One year on: communications lessons from Sandy

Government agencies and utility companies in areas ravaged by Superstorm Sandy have overhauled their crisis communications plans, while others have reinforced policies they already had in place.

Government agencies and utility companies in areas ravaged by Superstorm Sandy one year ago have completely overhauled their crisis communications plans, while others have reinforced policies they already had in place.

The superstorm – one of the worst natural disasters in the US – proved a major communications challenge for public authorities trying to disseminate information to a populace desperate for it. Because so many people lost power, many took to their mobile devices.

Rachel Haot, chief digital officer for the City of New York, says recently implemented changes to its crisis plan will help the metropolis communicate more effectively through digital media on mobile.

A new website includes an alternate homepage that will kick in during times of crisis, scaled down to enable easy and fast download, with only need-to-know information provided.

“People who could get online would go to lightweight websites to save their battery or because they had a weak connection. That's why Twitter proved so successful,” explains Haot, noting the city increased followers of its social media properties by 200,000 during the storm.

In tracking social media posts, another lesson learned was that transportation is most top of mind during a storm. “First it was about subway closures, then high occupancy vehicle restrictions and, later on, gas rationing,” she says. “Messaging around that became the key for us.”

Another key takeaway was the appetite of New York City's tech sector to help. At the time, the metropolis wasn't equipped to take advantage of assistance offered. But it has since created Code Corps, a volunteer body made up of digital media companies including Twitter and Facebook working on innovations such as emergency preparedness and reporting tools.

“We looked across hundreds of social media channels in terms of consistency of messaging and what our audience was telling us about the situation during Superstorm Sandy [using HootSuite], but some of these new tools will take it to a bigger level,” says Haot. “This will allow us to better process social media we've captured from the public.”

The MTA, which had nine of its 14 subway tunnels flooded during the storm, was widely lauded for its communications outreach.

Adam Lisberg, MTA's director of external communications, attributes its success to thorough pre-planning. He ensured all internal stakeholders – from senior leadership and legal to operations and comms – understood the trade-off between legal concerns and open and timely communication with customers.

This allowed the MTA to, for instance, quickly get its own track-certified photographers and videographers into tunnels and capture images of the damage that were then uploaded to social media. “We put out as much as we could,” Lisberg says, “because people are much more willing to accept when things go wrong if you're upfront and honest about it, and clear about how hard you're trying to fix it.”

“You need to make that case for rapid response before there is a problem,” he advises. “You have to have people up to speed so if something bad happens at 3am you can get out there, get a video and information, so when the morning news comes on they can show your take.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, NJ Transit was criticized for its response in part due to a lack of transparency. Many commuters felt the transportation authority was too quiet on social media, only wanting to post positive news when people just wanted information.

NJ Transit declined to comment for this story, but late last year its executive director Jim Weinstein said, “Communications was something we could have done a lot better. The next time we face something like this, we will be better prepared because of what we learned from this storm and what we're going to learn.”

Utility companies strive to be more timely
Con Edison, which saw 950,000 of its 3.3 million customers lose electricity because of the storm, generated negative press for the length of some outages.

Allan Drury, the energy company's public affairs manager, says: “People want more specific estimated times of restoration. It doesn't help to know the last customer in the town or borough is going to have power by a certain time; they need to know exactly when they will have power back.

“We are working to improve those ETRs (estimated time of repair), improving that process and disseminating the information.”

Con Ed posted a lot of video on social media, showing how it prepared for the storm, damage assessment, and how it was working to restore power, which proved popular with customers.

Drury says Sandy reinforced a Con Ed policy instigated before the storm to train its eight-person media team how to make videos.

“We have someone internally who enjoys making videos, and he taught the rest of us in media relations,” he says. “Now we all do it throughout the year and not just during emergencies. I make five or six videos a year, and it's important for me to do that. It's not like riding a bike – you forget how if you don't keep doing it.”

Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P), which saw more than 850,000 of its customers lose power, has also looked at ways to fast-track restoration estimates, because it is such a critical communications message.

The company invested in software and 120 specialized laptops through which patrollers now directly communicate with the work center and warehouse.

“It will speed up our ability to get information out to customers about how long it will take to restore power,” says Frank Poirot, CL&P's senior media relations specialist. “That's the information our customers need for their own emergency planning.”

National Grid, a provider of electricity and natural gas to customers in New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, also communicated safety and restoration messaging via social media.

But to communicate to Rhode Island it reached out via community bloggers and publications – a strategy it will continue in future crises, says Fred Kuebler, director of US media relations for National Grid.

“They were ecstatic we reached out to them and more than willing to help, because our biggest concern wasn't just ETRs but also safety,” he says. “It really helped in Long Island, because it is a series of small communities, so that was an effective way to reach out to our customer base.”

For all the emphasis on non-traditional media, Kuebler says radio also proved a sound media strategy and will be part of the earned and paid media plan during future storms. “Radio is still an effective way to communicate,” he adds.

For many companies, communication around Superstorm Sandy continues today. National Grid, for example, faces lawsuits from more than 100 Breezy Point residents who allege the company's failure to turn off power to the area during Sandy led to fires that devastated the waterfront neighborhood.

Kuebler can't comment on the lawsuit, but noted the company has spent the past year promoting its $30 million aid program to assist those hard-hit gas customers in rebuilding and reconnecting to the network. “This is important because we don't just work in these communities, our employees also live in them,” he says.

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