Monday, August 29, 2011

Communicating Irene's Wrath

Hurricane Irene roared through our beautiful Hudson Valley and Catskills and left a deluge of rain and a trail of destruction among the worst I have seen from any storm during my lifetime.  Some news outlets and individuals thought the event was over-hyped by the media.  Try telling that to my neighbors who spent hours pumping water out of their garage and basement, or the folks in downtown Poughkeepsie whose streets are still closed due to flooding.  My heart also goes out to the people in beautiful little villages like Windham and Margaretville, nice Sunday drives from Poughkeepsie, that have been nearly destroyed by cascading rapids and the washing away of homes and bridges.

Marist College also got hit.  We have one of the most scenic campuses in America, right along the eastern shore of the mighty Hudson.  Today it is the muddy Hudson due to all the runoff from the Fallkill Creek and storm sewer systems from municipalities along its length.  President Dennis Murray issued a wrap-up of the work done over the past couple of days in a memo to the college community today.

Over the past five days, I've posted more than 100 tweets, first about preparation plans for students moving back to Marist, then the storm's impact on our college and region, and finally, on its aftermath.  I know I tweet a lot, and probably lose some followers because of it (mostly spammers and bots, I hope), but during a crisis, social media is invaluable in keeping people informed and squelching rumors.

What kind of rumors?  Someone, whom I'm not even sure is currently a Marist student, tweeted that there was a partial collapse of Marist's Lowell Thomas Communications Center and put in other alarmist drama to make it sound like the campus was a disaster area.  Because I am constantly online, I saw that erroneous tweet, and a retweeting of the false info by someone I know is a Marist student, and took them to task publicly over their misinformation.  The student apologized.  The person who started the rumor, probably just to get attention for herself, did not respond but knew I was watching and switched to another topic.  Her tweets, btw, consist mostly of dropping the f-bomb.

Thanks to my friends and colleagues Melissa Egan and Cody Rotwein in Marist's Web Services department, we were able to place updates on the Marist homepage 10 times.  There were more frequent updates on the Marist Facebook page, and of course, on twitter.  Some of the updates were within minutes of each other, such as when there were changes in the estimate of when a repair of a Central Hudson Gas & Electric substation off-campus would restore power to Marist and the surrounding neighborhood.  An original estimate of two hours was thought to be too soon because of complications with the repair, so I wrote that it could take another three hours.  Excuse the pun, but I didn't want to leave students, parents and Marist staff in the dark.  Fortunately, about five minutes after that Facebook posting and tweet, lights came back on.  I'm still glad I sent out the other information because, as in any type of disaster preparedness, we plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Even I need some sleep and can't be online 24/7/365, though it seems like I am.  Fortunately, I have been awake and on various social media sites when I've seen incorrect info posted about Marist.  The strategy to address it is simple: confront it, nip it in the bud, correct it.

People want correct information and they want frequent updates.  More than 15,000 people visited the Marist Web updates from last Thursday through today.  More than 2,000 clicked on the links from Facebook and twitter.  BTW, half of the referrals came from Facebook, making Facebook, in my experience, still the predominant social medium.  Twitter is rightfully credited for the rapid creation of content and serving as a great news aggregator (much better than a site I used years ago -- Newsgator).

One last's nice to get a pat on the back when you work hard and things go well.  Too often, people complain more than they compliment.  I am grateful for the comments made by students, faculty and staff at Marist, parents, alumni, people in the community, fellow PR practitioners and the media on Marist's communications efforts before, during and after the storm.  Many people not directly related to a public relations function are needed to make a communications strategy successful.  I work with incredible colleagues and deeply appreciate their cooperation and support.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Getting Married: A Tale of Two Cities and One Village

At 1:25 p.m. on Sunday, July 24, 2011, my partner of nearly 31 years and I got married.  It turned into a major production, not for the ceremony itself, but because of what Pete and I went through to get married on the first day the Marriage Equality law took effect in New York State.

We didn't want a big ceremony, which we thought to be anticlimactic after three decades together.  We also wanted to commemorate the day that equality became the law of our state (but, unfortunately, not yet of our nation).  To be married that day entailed a trip to Kingston, then back to Poughkeepsie, then back north to Red Hook. Kingston was one of the municipalities in Ulster County (along with Plattekill, Shandaken and Woodstock) that opened its clerk's office on Sunday to issue licenses to same-sex couples, many of whom, like us, have been together for many years.  The City of Poughkeepsie, where I was born and raised and in which Pete and I live, chose to remain closed, a political statement for sure.  The 32-year old mayor of Poughkeepsie was quoted in our local paper as saying that just because same-sex marriages are now lawful, does not mean he has to officiate at them.  BTW, 2011 is a local election year, including mayor.

Arlene Rion and her staff in the Kingston City Clerk's office were warm, welcoming and wonderful.  State Supreme Court Justice Christopher Cahill was on hand to issue waivers of the state's 24-hour waiting rule for marriages.  Not knowing that would be the case, Pete and I made prior arrangements to go before State Supreme Court Justice Christine Sproat in Poughkeepsie to issue that waiver, hence the drive south to the Dutchess County Courthouse.  Chris was also the duty judge for the Supreme Court that weekend and she told us we were the only couple seeking that waiver, which can only be granted by a justice of a "superior court" in New York State.  Waiver granted, we headed north to the Village of Red Hook, where Village and Town Justice Jonah Triebwasser had offered to officiate.  Jonah is also an adjunct professor at Marist College and an actor most known for playing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a true "local boy who made good") on stage and the History Channel.

We were joined by our two beloved "adopted sons," Luke and Stephen, who were the witnesses for our marriage, both having traveled great distances to be there, which meant the world to Pete and me.  Steve timed the ceremony at 27.5 seconds.  Pete and I already considered ourselves married, but we needed to go through the "I Dos" to make it legal.  Our friend, Al Nowak of On Location Studios, took photos.  After brunch at the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, it was off to Holy Cow, one of the best known ice cream shops in the Hudson Valley.  Pete and I joked decades ago that if we ever could get married, our wedding reception would be at Holy Cow.  If you've never been, you wouldn't understand.  Great soft-serve with prices from a generation ago, they make their profit by volume.

As it turned out, Pete and I were the first same-sex couple to be married in Dutchess County.  In some ways, nothing has changed, yet in other ways, the world has changed. Our relationship is now legally recognized.  We are offered the protections and accept the responsibilities offered to opposite-sex couples.  No one else's marriage was harmed by ours.  The world has not come to an end.  The support we have received from family and friends, including many of my colleagues and my current and former Marist students, has been overwhelming and deeply appreciated. 

Of course, tens of thousands of legally-married gay and lesbian couples will not be truly equal in the eyes of the law until the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed.  Until then, America will continue to be the land of separate and unequal.

We do have something many married couples don't have -- two anniversaries: October 25, which this year will mark 31 years together for us, and July 24, a day we will celebrate with all New Yorkers.

One last thing...for same-sex couples who do tie the knot, check out the series, "The Cost of Being Gay:  A look at the financial realities of same-sex partnerships," by Tara Siegel Bernard (@tarasbernard on twitter).  Even the comments section, a part of contemporary newspapers I find extremely crude and distasteful, is good because other experts share their knowledge of the joys and pains of being legally-recognized spouses by your state but not by your federal government.