When weather crisis hits your backyard with the nation watching

People living in Buffalo tell each other that snowfall — however intense and long-lasting– is always better than hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes and wild fires. Because it melts.
As anyone outside of Buffalo with a weather jones knows, in the last 24 hours towns in a region as little as a mile from downtown recorded 50-60-70 inches of snow in 24 hours. The New York State Thruway — in the Woodstock cry of Country Joe MacDonald — “is closed, man,” from the Pennsylvania line to Rochester. Authorities attributed five deaths to the storm, which is expected to continue on and off for another day or two, possibly adding as much as two feet in additional snowfall.
At the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, where the U.S. Weather Service officially records snowfall, 3.9 inches fell. Two to five miles south and east, 25 times as much snow fell.
This is all the result of a phenomenon known as “lake-effect snow.” In short, when strong, cold, westerly winds blow over Lake Erie the moisture collected from the warm [44-degree] lake turns into snow. How much you get depends on the wind’s direction.
As you can see from this picture of downtown Buffalo’s waterfront yesterday, the wall of snow is south of the city limits. What makes this storm extraordinary is that the “snow band” sat in the same spot for 24 hours; hence the buildup for everyone living behind that wall, or south and east of the lake.
This constitutes a crisis for any community and good communications is essential. Political leaders, from Buffalo Mayor Brown to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, learned long ago to get out front fast. Cuomo, at the request of the mayor and county exec, called out the National Guard Tuesday to help remove the snow, free trapped motorists and make sure everyone is as safe as possible.
Media, especially social, television and radio, have kept a drumbeat of information and warnings flowing. Obviously, in the hard-hit areas, travel is restricted and people are staying home from work and school.
But it is a serious situation and while not as widely life-threatening to most as a hurricane or earthquake could be, it’s nothing to take lightly. A 48-year-old man died in his car, which was covered with 10 feet of snow, possibly plowed on top of him. Whether exhaust fumes or lack of oxygen killed him, there are real dangers out there.
Political leaders must step up, put public safety first, and enforce sensible laws — as they have in this case.
One aspect of coping with this storm is that it started around 7 p.m. Monday, when people were home from work and school. Past storms caught people mid-day or middle of the afternoon and offices and schools were crammed with people looking for food and lodging. Also, snow is light and most places have retained power and heat. Thus life’s essentials are present and people just have to wait it out.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.
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Did Red Cross let PR trump shelter and food, or is critical story very thin?

When Americans throw around adjectives like “venerable,” “respected,” and “committed,” those words most often refer to organizations like the United Way, branches of the military, the service academies and the Red Cross.

Yet all of these suffered various scandals over the last 15 years, and now it’s the Red Cross’s turn. As Pro Publica and NPR reported on the second anniversary of hurricane Sandy, the Red Cross apparently worked at least as hard burnishing its own reputation as it did helping storm victims find shelter, food and hope.

These findings come from the very Red Cross employees most involved with trying to get

aid where it needed to go.

“It was just clear to me that they weren’t interested in doing mass care; they were interested in the illusion of mass care,” says Richard Rieckenberg, who helped lead the Red Cross’ response to Sandy and Hurricane Isaac.

Ouch.

Hits like this go right to mission and reputation. Americans are endlessly generous, especially in times of great national catastrophe. But they are equally furious if they feel scammed or lied to.

So how did the Red Cross respond to this attack on its credibility and reputation? Pretty darned well.

Yesterday  it issued a Myth/Fact news release that went into extensive detail on each charge in the story. The release even takes on the main “whistleblower” in the Pro Publica report and fights back with the best weapons anyone can use in such a situation: Facts.

Myth: The American Red Cross cares more about its image and reputation than providing service to those in need

Fact: Our mission is to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies, and that alone is what guided our service delivery decisions during Sandy and during every emergency. With the help of our donors and 17,000 workers – 90% of whom are volunteers – we delivered 17 million meals and snacks, 7 million relief items, and hosted 74,000 overnight stays in shelters to people who urgently needed our services.

Every year, the Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters, most of which are home fires that never make headlines. If the Red Cross cared more about image and PR than providing services, we wouldn’t spend time responding to these silent disasters.

