Monday, September 19, 2011

Reno Air Tragedy & The Discipline of Disaster Response

In one horrific, brutal instant this year's Reno Air Races turned from awe-inspiring, heart-pounding excitement to tragedy as a P-51 Mustang nose-dived into the crowd. The stories of shock, horror and heroism have filtered out over the last few days as investigators seek to find the cause of the crash.

The Today Show posted new video of the crash this morning. If you have the stomach to watch it you will understand what I mean when I say "horrific, brutal instant." Most disasters unfold this way.

The emergency response to this incident was heroic. Consider this: Within 62 minutes of the crash, EMS workers transported 56 injured patients, many critically injured, to two area hospitals.

That heroic response didn't just happen. It was practiced.
  • In July, the Reno Air Races held an emergency drill where they simulated a plane crash into the grandstand with mass casualties. Local EMS, Fire and Police took part in that exercise
  • The morning of the crash, EMS officials walked through procedures for a mass casualty event
  • The NTSB had a team at the race in case of a crash
  • News updates were issued by nearly every agency involved across multiple platforms; social media, news releases, blogs, impromptu press conferences and interviews
I've said before that great crisis communications starts with a great imagination. It's ok to be diabolical in a drill and it's ok if the staff fails during an exercise. That's how they will learn and be better in the real world. 

Success in emergency response and crisis communications starts with an honest assessment of what the worst-case scenario could be and training to be ready for the worst-case response. It takes discipline and courage to spend money, time and resources on something that most of the time will never happen. 

Pull out your crisis plan this week. Talk through a worst-case scenario with your staff. The worst-case is probably not going to happen.

If it does, realize that there will be people whose lives depend on how willing you were to be ready. 

Bill Salvin

Friday, September 16, 2011

Troubled Water: The Wrong Way to Better News Coverage

Every PR person wants positive news coverage of their organization. It's sort of what we do for a living. There are more ways than ever to get your stories out into the world. Some of those methods are good. Some are sleazy. The LA Times ran a story this week about the rather disreputable way the Central Basin Municipal Water District has gone about generating positive "news" stories about its organization. And it is a cautionary tale for communicators.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District serves about two million people in California near Los Angeles. It's having a tough go of things. The District exists in the second largest media market in the country and there is huge competition for limited space in traditional media outlets. The District is also involved in a nasty lawsuit against the Southern California Water Replenishment District. The Replenishment District has a blog site that tends to post negative stories about Central Basin. It makes sense that the Central Basin Municipal folks want to get into the game and counter the bad news.

So, the board of Central Basin Municipal hired a consulting firm to write fluffy stories disguised as legitimate news. The firm used a website called News Hawks Review to post the stories. Google listed the site as a legitimate news site, which the consulting firm mentioned prominently in its pitch. The site is operated by a person connected to the consulting firm. There is no transparency of any of these connections.

And therein lies the problem. The Central Basin folks have every right to pay a consulting firm to write these stories and even put up a site to host them. They can use whatever key words and search engine optimization techniques to move the stories higher in searches. Just be clear about who you are and the origin of the stories.

Google felt the same way. Less than 24 hours after the first story ran in the Times, the search engine giant removed the News Hawks Review from its list of legitimate news sites.

Why is this man smiling? 
Tony Marino, the executive editor of News Hawks Review posted an open email on the site lamenting how the LA Times is picking on his "fly speck" "dinky little online nickel and dime news channel." If true, Mr. Marino needs work on his pitching skills.

Marino sounds upset that he got his hand caught in the unethical cookie jar. He's a bit hyperbolic, too. He claims the juggernaut that is the LA Times went after his site "with a biblical vengeance not seen since "Shock n Awe."

Dude, it was two stories. The Times ran more stories on the new Kardashian clothing line.

The folks at Central Basin Municipal Water made a bad call. Whether their motivation was to counter negative press, get good coverage or influence a future jury pool it backfired. They appear thin-skinned, inept and unethical. If they want to pay someone to write about their lawsuit against the other water people, they can knock themselves out. Hire whomever you'd like to get that done. Better yet, they could make good use of their own Facebook page. It's currently pathetic.

