What A Disaster

Nature may have disrupted our lives, but the communication disaster surrounding Tropical Storm Irene was purely man made. By 12 noon on Sunday, Aug. 28, it became clear LIPA, the media and local government all failed the public.

Of course, LIPA gets the lion’s share of the blame, and rightly so. When the utility dusted off a decades old, decentralized restoration plan, it failed to realize what a monumental communication strategy it would need. Not only would LIPA need the manpower and the connectivity to simultaneously monitor decentralized operations across the Island, it would need to create channels for feeding its own news — successes, works in progress, and problems — back to headquarters.

Instead, the new guy at the helm, came forth and announced he had nothing to say, and no way to find out in a timely manner. That’s the moment when media and government should have seized control.

To be fair to Michael Hervey, he’s new at this. And he got clobbered by one seriously angry woman. But let him be a case study for all CEOs on this Island: If communicating is not among your major priorities, if the need for publicly providing leadership and reassurance escapes your attention, then step down. Or, be smart enough to surround yourself with people who get it, before your own personal version of Irene takes hold and takes over.

A media savvy CEO would’ve made the world of a difference in this instance.

Say what you will about former LIPA head Richard Kessel, but the man is a master communicator. And, as all CEOs set the internal culture of a company, LIPA’s former senior management took communication duties with serious intent and obligation. Jumping out of the shower to take a reporter’s call — as opposed to finishing up, drying off and calling back, and possibly missing a deadline — was commonplace.

If Kessel (pictured right) had been there, it would have been a weekend of Kessel on over drive. Always on the radio. Pictured in the newspapers and online sources, giving interviews from sites of devastation — and providing plenty of photo ops, probably in that horizontal-striped polo shirt, bringing Dunkin’ Donuts to working crews, and donning a helmet and going up in a cherry picker, just to convey the image of no detail too small for the person in charge of cleaning up such a mess. Behind him, communication staff would be issuing new statements and, in today’s realm of technological wonders, tweeting, blogging and Facebooking news on a 24/7 basis. Would the power have been restored faster? Hard to say. But communication would have been fast and furious.

Instead, today’s LIPA took to fielding angry calls and, in return, offered sympathy. That’s no strategy. Occasional tweets and Facebook messages illustrated how out of touch the utility — like many local companies here — is with our rapidly changing local news landscape and its impact.

The truth of the matter is, with Newsday weakened by serious cutbacks and so few local reporters left to comb the Island, Hervey had a golden opportunity to feed the media whatever story he wanted. Lord knows there’s not enough experienced reporters around who would have verified the facts during a natural disaster. Thirty years ago, when radio and print reporters roamed our streets and could bear witness to events, companies wouldn’t be able to get away with what I am suggesting. Today, it’s a different ballgame.
Which brings us to the media, which was clearly so reliant on LIPA spoon feeding them information that, in the hours after the storm, we heard plenty of songs on the radio, but little news. In those fleeting moments when some news became available, all news sources — print and radio — referred the public to check web sites. Problem was, most of us were in the dark, with no connectivity to go to websites. Without power, television news is a mute point. WALK and JVC hooked up, which was progress, but they could’ve capitalized on their combined ability to continually deliver news and information to a desperate public. Barnstable streaming News12 — something I had advocated for long ago — offered news to people who were unable to access it any other way.

Long Island has always lacked enough news gatherers, but what’s happened now is that they are using technology they haven’t quite come to grips with. The lack of education of those running newsrooms never shone more brightly than this past week, when they tried to drive an unconnected public to online news sites for necessary information.

While the media should’ve hunted and haunted LIPA into finding ways to get information out faster, it’s puzzling why local government — with their own emergency management formulas — didn’t step in to help. Prior to the storm, politicians were laudably proactive in protecting the public interest. Perhaps after the storm, they realized their emergency communication plans were not as effective as they thought? Like those reverse311 plans, which call the public to alert them of special situations, such as blocked roads and downed trees. Problem? Many are tied to calling only landlines, and less than one in four U.S. households currently has a land line.

What is abundantly clear is this: All of the so-called emergency communication plans on this Island need to be revamped. Why LIPA let a year-old, notification-via-text plan fall by the wayside is unconscionable. But again, not everyone texts nor has a cell phone, so one method of communication is hardly the answer. Recent history, however, underscores the need for the outlying areas of the United States — places such as New Orleans, Hawaii and now, Long Island — to be required to have superior emergency management plans in place, to protect the public.

