Communications issues in the disaster were enormous. One Hibernia executive said it was like “Yodeling in a canyon.” Not only could people not talk, email or text with one another, general information coming across the airwaves often was unreliable at best. National and local media were producing stories that dwelled on the most negative elements. Admittedly, conditions in some places were apocalyptic in the first days, but there were so many other things that everyone needed to know.
Even when news was balanced, it was not necessarily useful. People were hungry to know about their own situations. For businesses, getting and giving out information was almost impossible for awhile.
For Hibernia, external and internal communications issues were daunting. Consider:
- More than 3,100 employees in Katrina and 500 in Rita were scattered.
- Tens of thousands of customers, equally scattered, needed cash and other services.
- Bank locations outside the unaffected storm areas were flooded with customers.
- Regular telephones and cellphones generally were not functioning.
- Important 800 numbers, if they worked, were swamped.
- Local mass media were seriously disrupted.
- Internet connectivity was inconsistent or unavailable in some areas.
- Websites were difficult to update or might not be seen.
- Mail and overnight services were nearly useless.
These were the logistical issues, but for Hibernia, there was also a delicate message issue — how impaired was the bank, and how would the storm’s impact affect the merger with Capital One?
Almost immediately, stock market speculators started to call, trying to divine some inside information. They wanted any tidbit – positive or negative – on which to base a fast move that might net a quick profit or stave off a loss. Jim Lestelle, head of corporate communications, working from a Houston hotel room, steadfastly refused to give them anything.
A lion’s share of Hibernia’s internal and external communications was the responsibility of two senior vice presidents. Jim Lestelle, who had been with the company 20 years, directed employee communications and external public relations, and advertising was supervised by Chris Prokopeas. In addition, company telecommunications and internet, including voicemail and email systems, were run by Bart Bragg, the executive over information technology.
Bragg and Lestelle were members of the Incident Management Team (IMT) and participated in all recovery planning. In past storms, they had camped at the Hibernia Center with other IMT members in the command center. This time, however, most had evacuated.
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Non-stop media calls
Jim Lestelle, 56, senior vice president of corporate communications, had been with Hibernia for 20 years, guiding it through some of its most tumultuous news periods. Divorced, he was the father of an adult daughter, 27. He and his partner, John Stephens, lived in the New Orleans central business district.
Lestelle evacuated to Houston, and then to McLean, VA, to work with Capital One communications people through the recovery and merger renegotiations. He and John returned to their undamaged condo in November.
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Lestelle drove to Houston Saturday. Two members of his group, Steven Thorpe and Kathryn Gsell, also went. Thorpe, a New Orleans native who had never evacuated before, was undecided until the last moment. He was mowing his lawn Saturday when Lestelle called and urged him to get on the road. He and his wife, Andra, and three children, finally left Sunday at noon. A third staffer, Ian McNulty, drove to Baton Rouge, but lost touch.
Lestelle was a 35-year communications veteran who started as a copy editor at the Times-Picayune. He and Thorpe, also once a journalist, knew their way around the media. He set up an impromptu communications center in his hotel and stayed in touch with the IMT, taking part in its frequent teleconferences.
As the disaster unfolded, he recalled, “I was plugged into the internet and had two phone lines. I stayed glued there for several days. The volume of incoming calls was constant.”
Most media calls focused on branch damage. National press such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times wanted information. It seemed unending. “We did not have enough hands, minds or phone lines. I felt trapped in that hotel room … like a prisoner. I couldn’t leave the desk even to eat.”
Lestelle believed that in the first few days the press gave Hibernia “a pass.” They were not so much interested in the bank’s specific condition as its view of the region. “They were overwhelmed by the damage.”
In the midst of this, the communicators faced a major news event – renegotiation of the merger with Capital One. The timing could not have been more difficult. Already stretched, the team toiled to deal with the tense event. They were in a very odd position: On one hand, they were working closely with Capital One to keep recovery information flowing, but on the other, they had to enforce a “Chinese Wall” on renegotiation developments, which their Hibernia superiors were disclosing to them.
At one point, Lestelle and Thorpe were instructed to draft completely opposite news releases to be ready for either event — one to announce a revised contract; another that the deal was off. “That was the hardest part of all,” Lestelle recalled, “dealing with the possibility of the merger falling apart.” Happily, the companies struck a new deal, and they issued the positive release.
It was complicated
Throughout the recovery and the merger renegotiations, the company needed ways to get information to all of its stakeholder groups — customers, employees, shareholders, regulators and other government officials.
