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When government communications matter most

This year’s hurricane season in the Atlantic basin has been hyperactive, featuring the highest total accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) and, as of October 2017, the highest number of major hurricanes since 2005. It comprises the greatest number of consecutive hurricanes in the satellite era, with Franklin through to Ophelia all reaching winds of at least 75 mph. Today, “ex-hurricane Ophelia” even made it to the British Isles, prompting the Met Office to issue some severe weather warnings.

In addition, this season has so far been a very destructive and likely the costliest on record with a preliminary total of over $186.8 billion (USD) in damages, nearly all of which due to three of the major hurricanes of the season—Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

When devastation occurs, effective communication from government is more important than ever. As Hurricane Harvey grew, so did the number of digital messages from local, state and federal organisations in the US, who were in a race against time to warn, inform, reassure and incite action among millions of civilians in an effort to help keep them safe. Their communications supported rescue operations, provided best practices for safe evacuations, and let citizens know where they could find food and shelter.

At a time when there is so much uncertainty, messages from government carry great weight and importance for those impacted by natural disasters. And just as important as the message timing, key components like strong subject lines and calls to action can make all the difference.

Here are a few tips to help organisations prepare as best they can for emergencies:

  1. Plan ahead

When disaster hits, there’s rarely enough time to develop a full communications plan bespoke to the current situation. However there are some things you can do to improve your preparedness in the event of an emergency. Work with your organisation’s emergency response team to plan for a variety of eventualities, create comms plans for different scenarios, and adapt each plan after a real event to ensure you learn as you live and improve the response each time. Also be prepared to bin ‘the plan’ in a heartbeat and respond accordingly to the present challenge.

Emergency comms expert Bridget Aherne spoke at UKComm17 last month and shared some of her experiences and advice on how the public sector can better prepare itself – watch Bridget’s talk on-demand here. For example, communicators can ensure they’re ready to issue fast and compelling messages by creating a suite of ‘special’ headers and templates for their comms. That said, having an effective and ongoing audience acquisition strategy is critical, so that in the event of an emergency, teams can inform citizens at scale – audience growth tips here.

  1. Choose your subject line wisely

Email design starts in the inbox. Your subject line is often the deciding factor in getting your audience to open, read and act upon your messages. But when it comes to natural disasters, a strong subject line is more important than ever, especially since severe weather can lead to reduced internet coverage and phone signal. This can mean the body of your email message may not load and your subject line must therefore convey the need-to-know info. You may need to include your call-to-action in your subject line, for example, “Evacuate to XXXX before 2pm today”.

There were a number of strong subject lines during Hurricane Harvey, including:

  • Dallas, TX: “City preparing Dallas Convention Center to take in hurricane evacuees”
  • Dallas, TX: “Update on Hurricane Harvey shelters in Dallas”
  • Office of the Texas Governor: “Governor Abbott Announces $25 Million In Federal Funds For TxDOT To Address Disastrous Impacts From Hurricane Harvey”
  • FEMA: “FEMA Encourages Residents to Follow Directions from State, Local, and Tribal Officials and Prepare for Hurricane Harvey”
  1. Communicate regularly and on multiple channels

Sending out regular messages to residents at each ‘phase’ of an emergency is critical. In a recent webinar, Christine Townsend of Musterpoint explained the importance of communicating full-circle, from early indications that a situation is emerging right up to when ‘business-as-usual’ is restored. Always over-communicate. Let people know your organisation cares and that you’re supporting communities – this can help reduce panic and establish your organisation as an authoritative trustworthy voice which then gives you a better chance of inciting citizen action at the right moment.

Provide clear advice on preparation, transportation options, what to do if residents lose power, staying off the road, getting help, recovery, and more. Use all the channels you have at your disposal (email, SMS, social media, website, automated telephone messages) and be proactive about building an audience to these channels during ‘peacetime’, so that when an emergency occurs, you have the means to reach the right people.

Learn how the Met Office collaborated with Granicus to increase its public trust score to 84% and the number of residents and emergency responders subscribed to critical weather updates in this success story. Hear Lisa Martin, Senior Marketing Manager at the Met Office, talk about how to build trust with a solid citizen engagement strategy in this on-demand webinar.

Trust in government

Examples of Hurricane Harvey communications

Here are a few bulletins organisations sent during Hurricane Harvey in August, communicating key pieces of information to both the public and media:

From: United States Coast Guard
Subject: “Update: Coast Guard Responds to Hurricane Harvey”

US Coast Guard

From: Texas Department of Insurance
Subject Line: “Help after Harvey: TDI news, resources”


From: City of Dallas, Texas
Subject: City preparing Dallas Convention Center to take in Hurricane evacuees


Effective communication during natural disasters is critical to citizens’ safety and well-being, and for minimising the damage caused. If you’d like to find out how Granicus could help your organisation better prepare for and respond to different types of emergencies and crises, please get in touch.