This is an issue that all of Long Island has a vested in, and it’s paramount to ensuring the success of what Long Island is to become in the future. If you’re interested in change for the better, count me in.

Author: Jaci Clement

Jaci Clement knows media. It all started when she earned her first byline in a daily paper when she was in the fourth grade. Today, she’s executive director of the Fair Media Council, and believes the best way to hold the media accountable is to create media savvy news consumers. Her ability to explain media issues and their impact has taken her around the country. Sometimes, people react like she’s talking politics. Usually, they’re right.

8 thoughts on “What A Disaster”

  1. Jaci, well said! A great blog post!

    You point out significant holes in today’s emergency communications, glaring collaboration gaps and inefficiencies.

    Today, and in the future, communications media and emergency communications must include

    * a well thought out multi-media plan [including but not limited to mobile, social, local, text, cell, land line, plain old fashioned communications tools]
    * a content plan with meaningful action messages
    * and well tested procedures with use case scenarios

    to ensure readiness when emergencies strike and to ensure high probability reaching and directing the general public during perilous events.

    Who can help utility, media and government leadership understand and orchestrate across these disruptive and useful channels to help reliably deliver meaningful, timely information to the public?

    This is where modern media technology and messaging knowledgeable people – right here on Long Island – like you, me, the Fair Media Council, the Social Media Club Long Island Chapter and others – can help enable change for the better of Long Island. So count me in too!

    Lee Bogner
    CIO and Head of Social Media Business Unit
    The Marden Kane Agency
    Garden City, NY
    Board Director, Social Media Club Ling Island Chapter

  2. “Without power, television news is a mute point.”

    Did you mean “moot” (deprived of practical significance) point? Or were you trying to make the point that that without power, television news is silent?

    All the electronic communication in the world is basically useless without power.

    While radio (battery- or hand-powered) remains an effective medium, there are only two all-news stations in this area (which are effectively the same one). Perhaps there should be something like public access for radio so that local governments, in an emergency situation, can communicate with residents affected by whatever emergency arises.

  3. It truly disturbs me about how many negative blogs there are in regards to how LIPA handled their crisis communications during Hurricane Irene. I feel like we are living in an environment that is determined to pick pieces out of anything that doesn’t meet our standards. We are so terribly spoiled these day, with social media, television, etc. invading every minute of our waking hour. As soon as we go more than and hour not having an answer or knowing what John Smith down the block is doing, we become insulted. We act like someone is keeping us out of the loop.

    Lets take a step back and come to terms with the fact that if power was out, how were we supposed to be contacted by land line phones and television? If you were able to gain internet access via mobile phone, you would have visited the LIPA web site and read their messages that were updated several times per day. Their Twitter and Facebook pages were full of updates stating that they were working on restoring power to ALL of Long Island as quickly as possible.

    The fact that we were not able to accept the fact that we were being told that they couldn’t tell us when exactly we would all have power back, but that it would be restored as quickly as possible just shows how impatient and selfish centered we really are.

    Sometimes the fact that we are PR people and we are used to being “in the know” all the time, removes us from reality sometimes.

    Being without power and out of touch during the storm really shed light on thing IMPORTANT things we are missing. Kids riding bikes on the street instead of inside on Facebook. We look at our children and wonder why they can’t put their phones down at the dinner table…we need to take a look at what we have created!!!

  4. The comments on here are mostly astute. While we may be “spoiled” with the immediacy of information these days, LIPA failed on the BASICS. They chose not to employ a full phone bank for handling customer calls, but rather use inane recorded messages. They chose to not use the comm. vehicles they had to convey town by town information. They chose to house gracious out of state workers at the hotels that local residents needed. LIPA acted like a very large company with too many staff not doing the right things at the right times. LIPA of yesteryear, before social media, etc, was better!

  5. Totally disagree with posting by E. LIPA chose to not employ a phone bank for handling customer calls so they could use those employees out in the field to help assess damages, etc. What’s more important, someone answering a phone or someone who is out there fixing the problem? And come on about housing out-of-state workers at hotels? Where were they supposed to sleep – in their trucks!! Lastly, its ridiculous to say LIPA of yesteryear was better before social media. If it weren’t for social media, we wouldn’t have been able to see their Twitter and Facebook updates about what was going on!! Clearly E’s comment is the one that is astute for not realizing that LIPA did an amazing job restoring power to residents after a major hurricane. It is puzzling how much importance we put on getting information rather than recognizing that the restoration job was being handled quite well.

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