While Lestelle and Thorpe fielded a torrent of media and investor calls, helped by McNulty and others, they also penned a communications plan. They identified available channels and drafted messages. They wrestled with how to disseminate internally and externally and they debated how frequently they should update.
Sometime the first week, Lestelle decided to go to Capital One’s headquarters in McLean, VA, to work with his counterparts there. It also gave him access to more resources and extra help. Gsell, who was expecting her second child in November, went to assist.
In McLean, Lestelle could coordinate what the two companies were saying. He remembered the predominant emotion at Capital One’s headquarters was compassion. He felt good about that.
He also felt good about how people across the two companies worked together. “There were no selfish motives. There was no one-upmanship … The right people were involved.”
Orchestrating a plan
Now in three distant locations – McLean, Baton Rouge and Houston – Lestelle’s team coordinated a multi-pronged effort involving many parts of the bank, Capital One and outside vendors. Central to their approach was to:
- Get messages on Hibernia.com for customers and employees; on InSite, the company’s intranet homepage; and on voicemail, for employees.
- Get advertising in print and on radio, with emphasis on radio, for customers and employees.
- Use daily news releases, blogs and interview opportunities to talk to stakeholders through the mass media.
The team met two or three times each day to identify problems, bounce new ideas around and report results. Two important tools quickly developed and were issued or updated each day, sometimes repeatedly — a storm-related internal bulletin and an external news release.
Reaching the media
An important tactic, after an uncertain start, was to encourage news outlets – even national ones – to publish articles and broadcasts about Hibernia. News media were an important early channel, even though it was not possible to control what they said. News organizations, especially national ones, wanted to know how banks – indeed all businesses – were faring.
Importance of radio
Radio was especially effective for company messages. Most evacuees, no matter how far away, had radios – often battery-operated. Hungry for news, they huddled around, seeking any station that might be broadcasting.
An example of radio’s value was an interview with Kyle Waters, head of branch and consumer banking, by National Public Radio (NPR) that aired Sept. 17. In it, Waters told reporter Adam Davidson about the “extraordinary effort required to get the financial infrastructure of New Orleans rebuilt.”
It was an apt account of how bankers were facing problems they had never seen before. This example was about flood-damaged money carried in by a customer:
“This is wet currency that was brought in literally in a suitcase, dripping down the branch. The gentleman put the suitcase on the teller line, water just dripping all over the counter … And we took the cash, we brought it upstairs into a secured area and just peeled $20 bills off and laid them out on the floor, on the table, hung some, stapled them to the walls, anyplace we could find room to dry out this cash, this smelly cash — horrible smelling cash.”
Waters also had a chance to tell a national audience: “You multitask continuously. I mean you literally have two telephones going at all times. You have people in your office talking to you. You’re making immediate decisions. You don’t have time to do too much, but at some point you have to stop and think about what the next steps are.”
‘Amazing Dr. Watson’ and a white Cadillac
Another creative approach came from Ian McNulty. Each day, from a borrowed office, he dialed in to WWL-AM radio – a New Orleans station broadcasting temporarily from Baton Rouge. On their nonstop talk show format, he told listeners in a conversational way what was going on at the bank.
It was, in a way, an odd role for McNulty, 32 and single. He had been with the company 3½ years but was planning to leave soon to launch his own food-news syndicate. Instead, he made his way to Baton Rouge with his dog, “Amazing Dr. Watson,” in a beat-up 1975 white Cadillac, and stepped up to help.
McNulty had not originally planned to leave his Mid-City home, but when “friends began over-reacting” (especially a lady friend who called him at 4 Sunday morning and “started screaming at me to leave”), he changed his mind. Packing a few clothes, dog food, canned goods and water, McNulty struck out for the home of a Baton Rouge friend. There he and three other young people “drank wine and had a miniature hurricane party.”
He got to Hibernia and began working from a desk near CEO Herb Boydstun’s borrowed office. Although unscripted, his radio talks were aimed at displaced employees and scattered customers. He urged employees to call about their jobs and disaster assistance. He told customers where offices and services were being restored.
The young journalist got back to the city Sept. 11, when he used a press pass provided by a Boston Globe friend. He saw his Mid-City house from a boat but was able to drive through the French Quarter. “Everyone was armed to the teeth, but it was dry … and mostly empty.”
In Mid-City, it was “extremely creepy.” There was about 4 feet of water, and airboats and deputies with M16s on Canal Street. “It sounded and smelled like a swamp. Houses appeared ‘planted’ in it.” Everything was deserted. Yet, parts of the city were “more intact than I had feared. The French Quarter and the Central Business District looked okay.”
