Disaster communications: Lessons from #Frankenstorm

November 1, 2012

Major events like Superstorm Sandy can be an irresistible temptation for organizations working on related issues like climate change. What better time to talk about the impacts of climate change on weather than in the midst of a massive, unprecedented storm?

But dramatic events like Sandy also present major communications risks. With a staggering human toll – at least 50 dead, as many as 8 million without power, property and economic damage estimates at $50 billion and rising – spending your time linking the storm to climate change can seem opportunistic and heartless.

New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote this week about this tension between opportunity and risk in relation to politics:

“…there is an innate tension in overtly politicizing a disaster. At the moment of greatest urgency, emotions run so hot that it’s hard to fairly assess the costs and benefits of disaster response. On the other hand, moments of normality are too cool, and it is far too easy to minimize the costs of preparing for an eventuality that is far from the horizon.”

In a year when the majority of Americans are drawing their own conclusions that climate change is weirding our weather, can climate advocates afford to let opportunities like Sandy blow by?

Probably not. So here are some basic tips for communications around disasters:

People come first.

In any disaster, the priority is the protection of human life and property. Day 1 news stories, and Day 1 emails to members and supporters, must focus on human impacts. Only later is it appropriate to talk about the causes of disaster, or the damage to other resources. Even if the Southwest drought has devastated wildlife populations – and it has – that’s a secondary story, one you should only pitch well after the human side of the story has been told, and told, and told. Focusing on wildlife first opens you up to familiar, and sometimes accurate, accusations of putting nature before people.

Focus on the science.

How strong is the link between the disaster and the “cause”? If it’s weak, you’re better off not mentioning it at all – otherwise, you may find that the stories you inspire are all about ineffective and underhanded efforts to blame climate change (or coal mining, or agricultural runoff, or any other environmental issue) for an event that bears little relationship to the villain you’ve tried to cast in that role.

If, however, the link is strong, and backed by a number of reputable scientific sources, then citing that science in a reasonable, rational tone makes sense. A number of reporters and bloggers have done this well in their Day 1 stories, including the AP’s Seth Borenstein and the NYT’s Justin Gillis.

Choose the right messengers.

Are you the right person to link the disaster with the cause? Not necessarily. If you’re an advocate, you automatically have a vested interest in making that link, and your audiences know it. Better to quote scientists, elected officials, and others who may be seen as more credible messengers on the topic. This shields you from criticisms about bias, and makes your case more effectively. In the wake of Sandy, politicians including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former President Bill Clinton and (of course) former VP Al Gore have all made the case that climate change contributed to Sandy’s devastating impact.

Be prepared.

If you know a disaster is coming, marshaling your facts and messengers ahead of time will help you respond fast. It was clear from a number of well-written early responses, such as this press release from the Union of Concerned Scientists, that some groups took the time to set up well-reasoned messages backed by facts.  Others, such as Forecast the Facts, jumped on the “blame climate change” band wagon very early, and got called out for it by the opposition. Which brings us to our last tip:

Watch out for the opposition.

Not surprisingly, some of the best known climate skeptics and deniers are also making hay out of Sandy, and specifically out of the various voices linking Sandy to climate change. Roger Pielke, Jr., a frequent, outspoken critic of climate activism, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning that

“Public discussion of disasters risks being taken over by the climate lobby and its allies, who exploit every extreme event to argue for action on energy policy.”

Hard-core denier site Climate Deport warned against “Tabloid Climatology” in a lengthy diatribe. The Wall Street Journal warned against big storm “opportunism” by folks arguing against cutting FEMA’s budget. And Fox News bent over backwards to twist the cautious statements of reputable climate scientists into an argument that Sandy wasn’t influenced by climate change.

But for the most part, news outlets that chose to talk about climate change in the same sentence as Sandy came down solidly on the side of climate advocates, arguing that whether there’s a causal link or not, the time for climate complacency is over. As USA Today put it:

“The presidential candidates don’t like to talk about climate change, which they ignored during the debates, because the solutions inevitably involve higher energy prices. But as Sandy’s mounting toll suggests, the costs of inaction, in tragedy and property, might be even greater.”

Bottom line? Treated carefully, even a disaster with the tragic proportions of Superstorm Sandy can be an effective teachable moment – as long as you remember to keep some perspective, and don’t let the big picture eclipse the human story.

Want to read more?

InsideClimate News put up a Storify site to round up what scientists were Tweeting about Sandy, arguing both for and against a direct link to climate change.

The Huffington Post has a great round-up of news outlets and voices who did link Superstorm Sandy to climate change, but notes that most TV news coverage didn’t make the connection – at least not in the first day of coverage. How much Sandy influences the conversation about climate change – and how well groups are able to handle similar events in the future – remains to be seen.