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20 years

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

BEING VISIBLE WHEN THE VISIBILITY IS ZERO

The powerful winter storms across much of the U.S. highlight the communication problems faced by government, utility company and transportation officials. Really bad weather always means trouble for communicators. Being visible when visibility is near zero is essential.

When the weather is so bad that it stops everything from electricity to heat to transit and roads to cable and Internet from working uniformly – everybody finds someone else to blame. And senior public officials are usually the scapegoats at the end of that unenviable line.

Some of you may remember former New York Mayor John V. Lindsay. His aspirations for higher office and image as a political Golden Boy were snowed under in the late 60s when the city's response to a blizzard was deemed pathetic. A little more than forty years later, current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – widely renowned for his management skill – was pilloried for a similar situation to the point that he apologized in public, and then took it on the chin for over-reacting at the mere threat of another storm a few days later. The Bush Administration and FEMA never fully recovered from the image of incompetence and lack of concern from their hesitant response to the disastrous flooding in New Orleans five years ago from Hurricane Katrina.

As the latest winter storm buried the Midwest in record snow and ice, governors and mayors went out of their way to pro-actively communicate their hands-on response. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback visited his state's emergency operations center to declare a state of emergency. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard were out with public works crews, symbolically helping prepare for the emergency.

At CommCore we remind our executive and senior official clients that one of the most important aspects of communications during a crisis is being seen demonstrating genuine concern and empathy for the plight of the affected or afflicted. Of course, nothing trumps proper crisis planning and execution. But some disasters cannot be avoided, only mitigated.

No one likes being the victim of a crisis or disaster, natural or man-made. But besides expecting immediate solutions to the problem of the moment, people just want to know that their complaints are being heard, and that officials in charge are visibly on-the-job implementing emergency plans and pulling out all the stops to remedy the situation.

What examples can you cite of leaders being visibly out front of a crisis or emergency-in-the-making? What examples can you cite of a failure to be seen?

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