From Katrina Crisis to Katrina Crisis Management
With many residents and businesses recently affected by Hurricane Ike, Pierpont recalls its efforts in working with the Harris County Housing Authority during Hurricane Katrina to communicate clearly and authoritatively with some of the world's biggest media outlets.
At dawn on Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, stranding tens of thousands of residents in a deluge of toxic floodwater. For the frightened victims trapped in the Superdome, help was slow in coming. When it finally did, "help" came in the form of a one-way bus ride to Houston.
Fast-forward to the Astrodome three days later, where more than 20,000 evacuees were placed in one of the world's largest mass shelters. At this point Federal authorities asked the Harris County Housing Authority to start moving Katrina victims into apartments - immediately. There was no ramp-up time, no time for analysis and no time for long-range feasibility studies only tens of thousands of people who needed to be placed in long-term apartments right away.
No American city had ever contended with a crisis like this. An entire community had arrived en masse from hundreds of miles away and was unable to return home.
Moving these evacuees out of mass shelters and into apartments required more than just an understanding of affordable-housing practices; it required professionals who could also manage the media circus that descended upon Houston to cover the story.
Enter Pierpont Communications
Based on our experience advising public-sector clients, the Housing Authority turned to Pierpont Communications.
Working on-site at the Astrodome, Pierpont's professionals guided all of the Housing Authority's media relations efforts, communicating its activities to an insatiable pool of journalists. Pierpont also coordinated its efforts with those of FEMA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the State of Texas, and the City of Houston.
Katrina's impact was the very definition of a communications crisis: crucial information had to be conveyed in real time to an information-hungry public as well as to the evacuees themselves, many of whom who had lost everything, including loved ones. The biggest problem was the lack of solid answers to a crisis without precedent. Unfortunately, the voracious news media wanted hard information, and they wanted it immediately.
Taming the Communications Chaos
Pierpont's solution followed a simple adage: "You can't control the crisis; you can only control the communication." To accomplish this, Pierpont took two key steps:
1. Pierpont established an around-the-clock presence in the Astrodome command center, where the Harris County Housing Authority worked alongside dozens of national, state and local officials to coordinate relief efforts.
The importance of an onsite public relations presence cannot be overemphasized. By placing communications strategists at the very place where real-time decisions were made, Pierpont could ensure that only consistent, responsible information was made public. This was vital in the chaotic Astrodome setting, where even the smallest piece of misinformation could result in thousands of evacuees forming lengthy lines in the heat.
2. Pierpont established the Housing Authority's executive director, Guy Rankin, as the single spokesperson for long-term housing issues. It ensured that he - and he alone - either participated directly in the Astrodome's twice-daily press briefings or had a status report ready for the relief effort's lead spokesperson, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels. The result was a single voice handling all media relations, consistently and authoritatively.
On-Message Coverage That Caught Washington's Eye
Pierpont's outreach resulted in extensive on-message coverage by a slew of local, national and international news organizations, including NPR, NBC News, The BBC, Reuters, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press.
At all times, the Housing Authority appeared to be calm, measured and most importantly in control. Pierpont's efforts helped the Housing Authority stand out as one of the nation's most successful Katrina-response agencies. The Housing Authority's executive team was even summoned to Washington to highlight their efforts with top officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and to meet directly with several U.S. Senators.