IT Communication Tools Enhance Crisis Management During Hurricane Harvey

Delivering clear and consistent communication is a core component of crisis-response management. The complete paper describes an oilfield service company’s crisis-communication strategy implemented in response to a hurricane devastation of an area where more than 12,000 employees live and work.

Abstract Digital network communication
Working in collaboration with the IT, HSE, and HR functions, the crisis-management team performed an auto-upload of all employees in the southeast Texas region.
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In August 2017, Harvey became the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since Wilma in 2005. Within a 4-day period, many areas of southeastern Texas received more than 40 in. of rain, with a peak accumulation of approximately 60 in. recorded in areas immediately outside of Houston. The record-breaking rainfall resulted in catastrophic flooding throughout the region, inundating thousands of homes, prompting more than 17,000 rescues, and displacing more than 30,000 people.

For this service company, southeastern Texas is home to more than 50 facilities and 12,000 employees. Additionally, the company has corporate headquarters situated within the Houston metropolitan area. While response plans had been developed following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, practiced through regularly scheduled drills, and firmly in place, it was virtually impossible for the company to prepare for a storm of such magnitude and destruction. In total, 1,072 employees were displaced as a result of Hurricane Harvey. During the storm and in the immediate and long-term aftermath, the company coordinated volunteer efforts and provided lodging and food for hundreds of employees and first responders.

Crisis Management Team (CMT). Within this service company, the crisis management process includes involvement of a team that had participated in multiple drills and understood the documented procedures in place fully. This provides the company’s management with the ability to effectively respond with the main goals of protecting the following:

  • People (the workforce and their dependents)
  • Environment
  • Company assets
  • Stakeholder interests (including local communities)
  • The company’s ability to operate
  • Company reputation

Before the hurricane season, the company’s North American offshore CMT assembled and participated in a number of drills to prepare them to manage effectively the potential consequences associated with a destructive hurricane.

The CMT comprised nine core members, primarily representing business functions, and alternate members as needed to ensure continuous long-term coverage. The core members included the following:

  • Crisis management team leader
  • Crisis management coordinator
  • Communications coordinator
  • Stakeholder manager
  • Human Resources (HR) representative
  • Legal counsel
  • Information Technology (IT) Services representative
  • Facilities
  • Finance

Establishing an effective operating rhythm is a key component in determining the success of the CMT response. The operating rhythm is a basic four-step continuous process that repeats until the crisis has concluded. The four-step process includes the following (Fig. 1):

  • Data collection (situation evaluation, operational ability, and potential for escalation)
  • Analysis of the common recognized information picture (CRIP), the best available facts and knowledge of the situation at a given point in time
  • Decisions (made, pending, and elevated) based on current information
  • Actions (allocation, communication, and status)
Operating rhythm used by the CMT
Fig. 1—Operating rhythm used by the CMT.

Legacy Communication Landscape. Communication strategies used by the CMT for previous incidents had only included mass email messages and text alerts distributed by an emergency notification system (ENS). Mass email messages were used predominantly to keep employees apprised of the crisis and provide employee-specific updates such as notifications of facility closures.

While serving the purpose of raising awareness, these legacy communication strategies were limited by a minimal ability to enable rich two-way communication between employees and the CMT, and a lack of diversity in communication channels to accommodate varying communication behaviors. Furthermore, the effectiveness of these legacy communication strategies relied on the assumptions that all employees maintained up-to-date mobile phone numbers in the corporate directory, all employees receiving an alert would take action and respond accordingly, and that employees actively check their emails during a crisis situation.

Modernized Communication Landscape. In early 2017, the company implemented a modernized internal communication and collaboration landscape. This implementation included the introduction of new tools and applications and significant updates to existing tools. The new tools included the following, with associated key capabilities:

  • Corporate intranet
    • Ability to quickly and autonomously publish content (intranet pages and new articles)
    • Easy access by employees
  • New enterprise social network (ESN) platform
    • Real-time engagement and communication among large user populations
    • Mobile apps for global ease of access
    • Photo and video sharing
    • Broad communications to defined groups of stakeholders
    • File-sharing for cloud-based productivity tools
    • Mobile access with notifications
    • Familiar interfaces and usability design
  • Updated, cloud-based suite of productivity tools (e.g., documents, spreadsheets, and presentations)
    • Accessible by multiple users
    • Live updates viewable by all users
  • Updated web-based collaborative platform (to build internal, dynamic websites)
    • Easily and autonomously created internal websites
    • Easy global accessibility for employees

Use of Communication Tools During a Crisis

Before the Hurricane. In the weeks before the hurricane, the company had initiated a project, in collaboration with the health, safety, and environment (HSE) and IT teams, to develop an updated North American hurricane-information hub using the recently adopted web-based collaborative platform. Transitioning to the new site would enable the communications and HSE teams to perform site updates quickly and autonomously, something of which previous teams were not capable. From the user perspective, the new hurricane hub was easily accessible when not actively on the corporate network, and it was also mobile-optimized. These significant new capabilities enabled the CMT to use the site as a key resource for supporting communications with employees. The new site went live days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall and became an integral tool to provide important updates and information to employees potentially affected by the hurricane.

Hurricane and Subsequent Flooding. With the hurricane entering the Bay of Campeche, immediately south of Gulf of Mexico waters, the CMT was gathered, with virtual meetings twice a day to establish its operating rhythm. The first line of communication to employees was the ENS text-alert system. ENS alerts were followed by mass emails to employees with constantly updated information provided on the hurricane hub. As the situation throughout the greater Houston area began to deteriorate, the CMT increased its communication efforts, leveraging the new tools available through the company’s updated communication landscape.

Working in collaboration with the IT, HSE, and HR functions, the CMT was able to perform an auto-upload of all employees in the southeast Texas region. This ESN group was easily accessible to any employee who had downloaded the app, which features a user experience designed to closely resemble the look and functionality of other widely used social media platforms.

Employees independent of the CMT created a “can-help/need-help” list using the company’s new cloud-based spreadsheet tool. Because the list was cloud-based, all users could view and update the list in real time. This tool was critical in aligning employees who needed help with employees who were in a position to help others.

In addition, the CMT launched a 24-hour call center. The center was initially managed by employees in Houston, but later, responsibility for the center was moved to a group in Canada. The call center was active 24 hours a day for 7 consecutive days.

Post-Storm and Recovery. Throughout the duration of the active hurricane, the CMT maintained a continuous, multichannel communication strategy to keep employees informed of ongoing initiatives which included relief efforts, vehicle assistance, shelters, and housing assistance. It was during this period that the Hurricane Harvey relief fund was created and announced through an intranet article targeting all employees globally. The CMT also created an internal intranet page—Hurricane Harvey relief news and information—with the specific goal of providing employees with a number of validated external resources and contacts such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, insurance companies, and contractors. The CMT, and later the regional HSE team, maintained ownership of this page and performed continuous updates as required.

The ESN group rapidly became an excellent resource to find the latest information and updates on relief efforts. It was often used to highlight opportunities to volunteer and provided a platform for employees to share their photos and describe their personal experiences of the relief efforts.

This article, written by JPT Technology Editor Chris Carpenter, contains highlights of paper SPE 199530, “Hurricane Response: A Case Study on the Innovative Use of IT Communication Tools For Crisis Management,” by Eric Englehardt and Scott LaBelle, Schlumberger, prepared for the 2020 SPE International Conference and Exhibition on Health, Safety, Environment, and Sustainability, originally scheduled to be held in Bogota, Colombia, 28–30 July. The paper has not been peer reviewed.