Media planning for natural disasters


How to shift your marketing and media usage to respond to serious events

It’s not uncommon for residents of areas where natural disasters happen—whether hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, or floods— to plan ahead for them. They may not happen often. But when they do, the impact on daily life is so severe that some advanced preparation is crucial.

But for marketers to thoroughly plan for natural disasters? Not as common.

For energy businesses, a natural disaster means a significant burst in business activity, as companies and crews respond to outages. In many situations, you’re likely to suspend your normal marketing efforts. After all, marketing to customers when services are down can be perceived as ineffective and pointless.

But natural disasters can provide important moments to communicate beyond minimizing the damages from service interruptions. In fact, if planned and executed well, marketing touch points during disasters can deliver the memorable brand experiences people will appreciate.

Whether you’re in the habit of dialing up or dialing down your marketing, taking a proactive approach to planning is the first step to understanding the role media can play in maintaining customer satisfaction in times of crisis. This process includes:

  • Understanding geographic trends to identify scenarios that could occur in your business territory
  • Knowing how people use media during and after a natural disaster to tap options for reaching customers
  • Exploring media redirect strategies that can open communications channels for pressing needs and minimize potential losses from purchased media

Let’s take a closer look at these considerations.

Three considerations for a natural disaster marketing plan

1. Know the lay of the land and keep an eye on the calendar.

Make sure you’re clear on which geographic areas are more prone to specific types of natural disasters and how they match up to the markets you serve. For instance, hurricanes are most common in the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard. Central Texas to Nebraska is known as Tornado Alley. And earthquakes are most likely to occur in Coastal California, Oregon and Washington State. Of course, each type of natural disaster affects people and businesses differently. And the recovery activity that follows a tornado looks very different from an earthquake or a flood. Knowing how the landscape is likely to be affected will help your team develop scenarios that could occur and the communication frameworks that are needed to address each.



From a media perspective, disaster planning becomes much more important to campaigns scheduled for the months when the disasters more common to a geographic area are likely to occur. Tornadoes are most common from March to May. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from mid-summer to November. Wildfires are most common in the summer, thanks to heat, drought and down slope winds. And, while flooding occurs year-round, there is some geographically driven seasonality based on things like snow melt, topography, and coastal storms. (Of course, earthquakes have no seasonality.)


2. Adapt your media usage to changes in consumer use.

The most important wild card a natural disaster introduces into campaign planning is media usage. Most marketers fundamentally understand how their target audiences use different media from day to day. But less is known about how media use changes when disaster strikes. In 2014, SideBarGraphicButler/Till conducted a nationwide study to learn how media is used in advance of, during, and immediately following a natural disaster.1

Right before an event, TV usage increases most, followed by radio. Together, the two account for 75% of all media use. Not surprising, since they’re the most-used sources for local news and weather. Then, during a natural disaster, TV and internet usage drops, while radio, mobile devices, and word of mouth increase. In fact, mobile device usage more than triples, largely due to loss of power. After an event, radio is typically the first medium people turn to for information, even after power returns. But TV and internet usage quickly bounce back as the recovery begins.

The power of social media in natural disasters

Channels like Facebook and Twitter have become the go-to points of connection for millions, making social media a major media resource during recovery efforts following natural disasters. Research shows 76% of survivors use social media to contact friends and family. People post images and share stories of their harrowing experiences.

After Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast in 2012, Instagram users uploaded 10 Sandy-related images per second. During the same period, the top five shared terms on Facebook were 1) “We are OK” 2) “Power” 3) “Damage” 4) “Hope everyone is OK” and 5) “Trees.”

Power companies can leverage this channel to make social media one of the most effective ways to locate people who need help. In addition to providing updates on power outages and anticipated return of service, they can partner with government, relief agencies and “sharing economy” businesses to extend their traditional customer support and emergency response. By providing critical information on assistance options, they can help connect needs with resources. Customers will appreciate the sentiment that “we’re in this together” and “here to help” long after the disaster, resulting in improved customer value and satisfaction.

For example, 37% of Sandy victims said they used social media to locate supplies and find shelter, and the American Red Cross had 23 staffers monitoring 2.5 million Sandy-related social posts.2 Understanding how your company can be helpful—from providing details on the closest shelters and where clean water can be found to offering mobile phone charging stations—and pre-planning execution will enable your team to respond more effectively when the time comes.


