Friday, November 23, 2012

Crisis Recovery Communication, Part 1: The After-Crisis Thank You Note

Author's note:  This is the first of a two-part series on crisis recovery messaging.

Earlier this Thanksgiving week, a radio news reporter told of seeing long strings of utility trucks barreling west on the Long Island Expressway, obviously headed for the bridges that would take them off the Island and back to their various home states.  Their work was done. Finally!  The only Long Island homes still without power now are those whose systems were so compromised that they need major overhauls.

That's not to say that our post-Sandy problems are over.  Local trucks are still roving around our neighborhoods, dealing with the still-startling number of uprooted trees that dot the landscape.  (I spotted the truck in the above photo on the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway near the beautiful Bethpage golf course which hosted the U.S. Open earlier this year.  I wonder if golfers are still navigating around its huge fallen oaks, birches and maples as they play an early round on this beautiful Friday after Thanksgiving?)

Town tree trimming crews are still a common sight, and many smaller private outfits have moved in at this point to undertake  the next phase of clean-up. The drone of their chain saws and wood chippers is ever-present as Long Islanders tackle the last tangles of branches and load debris onto flatbeds for transport to centralized collection points. (See my next post for more about those.)   For me, these omnipresent crews and vehicles have come to symbolize the surreal post-cataclysmic atmosphere that permeates the culture here.  The trucks' constant intrusion into our peripheral vision mirrors the continuous undercurrent of survivor shock that we're all experiencing.  

Even though most communities have returned to some semblance of normal life, our thoughts are tinged with  the awareness that, just a few towns away, people are coping with the unimaginable.  For veteran New York City area residents, November 2012 is seeming a lot like September 2001.  Now, as then, we are in recovery mode.  And in a post-crisis situation like this, strategic messaging makes a world of difference.

Previously on this blog, I've talked about the strategic importance of saying thank you to staff after a project's completion (click here to see that post).  The other day my daughter, Jen, received such a thank-you note, but the "project" it referenced was actually Super Storm Sandy.  

Jen works for a company called FREE, short for Family Residences and Essential Enterprises.  FREE provides services, housing and care for mentally-disabled people, so that they can live safely in the community with dignity and experience a life that is as normal as their challenges may permit. Jen's on staff at one of their group homes for adults with psychiatric disorders.

During the morning of October 29th,  Jen's supervisor sent out an emergency text to all staff at the home, asking for someone to staff the afternoon and overnight shifts (which would bracket the brunt of the upcoming storm's onslaught).  Jen didn't hesitate to volunteer for the extra work, even though it was her day off.  Texting back her "yes" to accept the assignment, she explained to me, "I need to do this.  The other staff people on call either live far away or have families to look after during the hurricane.  I'm single, and I'm close.  And anyway, if I leave in the next hour I can get there before the wind gets too bad." 

So despite my motherly misgivings, Jen drove off as violently-spattering raindrops heralded Sandy's escalation.  She presided single-handedly at the group home throughout the worst hours of the hurricane.  With her help, its twelve residents rode out the storm's fury and resulting power outage in festive style, first watching a movie on a battery-powered laptop, then making dinner by flashlight (peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips).  Jen made sure everyone went to bed with extra blankets before preparing the house for the group's evacuation to FREE's emergency storm facility the next morning.  

After putting in the double shift, Jen navigated back home on Tuesday morning along storm-ravaged streets that were booby-trapped with downed trees and dark traffic lights. Tired and worn out, she was still buoyant about the experience when I talked with her later that day.  She knew she had made a difference.  Her support had made all of the residents much more at ease.  (And if you detect a note of mother's pride in this narrative, you are not mistaken.)  

This unexpected challenge was not a burden to Jen, nor was she scared at the prospect of riding out a hurricane with a dozen mentally-compromised individuals. She loves her job and she has great relationships with everyone in the house.  She's also in love with FREE as an organization, and I can certainly see why after reading the following letter, which she recieved two weeks later, along with a sizable bonus check:

"Dear Valued Team Member:

"It is a great honor having the opportunity to work in direct partnership with you as a valued member of the FREE family.  The magic that is created each day is something that is not easy to describe.

"The recent unprecedented epic storm was yet another opportunity of how the FREE team comes together in a time of need - a true reminder of the power of the human spirit.  We have been heartened to see so many of our valued team members make extraordinary efforts and sacrifices to ensure that the people we support were well cared for and have had what they needed, both during the storm and afterward.  Together, we have been able to successfully tackle the many challenges we faced as a result of Sandy.

"Thank you for your commitment to excellence and continued efforts to inspire the people we support toward greatness.  We look forward with great anticipation to the next stage of our journey together.


Chief Executive Officer

Chief Operations Officer"

I've included the letter in its entirety here because it is a wonderful example of the after-project thank you note.  You can't help but feel appreciated and inspired as you read it.  Notice, too, that the two top officers of the company both put their signatures on the letter.  Even though they signed their full names, they used only their first names in the printed signatory line.

A message like this one has a huge impact in a post-crisis period.  As I've noted in a prior post, I feel that expressing gratitude is a mandatory element of remarkable messaging.  Any time people give of themselves, it's appropriate to acknowledge that gift, even if their contribution might be considered to be in the line of duty.  In times when people truly go above and beyond, however, it is doubly imperative to thank them -- and to do so in a way that is significant.  Besides being the right thing to do, it's also the smart thing to do.  The results pay off in the long run.

This letter, and of course the monetary bonus, has made Jen feel ten times more loyal to FREE now.  She's much more likely to volunteer for other extra assignments after getting such positive recognition.  She also will not hesitate to recommend the company's services to potential clients, and to introduce FREE to prospective high-quality job candidates from among her peer group.  I don't know if  Robert and Chris were counting on achieving those strategic outcomes, but they are theirs, nonetheless.  I'm convinced that FREE will reap rewards from this letter for years to come.  

One of my observations from Sandy is that during a crisis, people of good character are energized at the prospect of implementing their skills on others' behalf.  The best among us will derive intense intrinsic rewards from seeing their skills make a difference in high-stakes situations.  But that doesn't mean that the entities, agencies and charities that benefit from their efforts can assume that this intrinsic reward is reward enough, and take their efforts for granted.   Recognition is called for. If it's given, it will make a huge positive impact.  If it's withheld, well, that will create just as big an impact too -- but on the negative side of the scale.

Expressions of gratitude like the one above need to be sent out by every organization that sees employees step up their efforts before, during, and after a crisis.  The same goes for individuals, their families, and their circles of friends.

Are you making absolutely certain that the people who help you in a time of need are called out and specifically made aware that their service has made a difference?

Here's an idea.  Let's learn from Sandy.  Let's take the last few weeks of 2012 to think back and identify those who have done a double-shift of kindness in our own lives this past year.  Then let's consider how we can honor them in tangible, concrete, memorable ways.  It's the right thing to do -- and the smart thing to do.  

One last thought: in times of personal crisis, let's all give ourselves permission to reach out for help earlier, rather than later, as Jen's supervisor did.  We'll be giving others the opportunity to step up and utilize their skills in fulfilling ways that boost their human connection and energize their sense of purpose.  Let's ask for support when we need it, knowing that the world is well-seeded with Jens who are waiting to respond in times of need.  

Let's allow the angels among us to swoop into our lives when we need them -- then let's thank them from the heart when they do.

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