In all of its communications, Hibernia’s core message was:
Although damaged, the company is not crippled. It is ready to help and to serve.
Messages stressed that more than half of the bank’s 320 branch offices were in places outside storm areas and about half its employees were unaffected by the disaster. Employees and customers in these places could continue normal banking. About the storm areas, it was important to give an un-exaggerated picture to guide people about what they could expect; also for employees, what they should do and where they should go.
A standard means of delivering corporate news is the press release, but there is no guarantee of getting them into print. They also are distributed via the internet, if people have the means to see them.
Hibernia began issuing recovery press releases, sometimes several a day, in the belief that the bank’s disaster efforts were newsworthy. Sometimes these got attention; sometimes they did not. From September to December, Thorpe crafted more than 25.
Cutting through the clutter
News outlets were overwhelmed by the disaster, choked with information, some valuable, some sensational and some just plain stupid.
Although the national media were everywhere for a time, and local outlets were trying to get back into the game, it was not always possible to break through the clutter
The marketing team used several techniques to get information to the public. The most consistent was advertising.
At first, it was difficult to provide current information in ads because of the lead-time needed. In the first week or so, Hibernia mainly ran generic recovery ads that “it had on the shelf.”
These ads, which had worked in the past, were written for a disaster of much less magnitude. They were not appropriate for Katrina and Rita. “It was just too stock,” noted Randy Bryan, to whom marketing reported. As more timely and targeted messages were created, and outlets as far away as Houston, Dallas and Atlanta were engaged, the advertising hit home.
Ad manager Prokopeas turned the ads around quickly and messages were created for a different audiences. The first and most important were employees. They were so widely scattered and ways of reaching them so unreliable, the company turned to radio and newspaper ads to urge them to come back to work.
The company also needed to tells customers what was going on, and a series of print and radio spots explained how and where they could do their banking, how the bank was deferring fees and payments and how safe deposit boxes could be retrieved.
Finally, as the merger between the companies was renegotiated and closing rescheduled, it was important to tell shareholders.
Other ways to create interest
The bank also sponsored programs that would bring attention to recovery activities. Using their philanthropic programs, both Hibernia and Capital One looked for good causes to sponsor that would provide an opportunity to break through the clutter of negative news with a message of hope and recovery. One of these was called “ReJazz New Orleans.”
CEO Boydstun also did many personal interviews, most on the phone, some in-person, including with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. By being available to reporters, he was able to portray an accurate picture of the bank.
Hibernian’s family featured
An interesting story that involved a Hibernia employee appeared in early December 2005 in the Los Angeles Times, written by Peter Gosselin. The article was a thoughtful look at the battered city and featured Laurie Vignaud, a vice president in the bank’s community development department. Vignaud, 46, lived in Gentilly with her daughters, 20 and 16. She was an important part of the bank’s model program created and led by Willie Spears, executive vice president, which helped build low- and moderate-income housing. One of the bank’s projects, which Vignaud helped put together, was featured in the article. Delery Square was an 18-house development in the Lower 9th Ward. The story focused on the dilemma Vignaud and thousands of other New Orleanians faced – whether to rebuild their wrecked homes or begin fresh somewhere else. “It’s scary,” she confessed at the time.
News of Hibernia was seen around the world. A list was kept of “media activity” during September and October that showed there were news items about the company not only throughout the U.S., but also in such faraway places as Belgium, Canada, Australia – even Hong Kong and Singapore. Most of the coverage was in Louisiana, Texas and other Gulf states – in newspapers in cities as large as Houston and Dallas and as small as Gadsden, AL, and Douglasville, GA. Before the monitoring ended, 425 news items were found in print, radio and television, as well as online. The news outlets in which these items were published represented a “viewership” of close to 520 million people.
When it came to internal communications, the Incident Management Team settled quickly on three preferred channels:
- Companywide email messages.
- Bulletins on its intranet information page called
- Special-content boxes on its external Website called com.
Recovery emails were produced each day by McNulty, generally after a mid-morning teleconference. He would digest the latest information and shoot it out to the entire company, hitting electronic mailboxes of every employee, virtually all 6,500 people. Hibernia’s email had an internet feature that allowed employees to read and respond from any online location.
The first such message went out on Sept. 2 and announced the loan payment deferral plan for customers. It also told of a customer hotline and outlined conditions around the company.
McNulty also published management bulletins to Hibernia’s intranet. These repeated information in the emails, but provided more details.
