Moving from crisis communications to recovery

There comes a time in every crisis when communication must move from crisis to recovery mode. This time is hard to identify but is usually before the crisis is over.

Recovery communication is about shifting mindset. It’s a new narrative, it’s firmly practical and like the word ‘recovery’, it’s also inherently positive.

Communication plays a huge role in recovery – on a personal and a community level. As Australia moves tentatively into a new COVID-safe phase, I’d like to offer some insights and lessons from how we helped communities recover from the devastation of the Victorian bushfires in 2009.

Recovery communication

I’m not sure if ‘recovery communication’ is a widely used stage of communication practice but it’s something we learned the importance of when we worked with the State Government in the long months following the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

This was also poignant for me because my parents lost their home and belongings as fires tore through their property alongside the Kinglake National Park. I used to say ‘my parents lost everything in the fire’, which felt right at the time, but more than ten years on is not true. Although people then, and those affected by this year’s bushfires, lost so very much – the majority did not lose everything. And from there we can recover.

The most important premise of ‘recovery’ is the possibility of future improvement. At a community level this means helping communities to rejuvenate and rebuild. The crisis will have changed many lives, so our approach to communication must be based on sound change management principles. Likewise, our ability to map a step-by-step journey that allows personal acceptance and growth demands acute awareness of how people respond to change.

10 tips for effective recovery communications

During a crisis the communication and the actions we take are usually centred on the present – this is what’s happening now, here’s what happens next; recovery communication takes a longer view based on dialogue: where do we need/want to be and how do we get there? Pressure to get the message (and the level of detail) right will be enormous, and rightly so.

Here’s 10 points to consider for effective recovery communications:

1. Analyse community needs

Communities will be impacted differently. Define your impacted groups, map the services and support needed and identify existing, trusted communication channels.

2. Listen and be ready to respond

It’s more important than ever to have an ear to the ground. Establish and listen to locals. Set up systems to make sure you can respond quickly – this means listening tools (but don’t just rely on technology: talk to people), establishing a response process and having scenario messages pre-approved. Small issues can lead to new, bigger issues if you aren’t listening and responding.

3. Map your pitfalls

Recognise that there will be pitfalls and be ready. Be responsive and be able to flip back to ‘crisis’ messages and response if needed. (You can identify a lot of potential risks during the crisis.)

4. Allocate people and resources

Your team will most likely be exhausted from working during a crisis. We strongly recommend that you plan and manage resources to spread the load, avoid burn out and support your team. You may need to secure additional resources, including permanent staff, contractors and consultancy support – all will be more effective if planned in advance.

5. Gather your partners and stakeholders

If you can align responses across these groups you will go a long way to fostering improved community outcomes. Communication plays a huge role in this; consider:

  • setting up working groups – agree common objectives and set clear responsibilities for actions and leading communications
  • identifying ways to ensure consistency – we all know what it’s like to be told conflicting information
  • working with the community itself – identify trusted conduits for information such as community leaders and school principals.
6. Check and evolve your messages regularly
  • Know when to be positive but stay realistic (use expert input when needed).
  • Check regularly and make sure your messages are still relevant across each stage of change.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat and use multiple channels – people will be receptive to messages at different times. In order to deliver your message, and for people to remember it, you need to repeat it often and in various places and formats.
7. Expect post-traumatic stress disorder

For your team, the broader internal staff, your stakeholders and audiences. This will and should influence the manner and timing of communication, and is also why recovery communication is so important. Get expert help if you need it and visit Phoenix Australia for some great resources.

8. Use human stories

Showcase where the community is helping themselves. We know communities can be resilient in the face of a disaster so it’s important to empower them by showing relatable examples of this.

9. Plan early

If you’re working on coronavirus-related communications, planning for the recovery phase should now be in full swing. Identity when you need to move into recovery mode (this usually starts before the crisis is fully over). For example all of our projects now have a Part A: Coronavirus crisis comms and a Part B: Recovery and return to BAU.

10. Dial a friend

Remember that you’re not alone; others are managing similar situations and challenges. Colleagues in similar roles will usually be happy to have a chat, provide some friendly advice, or just bounce some ideas around – this is good for us all 🙂

By Melanie Wilkinson