Sunday, November 6, 2011

How (Not) to Communicate During a Crisis

Eight days ago, a snowstorm wreaked havoc on a wide swath of the Northeast. It reminded anyone in the Hudson Valley over age 35 of the infamous Snowleaf storm of October 4, 1987.  During this recent storm, more than 1.5 million people lost power. More than 140,000 customers (that means billing accounts, so the people affected are more than double that number) in Connecticut still have no electricity.  Heavy, wet snow on trees still leaf-laden led to the crack and snap of limbs falling, bringing power lines down with them.

It was because of Snowleaf that I got my job at Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation 24 years ago. But that's not the purpose of this post.  Rather, I want to reflect on the changing communication landscape and how it impacts the ability to keep people informed during a time of crisis.

About ten days ago, Clear Channel, the mega-owner of many radio stations across the U.S., laid off its last newsperson in the 14-station cluster it controls in Poughkeepsie and the Hudson Valley.  They also let go other on-air staff, some of whom had been at the stations for up to 20 years. Cumulus, which owns another 11 regional radio stations, had already decimated its news staff. That leaves four stations run by Pamal Broadcasting as having the only newsperson on air.  There are a couple of independents, Poughkeepsie's WHVW on AM (which has fewer listeners than some college radio stations) and Woodstock's WDST on FM (whose Web site is down as I write this).

Radio conglomerates have shirked their responsibility to serve their local public. These mega-companies will reduce costs and cut staffs until, in Big Brother fashion, one location will feed programming throughout the country with nothing to differentiate Poughkeepsie from Portland from Paducah. We're pretty much already there, and a toothless FCC that has allowed ownership consolidation has forgotten broadcasters' responsibility to serve in the public's interest.

During one particular devastating storm about 20 years ago, I went on the air on WKIP for hours with Mary Kaye Dolan and Joe Ryan to take calls from customers who had trouble getting through to Central Hudson's overrun phone lines.  It was an opportunity to communicate directly with customers to find out when their power may be restored.  It's a format used now by the Poughkeepsie Journal, which is fine as long as you have an Internet connection and either electricity or some battery life left in your laptop.  It is another sign of how newspapers have become multimedia news outlets, taking over from radio and in some cases TV, which may have local news, but it may be a recorded loop that runs the same broadcast for a few hours-in-a-row.

Many local officials still have not learned that during an emergency, you need to stop using Web sites for campaigning and use them for governing.  Part of governing is communicating.  No one does that better than Newark Mayor Cory Booker (@CoryBooker).  He runs a city of more than 270,000 people, but makes the effort to speak directly to his constituents to learn where trees are down, streets that need to be plowed, or other problems.  It's no wonder he has more than 1.1 million Twitter followers.

Compare that with our little city of Poughkeepsie, population 32,000.  During the storm and an earlier emergency when the city's southside lost water because of a large main break, there was no real effort to let people know what was going on.  No tweets from the city's account, and the latest news update on the city's Web site was a change in the meeting date of the city's zoning board of appeals.  One update was finally placed online later in the day on October 30, to announce a warming center being set up at the Salvation Army.

When the water main broke in September, only one city official, Councilman Paul (Pee Wee) Herman, gave a timely update on the cause of the break via his Facebook page.  Eventually, the city's Web page began providing substantive information.

As I mentioned in my post about Hurricane Irene, you have to use the social media available -- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, your home page -- to keep people informed and to quash rumors.  Cory Booker gets it. Other elected and appointed officials at all levels should follow his lead.

One last thing...for the first time in more than 34 years (with the exception of the two years I lived in Rome), I will not be providing election results and commentary on either radio or TV.  The last several years I was a commentator (on a volunteer basis, not for pay) for Clear Channel, at the request of the news director (of a one-person news shop), who was among those laid off ten days ago.  I'm such a newsaholic that I can recall election results dating back to the early 1970s, but this year, I'll be home.  At least my husband will be happy about that.