Snowmageddon: Communicators back 'better safe than sorry' approach

It's easy to criticize officials for overhyping the Blizzard of 2015, but it's better to have residents and travelers ready than unprepared, say crisis communicators.

Government and transportation-sector communicators are rewriting the emergency-response playbook for dealing with inclement winter weather, given the severity, frequency, and unpredictably of storms in recent years.

The most recent example was winter storm Juno, which dumped more than two feet of snow in parts of the Northeastern US, with Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire particularly hard hit. In the lead up to the blizzard, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared "this could the biggest snowstorm in the history of the city."

New York was spared the worst of the storm, spawning criticism that politicians had overhyped the blizzard’s potential impact. Other stories noted that despite its unrealized potential, Juno still had a significant financial impact on New York, costing it in terms of lost wages, tax revenue, and the payment of overtime for road crews and other public employees.

Yet public affairs professionals say the growing frequency of wild winter weather demands public figures err on the side of caution.

"The best you can do is if the forecast says it is going to be a certain scenario level, you have to message according to the forecast and not hedge your bets," says Dan Douthit, public information officer for the Portland, Oregon, Bureau of Emergency Management. Last February, the city was hit with an ice storm after two days of heavy snowfall. 

"If the public isn’t ready for it, it could lead to loss of life and injuries," he explains.

Douthit adds that communicators need to factor how to quickly reach not only residents, but also tourists, given that winter storms are often harder to forecast than summer weather events.

That was certainly the case with Juno. Various meteorologists issued apologies on Twitter for the missed forecast. However, it’s also worth noting that the severity of some winter storms in the past have caught weather reporters by surprise.

During last year’s storm, Portland deployed wireless emergency alerts for the first time. They are a government service in which a public safety message is sent to mobile devices.

"What was great about this particular system was that people didn’t have to be signed up to get the message," Douthit says, "so people in the city for a short time who otherwise might not hear about it got the message about the oncoming ice."

Still, he believes the department will be judicious about using it.

"It is not something we want to send out very often because we don’t want people to become numb to that kind of message," explains Douthit, who notes a character limit of 95, so messaging has to be even more pointed than on Twitter.

On the opposite coast, Portland, Maine, saw almost 24 inches of snow from Juno, making it the fourth-biggest storm in the city’s history.

"We are Mainers and quite proud of our ability to weather storms, but that doesn’t mean we don’t prepare," says Jessica Grondin, director of communications for the city. "From a city standpoint, it is always better to urge residents to take the necessary precautions,"

To help residents do that, she explains that social media messaging was critically important given all the different safety messages that needed to be communicated.

"I love using Twitter because of the fact that I can separate messages out instead of worrying about too many messages in one press release – especially with an event like this when there's a lot of info to convey to the public," says Grondin.

Specific messages ranged from the importance of staying off roads to clearing fire hydrants of snow. But she notes that messaging has to continue in the aftermath, including letting people know when public parking becomes available or when schools, libraries, and other government-run services are open.

"Hashtags are also great for reaching different audiences," Grondin adds. Typically she uses the hashtag #portlandme, but for weather-related events she leverages #mewx because that’s what meteorologists and weather watchers employ.

"And on top of it, for this storm, I used #blizzard2015 since that one was being used specifically for [Juno]," she adds. "When my tweets are short enough, I used all three hashtags so I had more chance of reaching folks who may not follow us."

This winter is the second in a row that has seen unpredictable and extreme weather, particularly in the Northeast US and the eastern part of Canada. Last year, the phrase "Polar Vortex" became part of the popular lexicon, and even cities used to snowy conditions such as Toronto were caught off-guard by worse-than-anticipated storms.

Canada’s largest metropolis was hit by an ice storm in 2013 that left large residential and commercial pockets without power for several days before Christmas. In contrast to what happened in New York, the city was roundly criticized for not readying its residents and refusing to declare a state of emergency.

As a result, Toronto undertook a comprehensive review of its emergency response to the ice storm, which it published last summer.

Wynna Brown, manager of media relations and issues management for the city of Toronto, cites one lesson learned: Be careful about becoming too reliant on social and digital tools. Sustained mass power outages mean a lot of people are not reachable through electronic devices.

"Emergency communicators have grown to rely on social and digital tools because they can be extremely effective two-way channels and they offer maximum reach in real time. But if those channels are compromised due to the situation at hand, you also need to have some good old fashioned tactics and tools – like flyers, ads, radio spots, and town hall meetings – in your communicator’s toolkit," advises Brown.

"For a large municipality such as Toronto, it’s also very important to be able to leverage community agencies and neighborhood networks that can assist with outreach efforts when the digital and online channels we’ve come to rely on may not be the most effective way of reaching people," she says.

Among the review’s other recommendations: Staff should "engage building operators and the business community to coordinate the posting of emergency information for their residents and customers."

Airlines out in front of the storm
Airlines used to wait about 36 hours before grounding planes due to forecasts of inclement weather, according to several executives who spoke to PRWeek.

Yet most national airlines had "pre-cancelled" flights by Sunday afternoon, rather than waiting until closer to Tuesday, when the brunt of Juno was expected to hit. They also offered "weather waivers" for passengers to change their itineraries without charge.

"I can speak for the airline industry when I say letting the customer know as much as advance in possible is now considered best practice," says Andrea Huguely, director of corporate communications at American Airlines. "Now we usually make plans two or three days out."

She says it is easier to make a decision about pre-cancellations in winter, given how much chaos even moderately snowy weather can cause for airports. It also helps to mitigate negative reaction that comes with less advance notice. 

"You try to find the right time to pull the trigger. You don’t want to pull it too far in advance because long-range forecasts can change," notes Huguely.

After all, the difference between an ice storm, and just rain, is basically only a degree or two.

"Yet you don’t want to be late because that can challenge both operations and customers," she adds. "Nobody wants to find out about a cancelled flight while on their way to the airport."

American Airlines actively communicated about its weather waiver on Twitter and Facebook.

"About a year ago, we went 24/7 on social media," says Huguely, noting research that shows people check their social feeds before anything else. "We’ve found we can often we can detect issues there first."

The airline’s corporate headquarters has a social media team of 12. Its integrated operation control center in Fort Worth, Texas, which bridges operations and communications, can also respond on social media.

"Dealing with a big weather event is really a team effort between operations, airports, reservations, and social media – not just one department or area," says Huguely.

Brad Hawkins, senior adviser for communications at Southwest Airlines, says one of the most important parts of storm messaging is putting it in the proper context. That includes not only targeting travelers, but other stakeholder audiences such as the investment community.

"When we reported that we had cancelled 300 flights, it seems like a lot, but 300 out of 3,600 scheduled needs to be properly contextualized, including to the financial community," says Hawkins. "We work with media to make sure the financial narrative is accurate, which is also why you want to be specific about the number of cancellations."

The airline also assigns major storms their own dynamic online link with all the latest information.

"We don’t really email out a statement because of the chance it is so stale by the time someone picks it up," says Portland, Oregon’s Douthit. "It is important to be timely and also as up to date as possible."

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