In 2005, everything my wife and I owned washed away in floodwater that followed Hurricane Katrina. She and I had a choice to make. Return and rebuild with our newborn daughter or go elsewhere.
We chose to stay and build.
The challenges along the U.S. Gulf Coast in the last 16 years – from hurricanes and oil spills to economic downturns and a pandemic – put the same basic choice in front of millions of the region’s citizens.
Stay or go.
In most communities across the U.S., you live somewhere because that’s where you grew up. It could be where you went to college. You may move for your career or for a partner or spouse.
Down here, if you wanted to live in New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, along the Emerald Coast, and now Lake Charles and down the bayou in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, you had to make the choice to stay and build…your business, your family, your house, your life.
We made the decision as a business in the aftermath of the hurricanes of 2005 to get more involved in what our community would become moving forward. We ended up working for years in the future of public education, flood protection, public safety and health care. Issues we are still involved in today.
As we share the pain of loss and challenges of rebuilding with our friends, family and neighbors, we know there is much work to be done. As our communities make daily progress, issues will arise for companies and organizations working in these communities.
With years of insight and countless public debates, announcements, issues and public meetings, here’s what companies and organizations can expect as they communicate:
It’s personal … even if it’s really not.
The choice to stay creates a different dynamic among the people of the Gulf South. When we choose to stay, we possess a greater sense of ownership. That sense pervades all aspects of a community, including public safety, education, industry and economics.
If we want something to happen, we speak out and say so. If we don’t want something to happen, we speak out even louder. Real or perceived, we feel like we have a say.
The digital expanse of social media only personalizes a story even more.
A license renewal or zoning permit for a new restaurant & bar is relatively mundane and routine. Right now? It can be a different story. If I am choosing to stay and rebuild in my neighborhood and town, I am making a commitment to make my life, my family’s life and my community’s quality of life better. If I’m staying, then I want to be a part of what’s decided, whether I really have a say in it or not.
This doesn’t mean that every instance of what was routine will now become a hotbed of public debate. It does mean that organizations must make sure they are paying attention to what the public is saying. Listen. Talk to leaders in the area. Make sure messages to the public, if shared, are clear, concise and localized.
“If you build it, the debates will come. Yes, Ray, they will come.”
After the hurricanes and other events of the last 20 years, communities talked about strengthening the building code, flood protection, insurance premiums and overall land development and use issues for retail, commercial and industrial projects. Now? Add hardening the electric grid, sources of power generation and transportation infrastructure to the list.
We will have discussions about the foundation of our communities. What it takes to live somewhere and make it better. There will be public meetings, parish council or county commission meetings, elections and “visioning sessions.” Potentially a lot of “visioning sessions.”
Any interested party in these proceedings will need to identify its supporters and those who share its voice. We already know these situations are personal. People will participate in the process of defining their community’s future. And they should participate, in a respectful manner with an open mind.
At the same time, companies and organizations with something to offer and say will be expected to say so too. This is not a passive exercise. Not for those who chose to stay and build.
Know your audiences. Refine your messages. Have a plan in place to inform and educate your supporters and those who are still considering their support.
MANAGING CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS
Rebuilding is slower than we all want. Companies are facing challenges. Employees and customers alike may have lost their homes or are facing weeks and months of stressful interactions with insurance companies, adjusters and contractors.
Companies promising something and underdelivering by missing deadlines, not keeping audiences updated or changing the situation at the last minute creates long-term, if not permanent, harm to that company’s reputation. People are talking to each other. They are asking each other for recommendations and advice. When someone says to their neighbor “how are you making out?,” that neighbor will tell them who is helping them and who isn’t.
The best path forward is one where expectations are managed. Most customers just want an honest idea of how you can help them and by when. They are figuring out their own timelines and next steps, and how you can fit into it. Tell people what you are going to do. Tell them when you are doing it. Tell them when it is done and remind them that you did exactly what you said you would do. If something unforeseen occurs, be upfront. Time and fresh air don’t solve problems.
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The Gulf South is distinct in the American fabric of communities. Our cuisine, music, celebrations and families are unique. We spend our free time in certain ways, whether its hunting and fishing, at the beach or eating and dancing at festivals. We possess certain expectations of our elected leaders. We are the economic gateway to the middle of the U.S. It is and will remain a special place for the people who live here.
People will remember those who stay and build. There will be tough days, but there will be great days filled with opportunity and celebrations. Businesses investing here, holding concerts and events here, and growing here are central to a community’s recovery. Knowing what to expect when it comes to communicating in these times will add to the great days and minimize the tough ones.
STAY TUNED: NEW FALL UPDATE TO OUR 2021 GULF SOUTH INDEX REPORT COMING SOON!
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The Gulf South Index is a cooperative project between The Ehrhardt Group, a public relations, content, issues and crisis firm, and Causeway Solutions, a nationally recognized research and data analysis company, that are both based in the Gulf South.
The Index delves into hundreds of thousands of data points to paint a better picture of how the millions of people living in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle are going about their lives. We want to find out more about how we make decisions, from what we are buying and how we are getting our news to where we plan to travel.