And, here’s an especially effective rebuttal:

Myth: The Red Cross allowed sex offenders in shelters

Fact: The Red Cross has policies and procedures in place to handle the presence of sex offenders in shelters and works closely with law enforcement in the shelter management process.

Shelter registration forms ask if people are required to register with the state for any reason. If the answer is “yes” the shelter manager must speak with the individual immediately. If a shelter resident is identified as a registered sex offender, the Red Cross will work with local law enforcement to determine what’s best for the safety of those in the shelter.

There was at least one situation during Sandy where a shelter resident identified someone who he/she thought was a sex offender. When this was brought to our attention, we brought in additional resources and handled the matter.

We provided this information to NPR and Pro Publica, and they chose not to include it.

It’s not clear what effect this story will have on Red Cross fundraising or effectiveness, but if the story accuses the organization of using PR the wrong way, it should give the Red Cross credit for employing PR and crisis management the proper way by using facts to rebut its critics.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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Face facts, Ebola is not a crisis in America, so let’s look at real ones

America’s Ebola “crisis” prompted concerns, created some needed awareness here and about the real problem in Africa, and was otherwise stupidly magnified by 24/7 cable television and Election Day next week.

But Ebola is not a crisis. A handful of people in America were exposed to the disease, and one died. Others either never had it, or recovered. Here’s just one of many thoughtful editorials about the disconnect.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the agency critics seem to think has failed in dealing with Ebola — there are many more causes of death politicians and cable news anchors could get lathered about. These include, for 2011, the latest year available:

187,464 people died from injuries;

46,047 from poisoning;

33,783 from motor vehicle accidents;

32,351 from firearms;

Not that these causes are ignored by politicians or the media, but they show what a non-crisis Ebola really is, at least in America.

A nurse from Maine, who returned from West Africa to a forced quarantine in a New Jersey hospital, would seem to have every right to protest. She never had Ebola, nor its early symptoms. These are irrational fears. They do not constitute a crisis.

If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie really thinks he’s “protecting the people of New Jersey,” by quarantining nurse Kaci Hickox and that’s his highest priority, he ought to be walking the streets of Trenton, Newark and Paterson to help crime victims.

Preparedness is positive. Training health-care workers to keep them and their patients safe is smart. Acting like nearly 300 million Americans face imminent threat from Ebola is exaggerated and irresponsible, a craven play on fears to boost ratings.

You want a crisis? Look to Chicago’s gun wars; Detroit’s poverty; Miami’s drug running; San Diego’s immigrant challenges.

Let’s not overuse the word, lest we don’t recognize a real crisis.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

 

 

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UNC academic scandal, boiling for years, no closer to ‘crisis ended’

Last week, amid concerns about Ebola in America, another disease ran rampant in a major U.S. institution: the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

And, like Ebola, this crisis was years in the making and is no closer to ending.

That is, 18 years of no-show academic courses helped more than 3,100 students, half of them athletes, remain eligible for NCAA competition and go on to graduate.

Even SNL took a shot — a clear indication your crisis management plan didn’t go so well.

A crisis is measured by its duration, not its day-to-day intensity.

Mike Bowen, a business professor at the University of South Florida and president of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an alliance of faculty senates seeking long-term reform in college athletics, told The Raleigh News & Observer this is one of the worst college scandals of them all.

“What North Carolina is going through is a university’s worst nightmare – their very integrity is being questioned,” Bowen said. “The system needs to be fixed. We are just diddling on the edges of this.”

The Washington Post reported that the findings by attorney Kenneth Wainstein determined there were 188 such no-show courses between 1999 and 2011, in which 47.4 percent of the enrolments in these “paper classes” were student-athletes, who generally comprise 4 percent of the student population.

For the first time, the Daily Tarheel recounted, Chancellor Carol Folt acknowledged the department of athletics’ involvement in the scandal that led to the resignation of beloved former Chancellor Holden Thorp and, eventually, criminal charges.

