The morning of September 22, 2017, my phone greeted me with headlines proclaiming, “Hawaii prepares for North Korean nuclear strike!”

Uhm…yikes?

It is, in fact, true. But the details are rather boring compared to the sensationalistic headlines.

From a marketing, PR, and crisis management perspective, however, the headlines are far more important, because perception is reality. (It’s a cliche for a reason.) If people think Hawaii isn’t safe, they won’t go.

So what should a state do when being responsible could mean tanking the state’s $15.6 billion hospitality industry?

Let’s take a look.

(Disclaimer: As I’m sure there are many details I’m not aware of, I’m approaching this as a hypothetical case study. These are actions I would recommend to state government; where appropriate, I’ve noted second-tier steps to make sure the message makes it all the way down to the end user.)

Step 1: Identify your core message

The goal here is to put the nuclear threat in the right perspective by using targeted content to reassure residents and travelers that Hawaii is safe — without negligently downplaying the situation. While everyone should be informed of the situation and what to do in case of an emergency, the core message of any content should be something along the lines of:

We have emergency plans in place for everything from hurricanes to volcanoes. Recent tensions with North Korea made us aware that our disaster preparedness protocols lacked plans for a nuclear emergency, and we are now correcting that oversight. We are unaware of any immediate threat.

The details may vary a bit by audience, but it all comes down to some variation of “We’ve got this.”

Step 2: Identify all audiences

Residents and tourists are the obvious audiences. But we’re going to dive a little deeper and try to think of all possible stakeholders. Additional possibilities include:

  • Media outlets both on and off the islands
  • Airlines
  • The people who keep Hawaii’s shelves stocked with food and other necessities
  • Travel magazines
  • Vacation planners
  • Bloggers

I’m sure there are others I’m missing. Feel free to add them in the comments! Stakeholders can include both those directly affected as well as those playing a role in disseminating suggested content.

Step 3: Develop a crisis communication plan for each stakeholder audience

While the overall content message should be consistent, it can be tweaked based on the needs and roles of each audience. We’ll take a look at a few of the most important audiences.

Government employees

Government employees probably face the biggest challenge: Taking emergency preparedness measures without being too obvious about it — all while being stopped and questioned by tourists so frequently that they fall behind on the tasks at hand.

Core message

While public employees may have the toughest job, they’re also the most manageable in terms of what they tell people — as long as management gives them an answer instead of leaving them to come up with something on their own:

Explain that the rhetoric with North Korea led us to realize that our current emergency preparedness plan didn’t address the possibility of nuclear strikes, so we going back and including it.”

Where and how to reach government employees

Any guidance on how to speak to the public would best be delivered through management in a top-down format, with each manager reminding his or her employees how important it is to stay on message. It’s also extremely important that managers take the time to listen, as front-line employees can provide valuable insights into what the general public is thinking and feeling.

Appropriate avenues for reaching employees would include things like announcements, emails, meetings, and the company intranet.

State action steps

Meet and/or have a conversation with all agency and department heads to enlist their help and to offer suggestions on what and how they should communicate with their employees.

The hospitality industry

Along with government workers, employees in the hospitality industry have the most direct interaction with travelers. Their main role will be to provide accurate information — without hype.

Core message

The main content message for this audience should be, “Tell everybody to go have fun — we’ve got this!” The goal is to give hospitality workers tools they can use to reassure visitors that they don’t have to worry because Hawaii is monitoring and staying on top of the situation.

Where and how to reach the hospitality industry

This should be handled in much the same way as with government employees. Government officials should make contact with leaders in the hospitality industry, deliver the message, and ask them to share it with their employees via things like company meetings, emails, the company intranet, etc.

State action steps

  • Contact major employers to ask for their help in getting their employees on the same page regarding what to say to residents and visitors
  • Encourage hospitality providers to discuss what they’ll do if visitors who want to leave the islands early ask for a refund on the unused portion of their trip
  • Post the latest updates on the state website
  • Develop and implement a social media plan

Other residents

Residents will necessarily play a major (if often unofficial) role in managing this crisis — partly because they’re the ones who keep Hawaii running smoothly on a day-to-day basis, and also because tourists will become even more concerned if residents seem frightened.

Core message

Stripping away all rhetoric (both hype and any down-playing of the situation), the core message for this audience is:

You’re as safe as you were yesterday. So show up for work — and don’t scare the tourists away.”

If residents start fleeing the islands — or if visitors sense that residents are frightened — the hospitality industry will take a big hit. And it could take years to recover.

Where and how to reach residents

This audience calls for mass communication through emails, alerts, PSAs, the state website, the media, etc.

State action steps

  • Draft a press release and release it to the media
  • Draft content for emails, PSAs, and your website
  • Come up with a schedule for posting your message on the various venues

Tourists

For all but the wealthiest, Hawaii is “the trip of a lifetime.” They’ve probably been saving for months — if not years — and have likely planned every detail of the trip. Canceling is the last thing they want to do (next to getting vaporized, of course), but they’re now reconsidering.

Core message

The primary message for this audience should be, “We’re open for business, can’t wait to see you, and are working hard to keep you safe in all emergency situations, not just an unlikely nuclear attack.” Messages should also include “what if” instructions and a general description of what government agencies are doing to protect the islands.

Where and how to reach tourists

In addition to all of the venues mentioned above, the state should engage tourists (both current and planned) through things like:

  • The state website (As of now, Hawaii.gov makes no obvious mention of the situation.) as well as state tourism sites
  • Airline employees
  • Hotels
  • Local and national media
  • Vacation-planning websites like Travelocity and Expedia
  • Publications that write about travel
  • Travel bloggers
  • Social media

State action steps

  • Post updates on both the state website and on any independent websites focused on the Hawaiin tourism industry
  • Contact all local media outlets as well as the biggest national media outlets and emphasize the importance of communicating accurate information without hype or sensationalism
  • Contact scheduled tour groups to confirm their plans
  • Contact the most popular publications that write about tourism in Hawaii and, as with media outlets, stress the importance of communicating facts without hype
  • Contact the most prominent providers of travel insurance and develop a plan of action for travelers who want to cancel their trip
  • Develop and implement a social media plan

Business partners

Being an island, Hawaii is very dependent on its supply chain working like it’s supposed to. From grocery store shelves to gas pumps, somebody has to deliver almost all necessities of daily life. If that supply chain breaks down because transportation workers are scared to come to Hawaii, things could get ugly very quickly.

Core message

The main message should be:

We’re open for business, we’re working hard to keep you safe — and you have a contract. We expect you to meet its terms.”

Where and how to reach business partners

Rather than relying on mass communication, this message would be best delivered one-to-one through personal meetings, phone calls, and emails.

State action steps

Contact upper management representatives of all providers to discuss the situation and try to get a commitment to continue on a business-as-usual basis. If that’s not possible, work together to develop a contingency plan.


 

Is this plan perfect? No. There are too many details missing, and I wanted to get this out while it’s still relatively fresh news. (So I may have rushed just a tad.) But between hurricanes, earthquakes, political unrest, terrorism, etc., I decided to go for the good instead of the perfect and hope that my readers would jump in with their own ideas!

My hope is that this post will spark meaningful conversations about role of PR and marketing efforts in mitigating the downside of disaster preparedness.

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