How to communicate when a natural disaster affects your community

When fire, flood, earthquake or gale force winds wreak havoc in our communities, there’s a heavy human as well as a financial cost incurred by the damage done to properties.

It is heartbreaking to see places we love destroyed. Shelter is part of our innate survival response as humans and once the initial danger is passed, it is completely normal for grief, anxiety, and stress to be felt both individually and by the community at large.  

However, real estate agents and offices, with our knowledge of local neighbourhoods and keystone positions in our local business communities, are often well placed to help at these difficult times, and in the aftermath and recovery periods.

But it’s never been more important to get the tone and the messaging right. Below, we look at the different stages of natural disaster recovery and ways your office can help their communities when they are affected by natural disasters.


What happens when a natural disaster hits?

The medical article Disaster Management: Mental Health Perspective identifies four key and predictable phases in how humans respond during a disaster. These are the Heroic phase, Honeymoon phase, Disillusionment phase and Restoration phase.

It's helpful to consider these when we think about what our motivation should be and the types of messaging that is appropriate to share.


The Heroic Phase

The Heroic phase occurs immediately after the disaster when survivors show altruistic behaviour in the form of rescuing, sheltering, feeding, and supporting each other. This period can last from days to weeks depending on the severity of the disaster.


The Honeymoon Phase

The second phase is known as the Honeymoon phase because this is when relief agencies arrive, and there is a lot of media attention, free medical aid, free food and shelter, VIP visits and promises of compensation and rehabilitation packages, according to the authors.

These create an immense sense of relief and faith in survivors that their community will be restored quickly and that losses will be accounted for. The Honeymoon phase typically lasts for 2-4 weeks.



However as relief agencies pack up and materials, VIP and politicians visits stop and media coverage reduces, the Disillusionment phase kicks in.

Survivors enter the ruthless world of post-disaster life and the reality of the complex process of rebuilding which can feel like a distant dream because of administrative hurdles, bureaucracy, red tape, and in some instances discrimination, injustice and corruption, according to authors of the paper.

The harsh reality of the Disillusionment phase can last as long as three years after the event and is when mental health in affected communities is most under pressure. This is the time when many people will want to give up or move away.



But grief can't last forever. The final phase is Restoration. At this stage, things are slowly starting to return to normal. Homes are being rebuilt, businesses are reopening, and community life is being restored. While remembering the difficulty of the natural disaster, there may be a sense of rebirth and determination to either prevent it from happening again or minimising the impact the next time a similar event hits by being better prepared.


Key rules to communicating during natural disasters

Being well-intentioned isn’t enough at a time of viral social media and constant vigilance. With emotions running high around natural disasters, you’re likely to find people are easily triggered and quick to take offence if you are not on point.

It’s vitally important to make sure your messaging is well thought through and your tone is right. Here are some ways to ensure that:


1. Put others first

Any communication your office does around a natural disaster needs to be totally focused on the needs of your audience and work hard to be helpful. This is absolutely NOT the time to promote your business or to try and sell your services. Pull any promotions or campaigns you may have scheduled that were set up before the disaster struck and which could appear insensitive.


2. Check on your people

Your office will likely have sales in progress, opens scheduled and clients who were planning to move at the time when the disaster struck. But what happens when a property they’ve just bought is destroyed before they even move in? Anxiety will be understandably high. Your existing clients - and your own team - are your first priority when communicating. Check they are safe first and reassure them that even with the situation being uncertain, as the business owner you have got their back and you are there to help them work through it.


3. Be Nimble

Events change rapidly during natural disasters as events unfold and information can become quickly outdated. Shorter bursts of information may be more valuable than waiting to perfectly craft larger pieces. If you can't be nimble and flexible, you might be better off waiting until the community is on the road to recovery before you decide to commence any campaigns for your office.