Even though this report was the third the university produced, there apparently remains no effective crisis management plan in place and top officials are ducking and juking. The student newspaper:

Bubba Cunningham sat uncomfortably on stage during Wednesday’s press conference. The current director of athletics arrived at UNC in 2011 — the year Wainstein’s report said many of the improprieties were coming to an end.

With every question, Cunningham quietly gave a quick response.

Would he comment on the timeline of the NCAA’s ongoing investigation and whether Wainstein’s revelations would impact that investigation?

“Trying to speculate on the end would be inappropriate at this time,” Cunningham said. “I have no idea how long it will take.”

In interviews with basketball coach Roy Williams, who brought UNC two national championships in 2005 and 2009, and basketball counselor Wayne Walden, Wainstein’s team found that Walden knew about the paper classes and that [administrator Deborah] Crowder was grading the assignments, despite the fact that she had no training as a professor.

Now Walden was Williams’ main guy. The two had come to UNC with now-retired director of basketball operations Joe Holladay from the University of Kansas in 2003. Walden promised Wainstein that Williams had no idea his players were enrolled in classes that never met and were being graded by staff members with no background in academia. During the press conference, Wainstein said “his gut” told him to trust Walden’s claims.

Holt just took the chancellor’s job a year ago, after serving at Dartmouth College for 30 years in various capacities, including acting president. She had to know about the academic crisis, which goes back years to a whistleblower. But her team seems no more equipped to deal with it transparently or effectively.

This is another example of an institution with vast resources not understanding that a crisis is measured by its duration, not how many headlines it generates at any one time.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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When an apology is best, but is not nearly enough given the error’s weight

Dr. Daniel Varga is having a bad week.

He’s chief clinical officer for Texas Health Resources, the medical group that oversees Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

As everyone likely knows, that’s the hospital responsible for treating America’s “index” patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola Oct. 6. Then two nurses caring for Duncan contracted the disease due to inadequate procedures at the hospital. And one took a weekend trip from Dallas to Cleveland and back.

There would be a Saturday Night Live skit in all of this if it weren’t so deadly serious.

Varga, who had the unenviable task today of testifying before Congressional committees, apologized for his hospital’s shoddy response. That’s good. And, he promised to do better in the future. That too can be beneficial. But six months from now, if Ebola is raging through the American population, neither will matter.

Varga said that “unfortunately, in our initial treatment of Mr. Duncan, despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes.”

“We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola. We are deeply sorry.”

In the short-term, we have to assume that Texas Presbyterian’s patient census is down and dwindling fast. Unless patients who want out find no open beds at other Dallas hospitals.

Nurses complained of inadequate training and poor procedures. There are probably hundreds of U.S. hospitals equally unprepared, but Duncan chose this one and the repercussions are everlasting.

The apology was not across the board though. When asked about nurses’ complaints, Wendell Watson, a Presbyterian spokesman, said:

“Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance very seriously. We have numerous measures in place to provide a safe working environment, including mandatory annual training and a 24/7 hotline and other mechanisms that allow for anonymous reporting.”

Really? The evidence seems otherwise.

As The New York Times reported:

Long regarded as one of the finest hospitals in Texas, Presbyterian has faced continuing criticism — first for its initial misdiagnosis of Mr. Duncan, which delayed his care and placed others at risk; then for issuing contradictory statements about why its doctors did not suspect Ebola; and now for failures in safety protocol that led to the infections of two of its own. If the hospital has served as a canary in a coal mine for the country’s Ebola response, the results have not inspired confidence.

Canaries were placed in coal mines because gas fumes killed them faster than it killed miners. That’s not a great role for a hospital.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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Ebola crisis calls for calm, factual and honest talk, while acknowledging context of panic

In the multiple layers of the current international Ebola crisis, how key public health officials communicate about the present and future is probably considered last.

And one can’t really argue that. The African disaster must be contained and patients helped; the spread of the infectious disease must be thwarted; health care workers must protect and be protected. And on and one goes the list, almost to infinity.

Yet somewhere down the line, and especially here where we think about such things, we must look at how we communicate — carefully, factually, effectively.

The specter of Ebola — weaponized through suicide spreaders or just taking its inevitable course around the globe — screams panic.

