Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Crisis Recovery Communication, Part 2: Stories Steer Status

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

Experiencing Super Storm Sandy has shown me that a disaster affects everyone for a long time, in a variety of ways.  When people have been hammered by forces outside their control, and pushed beyond their ability to cope, a fatigue sets in.  For those who have been hit the hardest, the pain is felt anew each new day.  I've heard them comment that they feel they continually have to make the conscious choice to keep trying to get through the situation.  Otherwise, it's too easy to give in and give up.  They feel like the arrows on the road sign pictured here: life can't continue straight on as normal. They must either choose to push toward the positive, or get swamped in the negative.

All around Long Island, huge piles of storm debris still sit in clearings and parking lots, like the one in the picture above.  You can't tell from the photo, but the background greenery is actually the piled-together remains of countless downed trees.  It looked like a giant game of pick-up sticks, played with massive trunks and branches, spread over hundreds of parking spaces.  In the same way, peoples' homes and lives remain tangled in recovery efforts, insurance adjustors, FEMA forms, and the many concerns that revolve around getting back to some sort of normal.

Weeks after the storm, at holiday get-togethers, we were still asking each other, "Were you hit hard?  How about your family?"  We shared tales of tragedy and triumph... and frustration, loss, and unresolved questions were still taking an emotional toll.

Yet an uncanny readiness exists within a community to respond to disaster.  That readiness only needs a spark to ignite into action.  Stories provide that spark.  Here's one of those stories that I read in the local newspaper.

A Glen Cove mother (who herself had lost power for ten days) decided to drive down to Long Beach and offer to do laundry for anyone whose basement washing machine had been rendered unusable by the storm.  A few friends and neighbors jumped in to help.  Now, powered by Facebook, her momentary impulse has become a burgeoning grass roots project with an adorable name: Take A Load Off.  At least one laundromat has volunteered its machines, and donations of laundry detergent and cash are being collected.

Such stories abound as volunteers band together to help their neighbors in this prolonged disaster recovery period that will always stand out in the memories of all northeastern U.S. residents.

When a crisis hits, wise leadership will use these stories in their post-crisis communications to prompt helpful collaboration.  People are social beings.  When they feel isolated, stressed, or powerless, they want to reach out connect with others.  When they hear about positive ways that others have found to act on that impulse, and meet needs in the process, it's simultaneously a comfort and a catalyst.

If you watched the 12/12/12 concert for Sandy Relief, you saw a few of these stories portrayed in video vignettes that ran between acts.  You learned about everyday people who saw needs and gathered together to meet them.  To me, these stories were the highlight of the evening (sorry, Eric, Mick and Paul!)  And as the donations poured in, once again the Power of the Story was proven beyond a doubt.

After a crisis, people can go two ways.  They can descend into fear, bitterness, suspicion, and anger.  Or they can transcend into patience, action, mercy, and love.  Either way, stories set the stage.

What is the impact of the stories you tell those those you lead?  Do your anecdotes stir up their baser instincts, or steer them to be their best selves?

Is there a crisis going on in your own sphere of influence?  If so, remember: in every situation, there are examples to emulate.  Find the people who are weathering it well, and choosing to give instead of grumble.  Tell the stories of these fine, honorable deeds done by the selfless angels in your midst.  In doing so, you'll move everyone to a better place, and improve your overall crisis recovery. 

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