5 tips for video storytelling after natural disasters

These days, if a hurricane sweeps through or tornado descends, you might be called on to post a video. Here’s what Con Edison did when its volunteer crews helped restore power in Puerto Rico.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training . The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

TV networks commonly send camera crews around the world after major disasters.

What were Con Edison utility communicators, however, doing in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017?

Covering the news, of course. The electric, gas, and steam service—which provides energy for the 10 million people in New York City and Westchester County—sent volunteers to the U.S. Caribbean island to help restore power.

In a Ragan Training session, ” Use video to tell powerful stories about your brand ,” Alfonso Quiroz and Sidney Alvarez of Con Edison discuss brand journalism lessons they learned as they sought to highlight their colleagues’ contributions.

Joined by their photographer colleague, they offered tips for organizations that might cover their response to a natural disaster.

The team offered stirring accounts of energy organizations and workers banding together to bring relief to the hurricane-ravaged island. They showed how line workers, technical specialists and damage assessors helped get the lights back on in Puerto Rico.

Their videos also sparked widespread coverage in the company’s media-rich home market.

Here are a few of their tips to follow when you get called on to highlight your organization’s volunteerism after a disaster:

1. Set up a speedy editing and approvals funnel before you take off.

Bosses can be timid creatures, nervous about dispatching a video crew to areas that might not be safe. They also can dawdle about getting approvals. The Con Ed team wanted to be quick to post video to their channels and social media, as well as providing it to TV news programs.

They worked it out so that their videos—shot in the mornings and afternoons—would get a quick review in the home office. Don’t wait for a disaster to begin planning, they urge. Among others, Con Ed had a dedicated person in the Environmental Health and Safety Department who was ready to jump whenever a video arrived.

“We really want to encourage you, when you go back, to let your legal and all these other departments know that this is something that’s already been done, and just encourage them to let you go,” Quiroz says.

2. Seek out the unusual.

Let’s face it: Power crews and line engineers tend to be guys. So the team was pleased to find Con Ed women at work on the ground in Puerto Rico. They shot a video called “The Wonder Women” about how they played the lead in restoring power on the island.

Showing a photo of the three, Alvarez says, “I was so excited about this picture because we had three female engineers leading the cause for the restoration of Puerto Rico, and you really don’t see that. We wanted to celebrate that.”

3. Use your smartphone.

The team had a Sony Handy Cam, which they recommend as a durable, grab-and-go camera with two-hour battery life. However, they made clear that smartphones have become so good that you can shoot most videos on the handy devices.

4. Plan the birthday party.

If you were going to shoot a video of a surprise birthday party, what moments would you know in advance you absolutely must capture? These moments might be among them:

  • Guests jumping out and shrieking, “Surprise!” to the guest of honor.
  • Blowing out candles on the birthday cake.
  • Cutting the cake.
  • Guests having fun.
  • Whacking the piñata to pieces.

“You have to know in your mind what the story’s going to be,” Quiroz says.

5. Know the elements of storytelling.

Here’s what Con Edison’s documentarians highlighted in their presentation:

  • Focus on people . People—not the company—are the heart of every story. (Some of Con Edison’s stories didn’t even feature employees, instead focusing on those they helped.)
  • Make an emotional connection . Viewers don’t want just the facts. Your subjects must connect with your audience.
  • Add a little drama . Edit to entertain, educate or provoke thought.

There’s more to this session. Subscribe to Ragan Training .

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