At the company’s external internet homepage, Hibernia.com, web specialists created two “red-box” emergency message centers: One was for employees, the other for customers. Behind each, one could click through detailed emergency information. In the employee box, a form was available to tell the company where employees had evacuated and how to reach them. They could also apply for emergency relief payments. Pam Hymel, in charge of the Web-based area, “did a superb job executing,” Bryan noted.
Problems related to telephones seemed insurmountable at first. Telephones in the 504 area code began to fail or operated erratically as storm damage resulted in a near-total failure of landline systems and cellphone systems. Many thousands of people were disconnected for the first few days after the storm when personal contact was more important than perhaps any other time.
The black hole into which thousands of New Orleanians fell is hard to describe. The vacuum went well beyond the problem of businesses trying to locate employees.
Many people were separated from families, thinking they would be able to reunite somewhere down the road by staying in touch by cellphone. Evacuees also believed they would be able to calm the fears of loved ones in other parts of the country.
People often had their most-important phone numbers saved in cellphones. Sometimes, even when evacuees got to a safe place with a functioning telephone system, they could not get those numbers because their cellphones had died.
The consequences of telephone meltdown went on and on:
- Businesses that relied on employees calling pre-designated toll-free numbers found they did not have enough incoming lines.
- Messages on 800 lines could not be updated fast enough to keep up with conditions.
- “Telephone tree” lists of employee phone numbers were mostly useless.
- Area codes of cities where evacuees fled were overburdened with increased volume. Calls could not get through even though the systems worked.
Many individuals interviewed for this account said they learned how to text for the first time during the storm.
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Among the most critical systems handled at the disaster recovery command center were those for communications. “That was our best lesson,” said Chris Berthaut, a systems engineer. Whether it was the company’s email, its BlackBerry server, voicemail, or a new encrypted instant messenger system, these channels became all-important.
“We found out that if we can’t communicate, we can’t do anything,” Berthaut said. He and fellow engineer Bryan Bensel recalled a funny incident in that regard.
A new instant messaging server – a nondescript “box” that looked like dozens of others – had been pushed under a table. It was still in test mode.
Suddenly it became very important because it handled instant messages among the many BlackBerrys used by scattered employees. When the computer specialists realized they needed to get it operating, they undertook a search for the missing box. Bensel discovered it eventually … right under his feet.
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Where R U?
Cellphone users discovered sometimes that they could reach someone even when voice calls were impossible. They did it with the texting feature. Many individuals interviewed for this account said they learned how to text for the first time during Katrina.
They would be surprised by a message that suddenly appeared on their cellphone. Then they would experiment with the keypad and find they could tap out a reply.
These messages provided contact that proved vital. It is not an overstatement to say that, for a while, some of the most critical communications were accomplished this way.
Devices such as BlackBerries also proved a boon. They gave people who were on the move, like Paul Bonitatibus and Ron Samford, a chance to keep up.
Corporate philanthropy became another way the company communicated important recovery messages to the public. Jim Lestelle headed Hibernia’s charitable program that contributed $3-4 million annually to eligible programs, mostly related to early childhood education, health and welfare.
After the disaster, the thrust shifted to help evacuees. In this, Capital One stepped forward to provide major assistance, almost immediately contributing $1 million to the Red Cross.
Lestelle initiated a number of ideas to help raise public awareness and money for the afflicted area.
One was a benefit concert featuring Grammy award-winner Usher (Usher Raymond) in Atlanta. It was part of Project Restart, an effort the singer put forward to raise funds for storm survivors.
Usher’s goal was 1,000 homes in 13 states through his New Look Foundation and Project Restart, working with Hibernia, Capital One and Freddie Mac. The first was in Houston, where he visited Oct. 7, 2005, to help award a new home to Chandler and Deonne Thomas, a couple displaced by Katrina.
ReJazz New Orleans
Lestelle’s group hit on another fundraising effort that would aid non-profit organizations in the storm zone. The idea germinated at Pierpont Communications, a firm that helped Hibernia with public relations. With the theme ReJazz New Orleans, beads styled after famous Mardi Gras-“throws” were created to encourage people to contribute. The program got local, regional and national attention, including a spot on CBS Morning News.
ReJazz New Orleans collaborated with two Katrina benefit events in New York in the fall of 2005. One, at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), featured Wynton Marsalis, Audra McDonald, Randy Newman, Itzhak Perlman and Beverly Sills. It raised funds for scattered LPO musicians.
The other was a “Village Halloween Parade” which paid tribute to New Orleans, ending in a benefit party that raised money for Jazz Foundation of America to help the Treme Brass Band get new instruments worth $50,000.
