More than half a billion people, 10 percent of the world’s population, lose electric power in mid-summer in India. That’s a godawful crisis. Trains halt. Miners can’t get to the surface. Traffic gridlocks. People swelter. Food rots. Crops can’t be irrigated.
And in utility and government offices across 2,000 miles of northern India — from the Chinese border to the Pakistani border — responsible people wondered what hit them. The only real equivalent to this man-made crisis is the BP oil spill. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear reactor breakdown have parallels to be sure.
But what do you say and do when two entire electric grids fail? When everyone thought they were too big to fail. The situation almost defies crisis management.
Yet some of the good rules we teach still apply.
Admit your mistakes, take responsibility and apologize.
Deliver the facts fast.
In this case, however, utility and government officials were unable to pinpoint the cause or ensure after the first outage that it wouldn’t happen again — as it subsequently did. The look on the face of the government’s power minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, at right tells the misery of the task.
Be as transparent as possible. Deliver information as you know it. And work very hard to reassure people that you can fix the problem. Then fix it.
As a former British colony, one can assume that resignation in the face of failure might be a tradition in India. If that’s the case, some utility system regulators and power companies should see some heads roll. Indian media described Shinde as the “outgoing,” power minister even before the grid failure. We can assume that describes his ministerial future, not his personality.
A crisis like this is so mammoth that every factor multiplies the impact. Chief among the complicating factor is the sheer number of people whose lives it disrupted.
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 at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.