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Crisis Communications Case Study: Atlanta Snowstorm Edition

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NEWS FLASH: crisis communications is one of the most important services provided by our government—be it local, state or federal.

MWW‘s Jarrod Bernstein knows: his past titles include Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Acting Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs for United States Department of Homeland Security (among many others).

We recently spoke to Bernstein to get his take on lessons learned from the most recent public crisis comms incident: the “storm” that brought Atlanta to a standstill as residents spent hours stuck in traffic on streets blocked by less than three inches of snow.

The story included babies born on the highway, residents stranded in grocery stores and a significant hit to the reputation of not just the local government but the city itself.

How did the Atlanta disaster come about?

“It was a cascading series of events: the schools decided to close early, everybody had to get their kids, and they all ended up driving through Atlanta just as the city was trying to plow the very same roads.”

What role did communications play in the botched execution?

“The Atlanta school system is not run by the mayor, and it seems to me that there wasn’t enough conversation between the school system and the city government regarding the conditions of closing early.

If the kids had stayed in school for the full day (with only two inches of snow), you’d probably have the streets in better condition.”

Why did images like the one above go viral?

“It is not an image we’re used to, but thanks to social media it’s going to be the new norm for domestic disasters.

Also: almost everyone in America is two or three degrees from someone in Atlanta, which is not the case for New York. For me it was my wife’s cousin, who texted me while stuck in traffic for five hours.”

Proving Bernstein’s point, here’s a shot from our friend, who lives in Atlanta:

How can the government use social media to better prepare for events like this one?

“Having worked in the Department of Homeland Security, I can tell you that the federal government knows [the power of social].

In addition to traditional modes of response to crises, they’re all monitoring social media as a tool in cases of disaster, because Twitter will know what’s really going on before the FEMA commander center does. Granted, there’s going to be some error. But you’re going to get a sense of trend lines from Twitter and Facebook before confirmed reporting.”

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal complained about CNN’s coverage of the event. Did the local and national media exacerbate the problem?

“It was a rough night, and the fact that [the mayor and the governor] did apologize is a good thing. Yet, having been on the other side of this, I can say there’s a frustration when media in general focuses on the negative.

For example, in New York’s recent snowstorm, everyone was talking about how the Upper East Side hadn’t been plowed—but nobody talked about what an amazing job the city had done in the other 172 neighborhoods. I’m not saying the negative coverage in these cases wasn’t deserved, but the rise of the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ mantra has coincided with 24/7 cable news and social media.”

What crisis comms lessons can we take from Atlanta?

1. Be prepared. When I worked as the chief spokesman for the New York City Emergency Management Office…we had a meeting immediately before any press conference related to an accident with the mayor, the head of the MTA and all sorts of ranking people from all levels of government.

We asked ourselves ‘what is this going to mean when we put out X, Y, or Z statement?’

2. Get the message out. The way you message incidents like these has very real operational impacts. The decision to send kids home and tell parents to pick up their kids early had very real effects that may not have been thoroughly considered.

The time to make these decisions is the night before, not in the middle of the event. If you’re the city of Atlanta and you know you only have 40 snow plows, then you need to plan accordingly.

3. Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate. I’m not saying it was a lack of preparation; in each separate discipline they were prepared. More than anything else, this was a collaboration issue between the operational folks and the communicators, and the comms issues were secondary to the siloing. There are a lot of people who work very hard every single day at that sort of cross-silo integration, but it’s an art, not a science.

In emergency management we always say ‘you never want to exchange business cards over a pile of rubble’, be it literal or figurative.

So by the time you’re in a crisis situation, you know the people on your team and you share a level of trust so that it will occur to them to call you to gut check things before they go out.

Relationships matter.”

[Pic via David Tullis/Associated Press]

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