Hibernia assisted that well-known nine-member band in another way. When the group’s plight came to the attention of the CBS Early Show, it put out a call for help.
With Pierpont’s aid again, Hibernia joined Valentino’s French Quarter Hotels to underwrite four months of temporary housing for the musicians. The Early Show highlighted the group on its Nov. 22, 2005 program and asked Boydstun to join two of the musicians – drummer Benny Jones and trombonist Eddie King.
$3 million gift
In May 2006, Boydstun was joined by area non-profit leaders to announce that Capital One would donate $3 million to storm-damaged areas. The funds were earmarked for education and for community organizations. “As part of Capital One, we are making an even stronger commitment to Louisiana communities by taking … support to a new level,” Boydstun said. Awards included:
- $1 million to establish the Capital One/University of New Orleans (UNO) Charter School Center through UNO’s College of Education and Human Development.
- $1 million to 20 community organizations in New Orleans for affordable housing, education, public libraries, health and social services.
- $1 million to 10 community organizations in Louisiana to provide after-school or literacy programs for children and their families.
Many Hibernia people – without a formal program or recognition — helped other employees and customers in many ways – providing meals, clothing and toiletries, and finding housing and schools. The company helped New Orleans Habitat for Humanity by donating 300 electric drills to its Re-Store shop, which sold building materials at low cost. The non-profit Louisiana Music Export Office received Hibernia help with its 2006 South by Southwest festival in San Antonio that brought musicians together with fans and talent scouts.
Aid for the Red Cross
The Red Cross announced it wanted to distribute emergency grants of up to $2,000 to storm victims, especially those in the Superdome or Astrodome, after Katrina. However, it didn’t have any way to execute the plan.
While it wasn’t strictly an act of charity, Hibernia and Capital One agreed to find a way, even if they incurred some expense.
At first, though, it seemed impossible when a Red Cross official called David Frady, head of Hibernia treasury management. His first thought was, “I really would love to help, but I am not equipped to deal with this right now.”
But Frady was talking regularly with Ken Goldberg at Capital One, a key “go-to guy” who worked for merger coordinator Miles Reidy. Goldberg recalled a conversation with Frady. “… I am listening and I am thinking, ‘We are one of the largest card issuers in the country. I think we can handle that’. ”
Can you do it?
Goldberg called his people and asked, “Can you do it? Do you have a problem doing this for free, if that’s what it takes?” (The production cost might be close to $1 million, he estimated.)
“Yes” and “no,” they answered, respectively. They thought they had generic card stock on hand, which could be re-branded for the Red Cross. It would carry both the Capital One and Hibernia logos and would be embossed with the words “RED CROSS KATRINA RELIEF.” In a few days, the Red Cross okayed the plan and thousands of cards were pressed, loaded with value and prepared for shipment.
Storage during Rita
Delivering the urgently needed cards was destined to hit a snag. About the time they were being packed for transport to Texas, hurricane Rita reared up, and the truck full of cards – some worth $2,000 – was diverted to Baton Rouge, searching for a place to put them over the stormy weekend.
Frady recalled that Friday well. The weather was already bad, raining and windy. “We had many cards sitting at an empty Wal-Mart store. We were asked whether we could store them at the bank.” He called the local bank president, Rob Stuart, to see what might be done. It ended up being a makeshift arrangement right in the bank lobby. Property management workers were pressed into service quickly to build a screened and locked enclosure near the vault. It would be manned by armed guards.
Clad in a rain slicker, Frady met the truck. “It was kind of comical,” he recalled. “They showed up with a van – Red Cross folks and FBI agents – and shut off the whole block. There was maybe $200 million of value stored on all those cards. We only had one dolly, and we got soaking wet. We locked up the pallets in the small caged area. We had no formal agreement, no liability insurance. We just did it.”
Safely delivered, thank goodness
Rita came ashore near the Texas-Louisiana border, the cards remained safely stored through the weekend, and then Red Cross officials “were back on Monday and took them away … Thank goodness!” said Frady.
The Financial Service Roundtable, an influential trade group in Washington, D.C. (Hibernia and Capital One were members), kept a tally of how much financial companies contributed to the disaster-stricken region. Their April 2006 report estimated nationwide institutions had contributed $93 million in hurricane Katrina relief.
 WWL was one of a few radio and television stations that remained on the air almost continuously. It did two novel things: 1) It worked cooperatively with several damaged competitors to share facilities. With pooled on-air talent, they broadcast around the clock; 2) WWL also went to a call-in format that allowed listeners to get and give vital information. Many evacuees found missing loved ones through this lifeline.