The Flood – A crisis communications case study

The Challenge

To restore public trust in the administration and municipal council of the City of Peterborough following a devastating flood in July 2004. The flood caused people to flee from gushing sewage in their homes, overwhelmed the sewage treatment plant, flooded main roads, destroyed businesses in the downtown area and did millions of dollars worth of property damage.

The communications process had to be transparent, respectful and accountable to all stakeholders.

My role:

 As communications consultant to the City of Peterborough, I designed and executed a communications strategy with ongoing measureables that identified and addressed the concerns of all key stakeholders throughout the flood review process.

Thanks to my experience as senior public relations specialist with Du Pont Canada during the storming of head office by Greenpeace and a second demonstration that shut down the company’s annual meeting, added to my ongoing mentoring by leading public relations experts throughout North America, I was able to step in and quickly provide the needed action steps in the early days following the crisis, and throughout the ensuing public review process.

 My actions:

  • After an outside engineering firm was hired to a) carry out a formal flood review process and b) make recommendations to repair and improve storm/sewage infrastructure, I provided a quick, short-form communications plan.
  • Partnered with the engineering firm hired to carry out the flood review process and write the final report.
  • Organized regular press briefings, press releases and editorial board meetings to explain and outline the firm’s work plan, and environmental assessment process.
  • Worked closely with the Mayor, Chief Administrative Officer and the city’s legal department to ensure messaging was compatible with legal strategy and concerns.
  • Media trained all spokespeople, including the lead outside engineer who gave regular reports to council (and to media attending council).
  • Ensured city’s website had up-the-minute information as the process unfolded, and publicized and advertised a public questionnaire on the engineering firm’s flood project website.
  • As more issues began to surface, I developed a more thorough and comprehensive communications plan to guide the city through the spotlight of public opinion. The plan was designed to create and sustain trust in the review and repair process.  This involved establishing a critical path for communications, and identifying methods that would speak to each stakeholder/audience group.  The process was two-way: I sought and got public and stakeholder input so that the plan became a more responsive and relevant tool.

Results:

Media coverage changed from highly critical of the city’s infrastructure and administration to balanced and fair coverage that kept citizens informed of every step of the compensation, review and repair processes.

Editorial board meeting outcomes were highly successful, shifting media tone and resulting positive and useful coverage.

Public forums were altered from the original walk-through information board design, explaining causes of extreme flooding, to a more blended approach. This included a professionally facilitated and much-needed public venting.  Officials from the city were on hand to take questions and reassure stakeholders that all possible fixes could and would be made.

The City of Peterborough was publicly praised for its actions to quell dissent and reassure an angry populace at the annual meeting of the Ontario Association of Municipalities.

About Jane Carthew Davidson

As a former senior public relations specialist with a large publicly traded multi-national chemical company, Jane Carthew Davidson produced the company’s award winning annual report for several years. Later, she was media relations specialist for Ontario’s Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), where she wrote speeches for the executive team, trained spokespersons across the province, and developed talking points and strategies designed to clarify the role played by property assessment within the municipal taxation system. Jane is a former business reporter for the Globe and Mail Report on Business, and the Toronto Star’s Business Today. Her articles have appeared in the Toronto Star, the Medical Post, the Anglican Journal, the Financial Post and most recently, the Globe and Mail’s special supplements on subjects as wide ranging as organic farming and new investment regulations. On several occasions, Jane’s media savvy and quick research skills enabled her to win broad media attention and investment queries from Canada, the Unites States and Europe, for a unique medical device start-up venture. Following Peterborough’s Flood of the Century in 2004, Jane handled media relations for the City of Peterborough, developing and implementing the communications plan for the city’s media outreach to afflicted citizens, concerned insurance companies, city staff and other government stakeholders.
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