Crisis Communication in the Eye of the Storm … and Beyond
By Ryan Anderson
From active shooter responses to natural disasters, many public affairs and communications professionals spend hours training for crisis scenarios that they hope they will never use.
At this year’s StratCommWorld conference being held May 1-2 at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., the topic of crisis communication during a natural disaster is front and center. Captain Anita Iriarte of the Lee County Florida Sheriff’s office will present a session called, Hurricane Ian: A Brutal Reminder About Communications in Crisis.
Captain Iriarte, who leads the Public Information Office for Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, was forced to use her crisis communication skills twice in a five-year span thanks to Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Ian in 2022.
“Hurricane Irma was really a good junior version of what we dealt with Ian. Back then we were a smaller unit, and our practices were different. And social media… albeit important… wasn’t quite at the forefront back then. When we went through Irma, we learned how important it was to go live and constantly deliver information and share information. We were just pushing out content left and right back then when Ian came.”
– Captain Anita Iriarte
Captain Iriarte joined Sheriff Marceno’s office in 2006 as a civilian assigned to planning and research before becoming a certified deputy in 2007. From 2008-2015, Captain Iriarte worked as a deputy and detective in the West District/West District Criminal Investigations Division. In 2015, after being promoted to Sergeant, Captain Iriarte was assigned to East District patrol as a night shift supervisor. In 2016, Captain Iriarte transferred to the Public Information Office as a Sergeant before working her way up to her current role as Captain of the unit.
Despite her years in public information, Captain Iriarte says the success shown in how her team responded to two powerful hurricanes did not happen quickly.
“It took me seven years to really understand what the bosses want, especially number one,” Captain Iriarte said. “I finally have a good grasp on the expectations. It takes time to understand communications in your organization or agency or business. You can’t learn it overnight. It’s a vibe. And you have to understand those vibes.”
Although hurricanes have long been a concern for residents of states along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, the recent outbreak of tornadoes whipping through states like Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, as well as massive snow storms in California, show that weather related disasters are not limited to states along the coasts.
“Since Hurricane Ian, I’ve never seen so many people from multiple agencies saying, ‘We’re paying attention. We’re looking at your social media. What you do is incredible.’ And it’s very gratifying. I’m sometimes almost overwhelmed when people say it because I guess when you’re in it every day you’re thinking, well, I’m just hitting send on a tweet,” Iriarte said.
In addition to weather related events, the rise in the number of shootings in schools, places of worship, and other locations illustrates the need for all public information professionals to have a wide-reaching crisis communication response plan in place before a crisis occurs.
All public information professionals need to know what to do in times of crisis to ensure that the public they serve receives timely, accurate, and useful information. Often times, as Captain Iriarte discovered, a public information officer is the only source of information during a crisis.
“It was very gratifying to realize that people depended on us, not just to figure out how to go get sandbags, but how to find out if their loved one was okay,” Iriarte said. “Our PIOs (Public Information Officers) were taking turns overnight, just constantly pushing out alerts, constantly pushing out real-time information.”
Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida on Sept. 28, 2022, as a Category 4 storm delivering 150 mph winds and a 14-feet high storm surge. Along its path of destruction, it washed away roads, bridges, cars, boats and homes, knocked out power for millions and killed more than 100 people.
In Ian’s aftermath, entire communities were cut off from many forms of communication as a result of the devastation left behind by the storm.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the Lee County Sherriff’s Office gained 50,000 followers on social media. According to Captain Iriarte, most of those new followers were looking for information that they could not find from any other source due to many of the local news outlets in town dealing with flooded studios and newsrooms.
“People were really starting to thank us for pushing out information that they didn’t know that they felt they should have seen on the news,” Iriarte said. “Sheriff Marceno would deliver a news conference four or five times a day, every day. We gave the stats. The public never had to ask. We told them who was dead. We explained how to request a well-being check and reported how many well-being checks we were making. Over time, it was gratifying to know that we were the hub of information.”
That hub of information operates not only during times of crisis and often crosses multiple disciplines.
“We’re a business. Even though we work for an elected official, I feel like sometimes I’m running a marketing firm,” Iriarte said. “We’re always trying to innovate how we deliver information about crime.”
“It’s crazy. I sometimes can’t believe that our team works at the level that we do. It is a hundred percent leadership. They allow me, and the supervisors that work for me, and the PIOs, to have that creativity. They are directly involved, but they really let us branch out.”
That ability to branch out has led Captain Iriarte down some paths that likely would have been unheard of a few years ago.
“We have a TikTok channel that’s got half a million followers—almost 600,000,” Iriarte said. “I never thought I’d be running a TikTok channel. I really didn’t. I can’t believe the things we’re putting out on TikTok. And people love it. They love the sheriff on TikTok. We helped make him popular. We can’t go to events without people lining up to see this man. It’s absolutely crazy. Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s overwhelming. But, you know, we’ve really shown who Sheriff Marceno is and that’s awesome.”
Having the ability to show the lighter side of public information, like a Tik Tok famous Sheriff, has helped Captain Iriarte and her team focus on something other than the next crisis. However, unlike hurricanes that often provide days of warning, many crisis communication scenarios can pop up without warning, and a PIO team must be prepared.
“We’re constantly striving to provide what the sheriff likes to call a concierge level of service,” Iriarte said. “A lot of people could post on social media and go; I don’t care how this makes me look. We have to care. We don’t have another option.”
I could probably talk for three hours about the hurricane and what we went through.”
To hear more lessens learned from Captain Iriarte regarding how to best be prepared for communicating in a crisis, register to attend StratCommWorld at stratcomm.world.
“It was the craziest 14 days I’ve ever had in my life. Not only were we focused on the community delivering information, but our agency members were also having their own battles with their homes and their families,” Iriarte said.
“Our guys worked 30 days straight without a day off. Being so plugged into knowing how devoted law enforcement is to the community is really impactful. And just explaining that from our level, I think will be very interesting for the StratCommWorld attendees.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR & STRATCOMMWORLD SPEAKER
Ryan Anderson is a former Collegiate Sports Information Director (SID), Newspaper Editor and Reporter who currently works as a freelance journalist. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Central Florida with a minor in Advertising/Public Relations. He also earned a Master of Science Degree in Sport Management from Houston Christian University. Currently, Ryan is working on a Master of Arts degree in Mass Communication with a concentration in Public Interest Communication and a Graduate Certificate in Global Strategic Communication from the University of Florida.