4. Be of service

How can your business and team help those around you? As a local real estate agency you know the neighbourhood like the back of your hand. You probably also have a good idea about the makeup of your area and are a well-known local face as a director or principal. Consider who among your contacts might require special assistance and reach out to them. Think about ways you and your team can use your knowledge of local housing stock to help with emergency or temporary accommodation. If your office is not affected, can you become a centre for dropping off or sorting donations, getting a BBQ going and feeding families or helping co-ordinate clean up activities?


5. Keep your tone warm and supportive

Getting your tone right is essential when communicating during a natural disaster. Avoid sounding patronising or arrogant and above all be truthful. Be transparent and generous in sharing what you do know and admit to the questions that you don't have answers to. The situation during an emergency is often full of unknowns but commit to finding out answers and sharing them as you go.


What can you say during a natural disaster?


Communicating during the Heroic stage

If you're in the middle of the affected area, everyone in your team is most likely going to be focused on the safety of their immediate family and friends. It is unlikely you'll have the time or presence of mind to create an email campaign. However, it's possible someone in your team not in the affected area may be able to assist you or you'll be able to use your phone to draft up some brief communication.

Regardless of who is writing for you, keep the information you share limited to official and verified sources. Encourage people to behave safely and reduce risks and consider sharing links to official links on what to do to avoid the disaster or how to request assistance and or learn more information. You can also share where to go for shelter, food and other necessities.


Communicating during the Honeymoon period

Understand that people are going to be in shock and struggling to process what has happened and concerned about the work that lies ahead of them. People will be cleaning up, assessing the damage and those affected will be starting to look for temporary accommodation to get them through the next few months.

Consider what you as a principal and your office can do to help people find accommodation to get them through. This is the time when you can share information about what you’re doing as an office to help and become a beacon for volunteers. If you’re part of a franchise or larger group, reach out to your head office and let them know your actions and encourage them to assist or promote the call out for volunteers across your group.


Communicating during the Disillusionment phase

Disillusionment is the time when we’re all most tempted to jump on the keyboard and go into complaint mode. But as cleanup, rebuilding – and frustration - drags on, now more than ever it is important that your communication style should be focused on helping your community solve ongoing problems and building morale wherever possible.

While mainstream media may have moved on, consider setting up email campaigns that tell stories of how people in your community are coping, ways they are solving issues with bureaucracy or red tape and sharing information that helps people understand the steps they need to go through when dealing with insurance companies, councils, builders and state authorities. Sharing tools such as rebuild calculators can also be helpful.

Work to highlight the good news that you’re hearing in your neighbourhood at this stage - the working bees that are rebuilding community assets, the stories of neighbours helping each other get back on track.

It can be tempting to talk about property market performance as the first few sales occur as people move away from the area. But be mindful that this can also be distressing for people who are already anxious about the value of their home. Recognise that if people make the decision to sell during this period it is likely because they have given up hope and therefore are likely to need special care. If there are government programs to help victims of the disaster get a fresh start, make sure you share the details and links to access further information.


Communicating during the Restoration phase

As life gets back to normal - and with it, the property market - your office marketing can also start to return to a regular cadence. Start to highlight strong results you and your team have achieved and welcome buyers into your community, especially new businesses who are showing their commitment to the area. This can build confidence and help potential sellers consider their options.

Also reflect on the lessons that were learned during the disaster and what kind of preparedness can help reduce the impact the next time. Create a calendar that recognises peak seasons for the type of natural disasters your area experienced for future marketing. Make a note to share helpful articles and information in the lead up to those periods about ways your clients and prospects can prepare their properties in advance.

If you’ve handled your office communication strategy skillfully throughout the disaster, you should also have built your profile as a real estate agency that genuinely cares about its neighbourhood and clients and is a valuable member of the community. This should also help you stand out from your competition so that as life returns to normal, your office becomes the first choice for selling, buying and renting.





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Kylie Davis
Kylie Davis
Kylie Davis is a real estate digital marketing expert, researcher and public speaker about proptech and how digital disruption is changing real estate. In January 2019, during the NSW bushfires, she was repeatedly evacuated from both her parents’ home in Tathra, and her own holiday home near Moruya on the south coast of NSW.