices are going to have a lot more robust staff than the, you know, ones in some of the rural parts of the state. So they may not be able to answer, how their parishes were impacted, you know, right away. So trying to get that data, one of the things we did do this year, that was different was we ask people to start self reporting. And we use a survey now, where we ask people like, hey, if your home was damaged, fill out this survey, give us an idea of what you’re talking about. Because that number one can help fill in some of those gaps. And it can also get the get the recovery process started, it gives the local officials an idea of, hey, these five parishes within this one city, we need to get teams out there to begin the damage assessment process. And if we have people self reporting, that information that kind of gets all of that going. And it’ll provide something for me to give to the media, we can say it’s not 100% verified, but we have at least, you know, 300 households saying they received damage. So at least gives us some type of a starting point.

Brad Grantham
What is the one thing that you’ve learned this year? in your practice of communication, that you may not have thought of before? What’s one takeaway from this year?

Mike Steele
That’s a good one, I found out that people are stronger, I think people are as a whole are stronger than they realize when you look at everything thrown at the public in 2020. You know, it’s just amazing. And when you start to throw these natural disasters in, in certain parts of the country, and it’s not just us, you know, California wildfires, and all these other areas that have had all these major events. Look at the big storm outbreak, I can’t even remember how to pronounce that up in the Midwest a few a few months ago, you know, so there’s been all these natural disasters on top of all the uncertainty about public health system in the economy and everything. I think people can stay in more. It’s just an idea. They want to be informed.

Chris Shigas
I think, every communicator, as you look back on your career, you want to know, How did my communication make a difference? Right? How did I make the world a better place, and hopefully, you have the opportunity between between events to kind of sit back and think you know, what I’m really proud of, of the work that we’ve done to help protect the community. And it is a really vital service that we provide.

Mike Steele
No doubt about it. Like I’ll give you an example right now. This week, we’re dealing with going back to Hurricane more, the biggest This storms that hit the state and hit the Lake Charles Aaron, you know, we still have evacuees in Lake Charles area. There’s not a lot of hotels around the Lake Charles area and much of the city is still torn up. And you know, there’s still a lot of initial recovery stuff going on. And we’re trying to talk to the local officials about, you know, temporary housing options to help fill in the gap between when their home can be permanently repaired. And when they can have some type of, you know, temporary housing setup, while while the local officials automatically go to the FEMA RV, whether it be the FEMA trailers, quote, unquote, traders, the RVs on the mobile homes, and a lot of the local officials think everybody just kind of qualifies for that type of setup. And that’s not nice, you know. And so we’re trying to work with FEMA on the messaging for them and work with the public and work with those local officials, the more we can kind of keep everybody included in that process and give them a better understanding of what FEMA programs do. Or maybe even don’t do, you know, the better off we’re are because you don’t get those expectations, you know, out of control that one so we can do it to take more of a team approach in getting that type of messaging and you know, the stuff that really matters to people, that’s when you really see a benefit.

Brad Grantham
So Mike, tell us about the podcast that goes up as

Mike Steele
so goes up, started the podcast about three years ago. Now it’s the ghost up get a game plan podcast, it’s on, you know, most of the same sites where you can find any podcast right now. We actually talked to emergency officials from all over the country. We take a deeper look at some of the events that he had here in in Louisiana. We’ve talked to Craig fumigate the former FEMA director and Jim can Tory even you know, so yeah,

Chris Shigas
repeat Weather Channel.

Mike Steele
Yeah. Right. different people with different topics. But, you know, it also gives people a little more insight and into some of the things that we deal with. And what’s the name of again, the gosa get a game plan podcast.

Brad Grantham
Well, if you can check it out. And Mike again, thanks so much.

Mike Steele
Yeah, we appreciate it. Thanks.

Chris Shigas
You can listen to a new PR Wars podcast every Sunday night at 8pm eastern, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. We’d love to see you there. On behalf of Brad Grantham and the PR war staff, I’d like to thank Mike Steele communication director for the state of Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, and do me a favor when you face a crisis. be informative, empathetic and transparent. And remember, the crisis doesn’t end until the recovery does. Now go get ’em.

PR Wars was selected as a Top PR Podcast You Must Follow in 2020 by Feedspot.

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