Two weeks ago, as Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters rose throughout greater Houston, corporate communications executives from around the country gathered on a conference call to discuss the most effective approaches to responding to the unfolding natural disaster and its aftermath.  Convened by the Arthur W. Page Society, leaders from Sprint, Chevron, AFLAC and more compared notes and shared insights so that all involved could benefit from the collective wisdom and experience of fellow corporate communicators.

As the head of communications for Noble Energy, an independent energy exploration and production company headquartered in Houston, this exercise was especially relevant. And combined with my involvement at Shell Oil Company on the frontlines of its response to Hurricane Katrina, my professional experience is (unfortunately) especially deep when it comes to natural disaster response. With the southern U.S. still recovering from Harvey and Irma, I offer the following guidelines for any business that is grappling with how to efficiently and effectively respond to a major disaster.

  • People first:  You can never go wrong when you provide a path that supports your employees as they manage their personal recovery and the recovery of their family and friends. Employee recovery enables business and community recovery, so start with your own people.
  • Strategic partners matter: Your trusted non-profit and business partners from before the disaster will face new, daunting challenges brought on by the disaster, and they may worry that their relationship with your company could take a backseat to your own response.  Remember that these organizations are your strategic partners for a reason, and they are often a logical first stop when evaluating ways to expand your community support and outreach efforts.
  • Business as usual is a good thing: Recovery decisions and activities are rational business decisions, not ‘feel good’ philanthropy or platforms for reputation enhancement.  As such, they should be planned and executed with the same discipline, clearly defined goals, and budgeting controls as any non-emergency project.
  • Corporate philosophy can take center stage: In times of adversity, your company’s brand, values, and mission acquire renewed importance -- you have the opportunity to live up to your corporate promise in unprecedented ways.  Carefully consider the objectives of your disaster response decisions through the lens of your mission, recognizing that value can be measured by how your decisions and actions reflect the kind of corporate citizen your company aspires to be.

In the wake of Harvey, Noble Energy established an Employee Disaster Relief Plan that provides cash grants to individual employees so they can address their specific near-term needs. We also expanded our matching gift program so that employee donations to causes they care about can have a greater impact.  

Noble Energy’s Global Day of Caring took place just days after Hurricane Harvey hit, and our company-wide volunteer efforts prioritized long-standing community partners and real-time needs. Nearly 1,000 employees sorted and distributed donations to shelters, provided assistance to a major food bank, and delivered meals and hygiene kits to shelters.

Overall, there is no precise roadmap for managing these tragic and complex disasters. But if, as a company, you do the right thing for the right reasons, the benefits to people, community, and business will naturally follow.