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6 Tips for Communicating When Disaster Strikes Your Church

Do you have a church crisis response plan?  Are you prepared to serve your community, instead of panicking, when disaster strikes?  This guide will help you do just that.  

Why You Need a Church Crisis Response Plan

Tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, viruses, tragedies in local communities…  Everywhere you look, the impacts of disasters- natural and human-made- only seem to be increasing.  As a result, many of us are continually facing situations that leave us desperately searching for answers.  When the crisis hits, we don’t have time to put together a communication game plan.  In fact, lack of time for planning can be the biggest challenge when it comes to responding to a catastrophe or tragedy- which is exactly why we need a plan of action before disaster strikes.

As an example of the increase in damage caused by natural disasters, consider that major hurricanes are battering the coastlines with greater frequency. You only need to look back over the last couple years to see storms impacting communities throughout the country- and this is just hurricanes!  

Take a look:

  • Hurricane Harvey (2017)- Nearly 13 million people were impacted throughout Texas and Louisiana. This was the 2nd most costly disaster in US history (at that time).
  • Hurricane Irma (2017)- This was the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record when it hit Florida.
  • Hurricane Maria (2017)- The damage from this hurricane was exacerbated by the fact that it hit in the Caribbean, not in the mainland.  As a result, the residents of Puerto Rico had long-lasting loss of power, access to clean water and food.
  • Hurricane Florence (2018)- The damage from this hurricane totaled at least $17 billion along the Carolina coastlines.
  • Hurricane Michael (2018)- Entire communities along the Florida Panhandle were decimated by this storm.
  • Hurricane Dorian (2019)- This storm changed paths multiple times and ended up causing an estimated $1.5-3 Billion dollars of damage in the Caribbean.

But crises aren’t limited to natural disasters.  Disease outbreaks like the Coronavirus can present special challenges, especially because they’re more difficult to foresee.  As with any kind of disaster, it helps to be plugged into official communication regarding the virus. 

It’s imperative that we, as church marketers, think through what we communicate and how we go about doing so- even in the midst of a crisis. So, whether your community is prone to hurricanes or wildfires, here are some practical tips and strategies to help your church minister effectively through the (literal and figurative) storms of life:

Tip #1: Become familiar with the disasters that plague your community so you can create a complete church crisis response plan.

In today’s world, nearly everyone has some sort of disaster to deal with. Even if it’s not weather-related, cities like Flint, Michigan have been dealing with clean water shortages that have some of the same lasting damages. If you don’t already know, find out what issues your community is most likely to encounter.

 Tip #2: Check your scheduled social media posts and update your website homepage.

If you utilize Hootsuite or any other scheduling platforms for your accounts, make sure you adjust your posts to remain relevant. There’s nothing worse than having a tornado hit subdivisions down the road and an hour later your church posts something scheduled about your small groups launch! People are also looking for quick information during these moments. Updating your website homepage, even if you do not have a full game plan yet, is a great way to let people know you are actively aware of what’s happening and are looking to help in whatever way you can.

Tip #3: Determine what your church is uniquely positioned to do.

  • Do you have a large facility that could host evacuees or serve as an information hub for local community leaders?
  • Is your church full of skilled laborers that could be organized to help?
  • Is your missions budget formulated to assist families with basic needs or resource relief organizations on site?

The goal here is not to do everything, if that’s not your niche. Find the best ways to engage and look to partner or plug families into places that are facilitating efforts you are not. And, have conversations about this now before that tornado ever hits so you are prepared to engage if the needs does come.

Tip #4: Get plugged in where it matters. 

  •  The FEMA Daily Report– This is a great resource delivered directly to your email inbox every morning that lists all of the major US disasters, upcoming threats and the current verified damage. The hardest thing to get during a disaster is reliable information, and this helps solve that!
  •  VOAD (National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster)- If you or your church is interested in actually responding during times of crisis, there is no better place to get plugged in than your local VOAD. This is where you learn who to direct families to during that devastating flood, and set your church up as a trusted leader in the community (which is something we’re all after).
  •   Ready – This program trains volunteers and develops Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTS). You could also check out your local Red Cross chapter for trainings and education as well.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Website- this government site will give you reliable, up-to-date information about disease outbreaks, prevention, and who’s most at risk.  They also have resources that will help you develop a plan for minimizing the spread of the virus in your community.
  • If your church has professionals with specific knowledge of certain disasters (such as firefighters, first responders, or medical personnel), consult with them as well.  If you can, check with them and ask if they’ll help function as a spokesperson for your church in the event of a disaster in your community.
  • If you’re reading this in early 2020, here are some resources specifically pertaining to the Coronavirus outbreak:

Tip #5: Reading

Books like PR Matters from our friend Justin Dean also address how to create a church crisis response plan and more. This could be a great resource during your community’s next disaster.

Tip #6: Partnerships

 As you plan with your team about what role you will play, it’s important to know some of the local faith-based organizations that respond to disasters and could serve as a potential resource for you. Once you figure out what you are equipped to do, then look to partners to do what you cannot. It’s best to start working on those partnerships now before disaster strikes. Once that disaster is happening, use your marketing, communications and social media to highlight those partnerships in action. 

Pro Tip: Ask partners to send you content, media and updates that you can share with your audience. This will help showcase what your church is involved in to your members and to the local community! 

Here’s a beginning list to look over. Even if you don’t partner directly with them, following their actions on social media is a great way to educate yourself on how to communicate during a disaster.

Jordan Pacilio, an experienced expert in the disaster relief space and founder of Bethel Global Response, asks the all important question, “What does it look like for the church to be fully prepared on a community’s worst day?”. That’s the heart behind everything we do as church marketers. Let’s plan our communication strategies so we are ready to respond when, God-forbid, that disaster does strike.

Download Our Free Checklist for Communicating When Disaster Strikes