Bracing for Impact: How to Prepare for a Disaster (in the Midst of a Disaster)

Five years from now, we’re likely to look back at 2020 as a year of disasters, crises, learning and growth. Virtually every business across the world is grappling with how to manage through and respond to disaster and crisis. Brands are facing a time of reckoning around racial injustice. COVID-19 continues to severely impact our communities. And as of June 1, we’ve begun the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which is forecast to be unusually active with 13 to 19 named storms on the horizon.

It may feel as if just when your business starts to get a handle on responding to one disaster, another one rears its head, creating new challenges and layers of complexity. While what and how you communicate internally and externally is undeniably important during this season, the actions brands take to respond to disasters and support communities are in the spotlight – being watched and scrutinized by the public.

Behind every action or donation of resources is a detailed process a company must follow to coordinate such a response during a disaster. There’s no better time than now to make sure your disaster response plans and processes are ready for what the future may hold. Here are some key topics to consider for evolving your disaster response strategy.

Pause to Evaluate. Taking the time now to evaluate your disaster response strategy in the midst of dealing with crises is a challenging but essential first step. With your ongoing COVID-19 response fresh on your mind, consider:

  • What are your strengths and what have those strengths allowed you to do?
  • What does your plan lack and what are the potential outcomes of those weaknesses?
  • What opportunities exist and how could your company increase its impact with them?
  • What external threats are looming and how might those threats impact your organization’s approach to disaster response?

If the team tasked with disaster response in your organization is understandably too busy with execution to pause to evaluate, consider asking an external partner to conduct an objective review of your current plans. While the Coca-Cola North America was focused on responding to COVID-19 and preparing for hurricane season, our Jackson Spalding team was able to facilitate a SWOT analysis of their current disaster response process and work with them to update their strategy and plan for an even better response to current and anticipated community needs.

Redefine Disaster: As the potential threats facing the communities you serve evolve, so too should your definition of “disaster.” Clearly defining the types of natural and non-natural disasters your brand is able and willing to respond to will help speed up internal decision-making, thus improving response times. In addition to weather-related disasters, does your plan need to expand to include humanitarian relief, acts of mass violence, social unrest and other types of crises?

Establish a Priority Assessment Process. As part of your evolved definition of disaster, it’s important to consider how your response changes depending on the severity of the situation. Your response process – including speed of response and resources leveraged – should be tailored based on the overall impact or anticipated impact of the disaster. Consider a few key questions to help assess the severity of the disaster:

  • Does this disaster have a significant impact on your employees or operations?
  • Is the disaster’s impact geographically widespread?
  • Are a large number of your consumers or customers impacted?
  • Is the situation getting traction on traditional and/or social media?

Leverage Resources Strategically: What resources do you have at your disposal to make a difference? The obvious answers are your people, products and financial resources, but are there ways you can pivot your operations to meet needs of communities in times of crisis? For example, during the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis, Coca-Cola’s bottling and concentrate plants shifted production to make hand sanitizer for donation to hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. Another avenue to consider is the ability of your organization to advocate for change and to make a difference. Using your organization’s voice to exemplify corporate leadership can go a long way in times of uncertainty or crisis.

Details Matter. Once you’ve addressed how you define disaster, what you’re able and willing to respond to, and your strategy for response, the final step is applying any changes you’ve made to your internal process. Ensure you have detailed, documented steps in place for a disaster scenario with clear assignments of responsibility, recommended timelines and a clear leadership decision tree.

It’s hard to plan for disasters in the midst of a disaster, but being proactive can save you time in the long-term and help you maximize the impact of your efforts. As we face a future that promises increased natural and non-natural disasters including hurricanes, pandemics, social unrest and more, now is the time to evolve your plans to better meet the needs of the communities you serve.