Business As Usual

When disaster strikes, a strong communications plan ensures business continues and member service is not disrupted.


In times of emergency, the value of a reliable disaster communications plan cannot be understated.

“The inability to communicate during a disaster erodes confidence in your credit union,” says Ron Daly, president and CEO of Digital Mailer, an eMarketing firm based in Virginia. “Knowing how to communicate is essential long before disaster strikes.”

Credit unions across the country felt the slap of harsh storms this past winter. Spring is around the corner now, but the season for preparedness never passes. Storms, floods, robberies, technical failures. All of these situations, and more, can require a credit union to shut down. And none of them are predictable.

“We have been hit by lightening twice,” says Barbara Michael, CEO of Prairieland Federal Credit Union ($52M, Normal, IL). This winter when snowstorms caused Prairieland to close branches and alter hours, it knew exactly how it would inform its members. The credit union notified television and radio stations and ran a web banner on its website. It also sent an eAlert to all the members for whom it had email addresses.

 “Everything ran smoothly,” Michael says. “Several of our members commented on how they appreciated the information.”

Natural as well as man-made disasters are a cost of doing business; fortunately, today’s electronic tools make it easy to communicate with members and staff. Emergency communications tools – such as eAlerts – are a great way to communicate when traditional methods such as email or direct letters would take too long or not convey the appropriate sense of urgency. 

“eAlerts tell members to be aware branches might be closing and to look at the website for further updates,” says Casidhe Meriwether, marketing director for Valero Federal Credit Union ($148.1M, San Antonio, TX). “Without the eAlert, we’d post information on our website and hope members check it. Otherwise, people just wouldn’t know.

“Being able to communicate quickly and efficiently with our membership is priceless,” agrees Traci Archer, marketing manager for Shell Federal Credit Union ($433.8M, Deer Park, TX). “Having a tool that offers instant communication has enhanced our disaster recovery plan.”

The frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes along the coast of Texas, where Valero and Shell have branches, makes an effective communications plan essential. Such plans can be used to notify members not only of branch closings or altered hours but also of cancellations of important credit union events. For example, an ice storm in the Houston area forced Shell to cancel its annual membership meeting with less than a day’s notice.

“Communicating the change with our members the day prior to the meeting was crucial,” Archer says. “We were able to email notifications of the cancellation and date change. Without this [the emergency communications plan] we would have had to rely on branch and web messages.”


Examples of the emergency communications distributed by Shell and Valero

click on image to view larger size







Northwest Federal Credit Union ($2.1B, Herndon, VA) knows well the value of emergency communications; the Herndon area has been hit especially hard over the past couple of winters.

“In an emergency, the most important key in carrying out a business continuity plan is communication,” says Bill Cook, senior vice president of planning and member service at Northwest. “That is also the most difficult piece, keeping everyone informed of what’s going on and what their role is in getting the doors open is critical.”

Northwest’s plan uses several channels – emails, texts, and phone calls – so employees receive at least one, possibly three, communications from the credit union. It also allows credit union administrators to determine which employees have been reached in the event of an emergency and which employees it still needs to contact. With its system, the credit union knows it is getting the right message to the right people.

“This particular go-round, we told the entire staff we were opening late,” says Nancy Huntoon, Northwest’s security and fraud manager and BSA compliance officer, in reference to a snowstorm that shut down Washington, DC and caused the credit union to reschedule an economic seminar for which it had 90 attendees registered.

“It [the emergency communications plan] was a great way to contact attendees quickly and accurately and give information about the meeting,” Cook says. “We got a good response from the attendees on our communication.”




March 7, 2011


  • Solid article. Now more than ever, credit unions need, "crisis insurance" to safeguard their business from disruptions. LT Public Relations and Mambo Media recently introduced "Crisis Read" ( to help credit unions prepare for crises BEFORE they happen. As we say, crisis managment is 99% preparation and 1% execution.
    Casey Boggs
  • Great Comments.

    A good, well-exercised crisis communications plan is vital to any successful, viable business continuity program. That plan must include all three parts. The article mentioned two of them: Communications to stakeholders (members), and communications to staff.

    Mission in the discussion was the third leg of the triad: Media Management. Managing the Media is critical to ensuring the success of the communications to stakeholders. If the press puts out a message that your credit union is out of business or is severely handicapped, it will take a lot of direct messages to counter the impression the former made.

    To emphasize the criticality of media management, consider this incident: In Tallahassee a couple of years ago, a bank was robbed. The local TV station was on-scene, microwave antenna extendeded, and cameras and microphones deployed trying to get immediate, on-scene, eye-witness observations BEFORE THE POLICE SHOWED UP!

    Is that scary, or what?
    Ken Schroeder, CBCP, VP-Business Continuity, Southeast Corporate