In times of chaos and crisis, psychologists tell us that a return to some semblance of normalcy—even in the midst of utter of devastation—is a key to helping victims start repairing their battered lives and psyches.

Children displaced by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina need the comfort and support of returning to school as quickly as possible. Teachers and administrators need to get back to work, recognizing their new curriculum will be of the heart rather than the mind.

Psychologists also tell us that uncertainty, misinformation, and fear make bad situations worse.

That’s why I commend the state departments of education in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida for getting hurricane-related information and news posted so quickly on their web sites, even though staff members were undoubtedly dealing with incredible personal and professional stress.

The quick actions of these educational leaders remind us once again just how powerful eCommunications can be during any kind of crisis.

Florida, for example, quickly posted the latest information regarding Katrina-related school closings, including community colleges and universities, as well as schools run by the vocational rehabilitation office and division of blind services.

Florida also posted information regarding student support service resources for school districts recovering from hurricanes, as well as links and phone numbers for a variety of disaster-related services and agencies.

No stranger to nature’s devastation, Florida also has a strong “Interested in helping?” section that provides a toll-free number for volunteers and links web site visitors to three key sites: volunteerflorida.org, floridadisaster.org, and flahurricanefund.org.

Despite having millions of residents displaced and entire cities underwater, the Louisiana Department of Education was able to post its first hurricane-related release as early as August 31 to implore superintendents across the state—and the nation—to assist the more than 135,000 students and thousands of teachers displaced by the disaster.

Urging parents to get their children signed up for school in the districts they were taking shelter in, Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard said in the release: “We will worry about school records, funding, payrolls, and waivers. Let us work out those details. Right now I want parents and school systems to make sure these children have the stability of a classroom as soon as possible. “

The department also urged all teachers who were able to apply for work in the school districts in which they are taking shelter. Louisiana also made temporary unemployment benefits available to teachers and assisted the Orleans Parish as district officials tried to rescue payroll documents.

A call center was quickly established with a toll-free number (1-877-453-2721), and additional information for teachers was posted on the Teach Louisiana web site. For hard-hit New Orleans, the department linked school employees to a special web site with payroll, health insurance, and other benefits information.

Health benefits were extended for employees who recently received layoff notices as part of a massive restructuring effort underway before the killer storm hit.

These types of efforts are critical components of crisis and emergency communication, according to Marc Wolfson, public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Wolfson says that during a crisis, the most important thing for communicators is to “be first, be right, and be credible” with news and information.

“Speed counts,” says Wolfson. “You have to be able to get an initial message out quickly, even if you don’t know very much or don’t have much to share.”

By all accounts, Texas led the nation in this regard. While other states let concerns about funding and lost paperwork stymie relief efforts, Texas flung open its door to storm victims.

“I want stranded families to know the doors of Texas’ public schools are immediately open to your school-aged children,” said Governor Rick Perry. “I also want school leaders to know that we realize this will put a strain on their capacity, so I have asked the Texas Education Agency to work with them to make sure they have the textbooks they need, funding for transportation and the free-and-reduced lunch program and class size waivers as needed.”

Expressing empathy is an important facet of building trust, something that many school leaders are hesitant to do for fear of saying the wrong thing or spawning lawsuits and other reprisals.

“I know everyone has the victims of Hurricane Katrina in their hearts and prayers,” wrote Joseph Morton, state superintendent of education for Alabama, in his first communication with school leaders. “The devastation has been almost too severe to comprehend, and the recovery will likely be ongoing for years.”

“We’re all in this together,” said Gov. Perry in the news release welcoming Louisiana refugees. “We will continue to do what it takes, from offering assistance to offering prayers, to get through this together, as one American family.”

Texas also did an excellent job of bulleting all of the actions it was taking to support storm victims and assist with disaster recovery.

Keeping the information pipeline filled during a crisis and its aftermath lets people (including the news media) know that leaders are aware of what’s going on and are addressing the most pressing issues in an effective manner.

While frequent, consistent, and clear communication may help restore or preserve a sense of normalcy, poor communications frighten, confuse, and anger the public, leading them to doubt everyone and everything associated with an organization.

Most crisis communication experts believe that if a crisis is not handled right in the first hour or less, the opportunity to restore confidence and minimize damage might be permanently lost.

Wolfson says the most common mistakes communicators make is sending mixed messages from multiple experts, releasing information late after other sources have already published competing versions of the story, paternalistic attitudes, not countering rumors and myths in real time, and public power struggles or confusion.

According to Wolfson, who trains leaders in emergency and risk communications, most people generally want to know the answers to five basic questions: (1) “Are my family and I safe?” (2) “What have you found that may affect me?” (3) “What can I do to protect myself and my family?” (4) “Who caused this?” and (5) “Can you fix it?”

While having answers to these questions doesn’t take the pain away, not causing additional anguish and harm make proactive communication worth the effort.

School leaders also must realize that the process of recovery will take intensive communications for months and even years to come.

Just as when people grieve the loss of loved ones, organizations must deal with institutional grief and the year of firsts that inevitably follows any major upheaval. For school staff, students, and parents, this means that time—and their entire school experience—is now permanently marked “before” and “after.”

Each time there is a crisis or major disaster, emergency management officials and responders across the country review and adjust their plans based on the lessons learned, even if they weren’t directly involved.

School leaders and public relations professionals need to do the same thing. While even the best crisis plans might only get you through the first few hours, being prepared will help you communicate effectively any time.

Decision-making and communicating during a catastrophic event is a completely different ball game than “business as usual” operations.

“In a serious crisis, all affected people take in information differently, process information differently, and act on information differently,” says Wolfson.

Even the strongest leaders and communicators will experience psychological barriers that block their ability to absorb, analyze, and act on information quickly and decisively.

Wolfson says that fear, anxiety, confusion, and dread may create additional psychological burdens that can make even simple, everyday tasks difficult.

I experienced that firsthand when I assisted Colorado’s Jefferson County Public Schools with communications in the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy. While outwardly I felt and looked calm, my brain felt muddled and I kept losing things—all classic signs of stress.

Statements, message points, and press releases that normally would take minutes to write, suddenly took a team of two or three public relations professionals to come up with something coherent.

That’s why advance planning, including drafting message points to fit various scenarios, is so important.

Few realize that Mayor Rudy Giuliani used messages crafted years before during the first horrifying hours following the terrorist attacks on New York City and America on 9/11.

On September 16, 2001, Giuliani delivered one of his most memorable addresses at a posthumous promotion ceremony for three New York City Fire Department leaders who perished on 9/11.

His words inspired our nation and the world, and conveyed in eloquent simplicity the power of words to call out the very best in us:

“Some may wonder why we’re proceeding with a promotion ceremony during such a devastating time of loss. The answer is very clear: Those who were lost and missing would want us to continue. They invested their lives and their love in this department. They gave their life for it. And it’s out of sense of profound responsibility to their memory that we must go forward.”

Links:

Rudy Giuliani archives

Louisiana Department of Education

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Emergency and Risk Communication Training

Public Health Foundation: Training Resource Center

Alabama Department of Education

Florida Department of Education

National School Public Relations Association