Crisis Communication for the Texas Winter Storm 2021


Everyone loves a good snow day, and before last week, the thought of snow on the ground probably sounded like a pleasant surprise to most Texans. But when temperatures plummeted, millions of people lost power. Texas experienced one of the worst winter storms in its history, displacing a fun snow day with darkness caused by statewide power outages. Texas’ infrastructure was not built to handle this extreme weather, and with so many people put into dangerous situations, it was vital that there was an effective communication plan ready.


Dissemination of Information


Emergency management and crisis communication are so important during natural disasters because the public needs to stay informed. With technology becoming increasingly accessible and widespread, many emergency programs and government agencies have taken advantage of social media and call/text programs in order to disseminate information. These channels require consistent and accurate information in order to avoid consumer distrust. These are great ways to connect with stakeholders, and in any normal situation, it would have worked more smoothly. But how can citizens rely on technology when they don’t have access to power for days at a time?


In 2021, it’s hard to imagine connecting and communicating with someone quickly without using technology. Did we move back into the dark ages before WiFi and electricity? Temporarily, Texas did. This was a hard position to be in because as the winter storm unfolded last week, municipalities had to hope its messages would be delivered to those in need.


The Texas Division of Emergency Management serves Texas and is responsible for responding to natural disasters and managing emergency plans. This winter storm greatly damaged the Texas power grid, which made it hard to adequately send out alerts. Governor Greg Abbott and TDEM recommended that Texans either look up facts online or through social media. These recommendations were not realistic considering the vast effects of the storm. As a result, residents were not receiving information about when their power and water would come back on. Texas was not ready for this storm, and neither was its crisis communication plan.


Preparedness


The key to any crisis communication plan is preparedness. Natural disasters are not a part of our daily lives, but it’s necessary to be prepared because they will eventually happen. In cases like these, it’s important for municipalities to be proactive and strategic.


In order to be proactive, organizations need to actively look for risks in order to effectively manage potential issues. Obviously, this snowstorm could not have been prevented, but the TDEM should have anticipated this impending crisis and had a plan ready to combat the possible problems caused by the storm. This crisis plan should be prepared for the “worst-case scenario” through regular testing and updating.


Texas residents were aware that there was an impending snowstorm a few days before the storm actually hit. Texas municipalities failed to take advantage of the time they had to strategically create a risk communication plan. Having important messages prepared before the impending crisis would have allowed for easier and faster distribution. For example, during this Texas storm, many cities offered warming centers available for residents without power. This was a great resource, but the centers’ locations and use were not successfully communicated. Better messaging would have increased the reach and effectiveness of these centers. Similarly, electricity companies, such as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), should have created a functional communication plan in order to prepare for extended blackouts.


Looking Forward


Texas experienced a crisis that rocked the state. Though it was not preventable, risk management could have alleviated the effects of what seemed like never-ending darkness. Hopefully this winter storm and the many problems that accompanied it will serve as a reminder for the importance of preparedness and will highlight the need for an effective communication plan.


Hannah Lake is a Public Relations Manager at Roxo, TCU’s student-run advertising and public relations agency. She is currently a senior Strategic Communication major with minors in General Business and Spanish and Hispanic Studies. Hannah loves breakfast food, traveling, playing soccer and skiing.


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