KEY LEADERS SHOWCASECRISIS MANAGEMENT SKILLS
DURING HURRICANE SANDY
By Richard E. Nicolazzo
In normal times they may all have their critics, but the “gang of four” rose to the occasion during the Hurricane Sandy disaster by fine-tuning their crisis communication management skills.
President Barack Obama, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NJ Governor Chris Christie, and NY Governor Andrew Cuomo appeared steady as a rock as they executed the contingency crisis communications playbook during what is being called the worst natural disaster to hit the Northeast in more than a century.
Communications from the White House and New York and New Jersey officials, in particular, were timely, informative, instructive, simplified, and focused on the tasks at hand to protect and save lives and property. It was a far cry from the 2005 communications fiasco during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Obama took charge well before the storm hit, going on national TV to pledge the government’s support and cooperation prior to, during, and after the hurricane. Putting the campaign aside, he looked impacted Americans straight in the eye and said “…you will get help.”
Bloomberg, Christie and Cuomo, the men on the hot seat in their respective states, displayed similar resolve. They appeared organized, informed and determined as they appeared at multiple press conferences over a four-day period. No fluff. Just the facts, and lots of them.
Prior to the storm, Christie emerged as the most prolific and forceful in articulating his message. In one press conference he said, “…People who ignore Hurricane Sandy warnings and evacuation orders are both ‘stupid and selfish ‘. We want to avoid significant loss of life, but we could have that if people don’t heed the warnings.”
Bloomberg and Cuomo were equally in command. Two days before Sandy hit, Bloomberg said bluntly, “It’s a massive storm and the greatest danger posed is the coastal surge.” “The worst is still coming,” Gov. Cuomo warned, hours before he ordered the closure of the Whitestone Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Henry Hudson Bridge, and the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge.
All four paid close attention to the modern-day crisis management playbook: they got the facts, showed concern, maintained calm, executed clear communications goals and objectives, used communications protocols, repeated their key messages, addressed the issue directly and truthfully, made themselves available 24/7, and scaled their responses appropriately to reflect the gravity of the crisis.
Key Moment for President Obama
The fact that Sandy struck just over a week before the Presidential election created an unintended platform for Obama to demonstrate his crisis communication management skills in a non-political arena. His first step was to suspend campaigning the day before the storm.
Just 48 hours after the storm battered the coast, Obama was on the ground alongside the governor of New Jersey. Unlike some of his predecessors, the message the President brought to the people in the devastated seaside communities was particularly sharp.
After being introduced by Gov. Christie, Obama said, “We’re not going to tolerate red tape. We’re not going to tolerate bureaucracy, and I’ve instituted a 15-minute rule, essentially, on my staff. You return everybody’s phone calls within 15 minutes.” Powerful words that generated a sound bite captured instantly by news media across the country.
This time, unlike Katrina, FEMA had 2,000 people on the ground just two days after the hurricane hit. Having the “troops in the field” helped legitimize the President’s message. In reality, getting aid to people typically takes longer than expected, but no one can assert that Obama did not take charge on the communications front.
Social Media Shines
While there were some social media abuses, such as the fake photo of hurricane storm clouds surrounding the Statue of Liberty, for the most part city and government officials embraced the medium to a larger degree than ever before.
Social media communications from Gov. Cuomo make the point. He sent 700 Twitter messages during the two days following the storm, featuring everything from photos of the actual storm surge damage to upgrades on the restoration of power and phone lines. In just five days, Cuomo’s followers increased from 20,000 to 50,000.
Hurricane Sandy proves that social media now has to be part of any contingency crisis plan. Just a few years ago, it might have been considered a luxury item. Today, tools like Twitter and Facebook give officials in charge the ability to conduct press and constituent briefings 24/7.
While no one can be certain, it’s likely the timing of Sandy will have an impact on the Obama-Romney battle. The fact that the President (in real-time with real-world challenges) is demonstrating leadership can only redound to his benefit. It’s no coincidence that he’s being seen on TV wearing a “commander-in-chief” leather jacket.
The bottom line may be that the President had a very narrow lead before the storm, a lead that Sandy itself will almost certainly buttress. The old adage still applies: timing in life is everything!
One of the lessons learned from Sandy is that having a pro-active disaster and crisis communications plan in place can play a pivotal role in saving lives. The loss of even one life is too many, but a sharp contrast can be drawn in the case of disorganized communications surrounding Hurricane Katrina in which at least 1,800 died. The death toll for Sandy now stands at 92.
In the end, however, nothing can really stop Mother Nature when she unleashes her wrath. Experts estimate the losses from the storm will approach $50 billion – about $30 billion in property damage, the rest in lost economic activity.
Sandy is a storm that will be likely be talked about for the next century.
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