3. Redirect your previously scheduled media to leap into action.

There are several best practices you can follow to ensure that when disaster hits, your response is immediate and effective.

Put on the brakes

Many planned marketing activities, such as media placements that are in flight, might need to be put on hold. This will allow you to shift your resources to those marketing activities that support disaster communications.

  • Many power companies already have crisis communications processes in place, but quite often, these plans overlook existing media campaigns. Work with corporate communications to ensure this element is included and considered in both the plan and practice processes.
  • Develop specific criteria ahead of time to make it easier to decide which events would prompt you to cancel or pause a campaign, or to interrupt the campaign with new content specific to emergency support.
  • Know the cancellation policies for media tactics used in each campaign, as well as the process and timing requirements for replacing campaign content.
  • Have appropriate alternative messages and pre-packaged content ready to traffic, in case you aren’t able to cancel a media schedule or would like to redirect airtimes to highlight emergency information. Use a flexible format for the content so that you can easily insert relevant copy between video elements or key messages.
  • Maintain a database of multiple contacts from each media vendor you work with—including mobile phone numbers—to ensure 24/7 vendor availability.

Ramp Up

Preplanning is essential to increasing communications at the drop of a hat.

  • Understand all your local media options and the geographic coverage they can provide ahead of time. Natural disasters rarely match up with market/DMA lines, so you need to be clear on the effective coverage (and the associated waste) that comes with any media option.
  • Pre-negotiate rates/schedules that can be quickly activated when needed.
  • Maintain a database of multiple contacts from each media vendor you work with—including their mobile phone numbers—to ensure 24/7 availability.
  • Build a creative toolkit with prepared messages you can adapt to varying circumstances, and be sure your messaging is sensitive to your audience’s plight.
  • Identify individuals who can jump in to support social media monitoring and response. Train these individuals so that they understand the company’s social media governance policies, the do’s and don’ts when communicating, and key messages to share.
  • Maintain a list of appropriate hashtags that your social media team can use to search for opportunities and extend your response reach. The White House, FEMA and U.S. Department of Energy have launched standardized hashtags, including #PowerLineDown, #NoFuel and #GotFuel to enable citizens to report downed power lines or whether a gas station has fuel across social media platforms. The Weather Channel has committed to publicizing these hashtags to its Web visitors and TV viewers.
  • Forge partnerships with federal and local entities, along with cause-based companies, to explore how you can work together to support shared agendas.

The power of partnerships in natural disasters

Hurricane Sandy helped prove how technology and social media interaction can improve information sharing and relief support. Since then, the White House, FEMA, and a host of cause-based companies have been exploring how sharing economy platforms can further enhance collaboration and response during disasters. These resources and tools, highlighted at the White House Innovation for Disaster Response Recovery Demo Day, can help companies think about the numerous opportunities that are available. For more information, go to Data.Gov—a portal featuring disaster-related datasets, tools, and updates on how to get involved.

  • Geofeedia is a social monitoring service that provides a free version of its service to first responders, utility companies, and government at all levels.
  • GeoQ, developed by The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, crowdsources geo-tagged photos of affected areas to help assess damage.
  • Lantern Live is a mobile app from the Department of Energy that helps consumers share information about power outages and nearby gas stations to find fuel during energy emergencies.
  • ShakeMap, by U.S. Logical Survey, provides a rapid graphical estimate of ground shaking in an affected region and shares this information within minutes on the web and with emergency managers through a companion service called ShakeCast.
  • Disaster Reporter, a crowdsource feature within the FEMA app, allows people to take a photograph in a disaster area and share it, along with a description, to give response and recovery teams an accurate view of the situation on a publicly accessible map.
  • Big City Emergency Managers brings together managers and their staff from the 15 largest U.S. cities to widely share lessons learned and best practices for disaster response and recovery.
  • NPR Labs has developed an emergency-alerting system for the 36 million Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing that enables communication to be delivered regardless of power outages.

The bottom line

A natural disaster can come on with little warning. Sometimes days, sometimes minutes, sometimes with no warning at all. By understanding when they may be more likely to hit, and how people’s use of media changes in the midst of an event, you can be ready with a smart communications plan. Whether that means shifting into action or waiting for the right moment to return to regularly scheduled marketing, planning ahead can help you make good decisions when there isn’t much time to shift gears.


  1. Methodology online survey conducted January-March, 2014. Sample size: 228 adults.
  2. Source: Creative Signals 2013