Remember that transparency is the coin of the realm in PR today. There are no shortcuts to a happy ending. Just ask LeBron James. Whenever and wherever the story posts, you better respect your audience enough to tell them who's paying the bills.

Bill Salvin

Note: The Central Basin Municipal Water District sent a letter to the LA Times asking for a retraction of the articles. Even this is disingenuous. The letter claims they've only paid $70,000 to the consulting firm not $200,000 as claimed in the Times. The paper gets it right because documents show the Water District has approved expenditures up to $189,750. That is roundable up to $200,000 as long as my third grade math teacher taught me how to round up properly.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sorry, Kid. Space is Closed

The SpaceTrader Store, Sept 1, 2011
I was flying home through Houston on September 1. It was the middle of the day at the world's 16th busiest airport in the city home to NASA's Johnson Space Center. The space souvenir store was closed. It's a perfect metaphor for America's human spaceflight program: dark, disappointing and uninspiring.

At a time when Americans are desperate for actions not words, NASA boasts one of the best public affairs operations in government while the Space Shuttles are headed for museums.

The agency still launches rockets like last week's GRAIL mission. But robotic missions to space lack the inspirational potential of human beings going to space. NASA doesn't have a PR problem. It has a leadership problem. If the agency had a good mission, great destination and a capable spacecraft does anyone think the NASA PR team couldn't tell that story?

What can communicators take away from NASA's current plight? Two things come to mind.
  • Mission matters. Leaders need to provide a clear mission and the resources to make it happen before the communicators start their work. If the mission's viability or the ability to succeed is in doubt, communicators can't help. 
  • Boldness counts. The first woman on the moon will be as inspirational as the first man. Just because the destination is the same doesn't mean the mission is unworthy.
Space Age Lodge, Gila Bend, AZ.
September 11, 2011
The saddest part of all of this is that our leaders have willingly given up first place in human spaceflight. Who gives up being number one? What kid will aspire to be an astronaut when the chance that they will fly in space is nearly nonexistent? Will we train astronauts by flying them somewhere on Southwest but only let them board in the "B" group? 

Read any public opinion poll. People love the space program. They love what it's done for our country and the world. 

Too bad our leaders have reduced it's value to that of roadside attraction.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, September 1, 2011

PG&E San Bruno Disaster: A Simple Lesson in Poor Emergency Response

Non-natural disasters aren't random events. When investigators trace an incident back to root causes and fundamental flaws, they paint a picture of a disaster-in-waiting that is as clear as a high-definition video. On September 9, 2010, a natural gas line operated by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and running through San Bruno, California, exploded. Eight people were killed and 58 others were injured. More than 100 homes were destroyed or damaged. 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its report on the explosion and it is hard to fathom the depth of inadequacy PG&E demonstrated in its response to this accident. 

The section of pipeline that ruptured was installed in 1956. The NTSB report states that the section of pipe that blew was fabricated at un undetermined facility to no known specification. 

The report also states that the pipeline as installed in 1956 would not have met the standards in effect at the time. So not only was it a crappy pipeline in 2010, but crappy when it was installed. The gas pipeline equivalent of the Ford Pinto

From an emergency response perspective, the company fails again. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, "The company had no written emergency response plan,' said NTSB investigator Matthew Nicholson." It took PG&E more than 90 minutes to shut off the gas, a fact the NTSB determined "contributed to the extent and severity of property damage and increased the life-threatening risks to the residents and emergency responders."

NTSB investigators found that PG&E's gas emergency plan was ineffective (probably because it wasn't written down) and that "many people self-dispatched" to the accident. So, whomever decided to show up, got to play disaster man. 

History may be made by those who show up, but it's a lousy way to run your emergency response.

The simple lesson here is that emergency response plans have to be tested. To do that, they must first be written down

PG&E issued a fairly comprehensive list of actions it has taken and lessons learned in the aftermath of the San Bruno disaster. 

It's too bad the company had to level a neighborhood to learn them. 

Bill Salvin