Houston-based televangelist Joel Osteen provided a fresh example of why crisis preparation is essential – and its absence can blow a serious hole in your reputation.
When Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, forcing thousands of residents out of their homes with no place to go, Osteen offered prayers, but not access to his massive megachurch building, which was formerly where the Houston Rockets played. After a savage social media response, Osteen relented, then offered a string of explanations, none of which quieted the storm of criticism. Twitter users branded Pastor Osteen as a hypocrite.
Osteen already has faced criticism as a pastor-for-pay, with a net worth of more than $50 million, not a humble messenger of God to the downtrodden. His prosperity message of prayer-to-riches was oddly discordant with the equal opportunity ravages of flooding in Houston. His failure to open his church doors to flood victims only amplified that criticism, as well as put him in front of TV cameras, including NBC’s Today show, to explain his actions – or inaction.
Whether Osteen’s explanations hold water or not can’t drown out the reality that he wasn’t thinking ahead of what might happen if a huge hurricane barreled into the city bringing relentless rain in its wake. Osteen said he didn’t have the personnel available to manage a huge crowd inside his church. And he said no one could have anticipated the impact of the hurricane. Both explanations disregard the value of crisis preparation, which includes anticipating and planning for what might happen.
Huge hurricane, lots of rain, flooding, people forced to flee. Really not that hard to anticipate in a city on the Gulf of Mexico susceptible to big storms and with low-lying neighborhoods, some of which are named after bayous (bodies of water in flat, low-lying areas). Details of the building storm over the Gulf that became a Category 4 hurricane at landfall were widely reported days ahead. If there was massive flooding, officials would certainly be looking for some place to shelter them – like large convention centers or arenas that have bathrooms and kitchens. The bells should have started ringing.
Evidently, Osteen’s organization never had talked with Houston officials about storm response and apparently there were no internal conversations either. Not only was that a huge oversight, it also is a huge blown opportunity, as pointed out by Brad Phillips in his blog. “Beyond being a communications failure for Osteen,” Phillips wrote, “it’s also a missed opportunity. He had the chance to offer Lakewood [the name of his church] as a refuge or to do something else substantive to help.”
In other words, Osteen blew a chance to convert his megachurch into a community refuge.
Osteen is a great speaker. But great speech isn’t always what’s needed in a crisis. TV news reports, social media and YouTube were filled with images of desperate people being rescued and knee-deep neighbors helping neighbors escape their roofs. Nothing provided a better contrast to Osteen’s crisis response than the picture of a long line of Houstonians who queued up to volunteer in rescue and relief efforts.
As the Harris County sheriff put it, the scenes were at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. To thousands of flood victims and many others, Osteen’s slow-opening church door simply struck them as heartless.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.