Consider the opening of this story in today’s New York Times:

Federal health officials have offered repeated assurances that most American hospitals can safely treat Ebola, but Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which had years of preparation for just such a crisis, found out how hard that is while it cared for three Ebola patients.

As doctors and nurses there worked to keep desperately ill patients alive in August, the county threatened to disconnect Emory from sewer lines if Ebola wastes went down the drain. The company that hauled medical trash to the incinerator refused to take anything used on an Ebola patient unless it was sterilized first. Couriers would not drive the patients’ blood samples a few blocks away for testing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And pizza places would not deliver to staff members in any part of the hospital.

“It doesn’t matter how much you plan,” Dr. Bruce Ribner, an infectious disease specialist who directed the patients’ care, said in an interview. “You’re going to be wrong half the time.”

Such a diverse and pervasive crisis creates scores of spokespeople, from heads of governments to hospital CEOs to the World Bank to aid groups.

Let’s single out one, at the heart of the U.S. response, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s all right there in his title.

In his news conference yesterday he presented a polished, factual and far from clinical look at this plague that’s still in its earliest stages. He will likely become the public health face of this situation in America.

Viewing his presentation yesterday as a coach, it’s clear the Frieden has all the uncoachable abilities you seek. He’s calm, even, well modulated and projects sincerity. He apologized for a day earlier making it sound like he criticized the hospital, infected health-care worker and procedures involving the “index patient” who died in a Dallas hospital. And you felt he meant it.

A worried public takes away cues and messages from leaders like Frieden. His qualities, training and presentation should go a long way to improving confidence in the government’s response to Ebola, at least in the United States.

We will likely hear from him more often and under much heightened pressure before this scourge recedes, and we’ll watch closely.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

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Secret Service seems to honor first part of its name over the second part

Protecting presidents and the White House should be about Service, not so much Secret.

But at least some of the people charged with that most important task seem to emphasize the latter.

If it weren’t for The Washington Post and other enterprising news outlets, the U.S. Secret Service would have let the American public believe a fence jumper a couple of weeks ago only reached a White House entryway — which is of course bad enough.

But it turns out that he did quite the tour of the first floor before an agent going off duty happened to encounter the man and tackle him. The paper also subsequently reported a Nov. 11, 2011 incident in which seven shots struck the White House and no one connected the shots until sometime later.

Then there was the April 2012 fiasco in Columbia where agents engaged hookers and then refused to pay them. The bosses obviously didn’t want to compound the toxicity by telling the truth.

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson faced an angry Congressional committee Tuesday and while her assertions were the right thing to say, she backed them up with too few facts.

“It’s clear that our security plan was not properly executed,” she said. “I take full responsibility. What happened is unacceptable, and it will never happen again.”

This is a good statement, but the home invasion happened Sept. 19. It’s too little, too late. Commanders needed to resign or retire; agents reassigned.

Saying she couldn’t give complete responses because presidential protection is highly sensitive or classified, Pierson said the incident remains under investigation, and she doesn’t “want to get ahead of the investigation.”

Maybe it ought to stop being classified and shared more with the public, who seem to have no trouble figuring out how to breach it.

CNN reported that Republicans and Democrats questioned how Omar Gonzalez penetrated “five rings of security” in jumping the White House fence, overpowering a Secret Service officer and running deep into the White House, where he was finally subdued.

“How on earth did this happen?” asked Chairman Darrell Issa. “Why was there no guard stationed at the front door of the White House, and yes, how much would it cost to lock the front door of the White House?”

But here’s the yellow snow: The Secret Service put out a release after Gonzalez was apprehended minimizing the incident. As the facts slowly came out — despite the Secret Service — this looked more and more like a cover up, like an effort to hide the truth.

Nothing fans a crisis’s embers hotter than evidence of a cover up. And when NBC reporter Kristen Welker  asked Pierson whether she did not know that release went out, or knew and let the cover up happen, she hid behind “the investigation” and kept walking away from cameras. Not good.

Investigation or no, heads need to roll. Europeans and other countries with prime minister forms of government are much more facile about resigning when the perception is you’ve done a poor job.

Pierson should have taken one for the Secret Service, the highest form of service.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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