Crazy week highlights how much we take for granted

Readers outside the Tri-State Area will forgive me if I talk about the only subject that has been on the minds of people in the New York and New Jersey areas this week: Hurricane Sandy and its after-effects.

Readers outside the Tri-State Area will forgive me if I talk about the only subject that has been on the minds of people in the New York and New Jersey areas this week: Hurricane Sandy and its after-effects.

It's been a crazy week on so many levels. The PRWeek team was thankfully largely unaffected on a personal level, beyond some commuting difficulties that frankly pale in comparison with what others suffered. But the bombardment of images throughout the week will live long in the minds of all those who followed the storm on television and, increasingly, via social media.

An enduring image for me was watching CNN anchor Piers Morgan talking to his field reporters Ali Velshi in Atlantic City and Erin Burnett in Battery Park City. CNN and, by extension, Morgan had been taken in by the “New York Stock Exchange covered in three feet of water” hoax. So there you have Morgan asking Velshi, who was stranded waist-high in water with the hurricane buffeting him around, and Burnett, similarly being battered by the storm in Lower Manhattan, about the potential effects of another water-based story that turned out to be a hoax anyway.

You had to admire the fortitude of the reporters, both of whom have great knowledge of business and the financial markets, as they made pretty decent stabs at analyzing the consequences of a hypothetical and ultimately false premise in ridiculously difficult circumstances, without drowning or getting blown away.

This brief interlude raised many questions about modern media, and especially its coverage of breaking news events such as Sandy. Did Velshi and Burnett really need to be put, or to put themselves, in such dangerous situations anyway? At one point Velshi was filmed in the middle of a six-lane highway being blown toward oncoming rescue vehicles while he relayed the New Jersey governor's message that everyone should evacuate the area. Is it a public service to show people the need to evacuate and the extent of the storm, or is it gratuitous grandstanding on the part of the reporter?

And why did CNN go with the NYSE story without doing any checking, especially when the networks have access to a 24-hour live feed of the trading floor, which NY1 took the time to look at before repeating the hoax? Some, including Michael Moore on Morgan's talk show a couple of nights later, would say it's a reflection of declining journalistic standards in this fast-moving social media age.

It's hard to disagree with that view. Other hoaxes included the use of an image outtake of the film Day After Tomorrow showing waves engulfing the Statue of Liberty, a flooded McDonald's outlet that was actually a piece of art, an old picture of soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington in bad weather, and many more.

It's the social media conundrum: balancing the quickest access to news and content, which it undoubtedly offers, with the credibility and provenance of the information. Either way, media of all types couldn't escape the physical effects of the storm, with outlets as wide-ranging as NY1, Huffington Post, Gawker, Gizmodo, and BuzzFeed suffering outages during the height of the bad weather.

Other indelible images of Hurricane Sandy include the sight of the Rockaway Beach boardwalk picked up by the winds and unceremoniously deposited down a nearby block, complete with seats and street lighting still attached; a property destroyed by a tree that fell through the upper floor and killed an occupant as he lay in his bed; 80 to 100 blazing houses burning to the ground in Breezy Point; and houses in Seaside Heights, NJ encased in tons of sand dumped on them by the now-retreated ocean.

But the story that will have chilled most people was the mother who tried to escape the storm in her vehicle with her 2- and 4-year-old sons and literally had them torn out of her grasp as she had to abandon her car and try to cling to a nearby railing. The boys were swept away and found drowned two days later by the police - heartbreaking and unimaginably tragic for the poor woman.

Many people consider it insulting that the New York Marathon is still going ahead when such tragic events are playing out in the borough where the race starts. And the image of massive generators in Central Park to service the marathon while half the city and surrounding states are without power is not an edifying one for many citizens. Authorities no doubt have to weigh the need to communicate that the city is conducting business as usual as much as possible with the feelings of people whose lives have been shattered, and in some cases ended, by the tragic events of the preceding week.

In truth, it was a miracle more people didn't die. A lot of this should be attributed to the smart preparation and communication efforts of the authorities, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Governor Chris Christie, MTA chairman Joe Lhota, and even President Obama all being considered to have had “good storms.” People for the most part heeded warnings to evacuate, and the MTA's decision to move rolling stock to high ground prior to the storm proved to be extremely judicious in the circumstances and a measure that will speed up the reintroduction of transport services.

The jury is still out on power supplier ConEdison. If the New York utility can restore power to Lower Manhattan this weekend and other areas over the next week, it too will be able to claim success in its preparation and reaction to the unprecedented effects of the storm. But it should be remembered that many people in numerous areas are enduring, and will continue to endure, incredible hardship and lack of access to basic necessities. And the clean-up operation will be long and painful.

Through the requirement to keep the city's residents informed of progress in repairing the city, you could detect key messages coming through. Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg certainly pushed the line that global warming could no longer be discounted as a figment of scientists' imagination and this had implications for issues ranging from flood defenses to subway design to power supplies and much more.

Bloomberg Businessweek's “It's Global Warming, Stupid” front cover this week left no one in any doubt about the views of the mayor on the subject. Bloomberg even cited it as one reason for backing Obama in next week's presidential election.

Businesses adopted differing strategies in response to the storm, with varying degrees of success. It's fair to say American Apparel and Gap's Hurricane Sandy promotions were misguided at best, crass attempts to exploit a tragedy at worst. Procter & Gamble brand Duracell's distribution of free batteries and charging points for desperate residents in powerless downtown Manhattan was smart and genuinely helpful.

A 7-Eleven store in Manhattan's Chelsea district provided free access to power for local residents to charge their cell phones. I personally spotted people sitting on the floor in Duane Reade using their laptops and charging their cell phones. Groups gathered outside shuttered branches of Starbucks hoping to tap into their Wi-Fi internet access: you gotta do what you gotta do in a crisis.

PR firms with HQs in downtown Manhattan fared worst after the storm, as they coped without power for the best part of a week. Edelman contacted employees via Facebook and deployed workers to hotels where they had set up wireless hubs to keep their client work as seamless as possible, but it's fair to say the aftermath is testing the concept of remote working to its limits.

The ultimate feeling at the end of a tough week for Tri-State residents is that, for the most part, the authorities and – especially – first responders did as good a job as they could in exceptionally difficult circumstances, with the proviso that there is still much more to be done. People generally pulled together to help each other out.

Smart communications tactics learned from earlier crises and effective deployment of social media were absolutely crucial to that process as the infrastructure that people, businesses, and institutions take for granted suddenly disappeared from people's lives.

Here's to a much quieter week coming up. When's that election again…?

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