“Strong earthquake causes extreme damage.”

Waking up to find breaking news alerts on your phone can be jarring. Because 9 times out of 10, you know that the news isn’t good.

As a human, my first reaction when I read these in the early hours is heartbreak. As a PR person, when the disaster relates to one of my clients, my second question is: “Do they need to respond?”

While all eyes are on an event, it’s up to your organization to get the word out about what the survivors need and how the public can help support your mission and action.

And it’s tough to do in the moment. Disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, bombings, shootings) are unpredictable and chaotic and emotional. The key to good rapid response is to act like a Girl Scout: Be Prepared™.

Consider this blog post your disaster response checklist. These are the steps you need to take to get your organization’s point of view and needs heard in the press the next time those you serve are faced with a crisis.

1 – Establish your chain of communications command.

Disasters rarely happen during regular workday hours. You need to make sure everyone knows who will be on call over the weekend to sign off on press materials and give media interviews when the time comes. You also need to know what their best contact information is because desk numbers and sticky notes taped to your computer monitor are useless on Saturday night. Keep this information in your cell and in a location that’s remotely accessible like a Google sheet.

Also spell out and streamline your approval process. Identify the one or two key people who need to review and sign off on a statement — and who can act as their proxy if they’re unavailable — so that you’re not getting caught up in red tape when time is of the essence.

2 – Have your media list ready.

You do not want to be making your media list while juggling internal communications and trying to get news out to reporters in a crisis. As a starting point, make sure your media list has three types of core contacts: a) editors of “How to help” lists, b) bureau contacts for the countries/areas your organization serves, and c) local media where your organization (and donor supporters) is based.

For the “how to help” lists, take a look at who has published these in the past. These are usual suspects: CNN Impact, Huffington Post, TIME, Mashable and Quartz, etc.

For the bureau list, make sure you include in-country/regional contacts at the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, CNN, Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.

For local media outlets, make sure you have the major daily, local NPR station and local TV news stations (i.e., the ABC, NBC, FOX and CBS affiliates) on your list.  

Oh! And make sure your key reporter Twitter list is ready too so you can talk with them in real-time on social.

3 – Act fast and don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

News outlets are in a big rush too and they’re not going to wait around while you craft your usual thoughtful, flawless pitch. Speed is everything.

Internally, this means picking up the phone to call or text your chain of communications command. This may sound obvious, but don’t rely on email to alert people about an emergency. Call and/or text first to get the right people informed and engaged.

Externally, acting fast means not letting perfect be the enemy of good. The first press statement about a relief fund opening or immediate disaster response does not need to include all the information and quotes you have to offer. It only needs to include top-level information about your organization’s response and pertinent links for the public. You can always follow up later to offer reporters an update but don’t miss the opportunity to be one of the first to get in their inbox.

When you’re ready to hit send on that email to a reporter, remember these two final tips so they’re more likely to open it:

a. Be really direct in your subject line. For example: “Orlando how to help list” OR “Nepal: [ORGANIZATION] & U.S. Congregations respond”

b. Let press know in your pitch if you have contacts on the ground available for interviews (in addition to U.S. spokespeople)  .

4 – Stay in touch.

Your media outreach efforts are not a one-time or even a one-day affair. Get and share updates with press throughout the event and its aftermath. For example, send them a note if you have a big donation update or pass a major fundraising milestone, or you receive new information from your contacts on the ground about relief efforts and people affected. Show them continuously that you’re plugged into the situation on the ground and can be a valuable resource for their ongoing coverage.

These are just a few of the key PR commandments to follow when disaster strikes. Check out our fuller whitepaper for even more detailed tips on how to keep your cool — and get your message out — when news breaks.