Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Crisis Messaging in the Hurricane

The lights are back on in my house, and I and millions of other New Yorkers are surveying our immediate neighborhoods, giving thanks for our relative stability, and trying to cope with the surrounding situation.  Two days without power, a section of fence blown down -- I know I got off cheap.

When your only link to the outside world is a battery-operated radio. you tend to pay a lot of attention to what the public officials are saying.  Public officials have  been taking the microphone throughout Hurricane Sandy's onslaught, and I've been giving them good marks for Crisis Messaging. (Click on the link to read my previous post about this subject.)  For people like me whose neighborhoods weren't hit very hard, these briefings have been informative.  But for those who lost homes, cars and livelihoods, they have been a lifeline of hope.

  We're still not out of the storm yet, and the psychological effect will be hard to measure for some time to come.  But well-articulated leadership communication will be essential to achieving normalcy, whether that communication emanates from Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or the head of the local National Guard.

The incredible wind and waves have brought disaster, but our leaders' radio voices reassure us that recovery is possible.  They appeal to our best selves, while they caution us to "not be stupid."  We listen to all they have to say, filtering it for the specific bits of news we each need to know, and the hope we all need to feel.

We don't know a lot.  We don't know how long it will take to reinstate the power grid, the subways,  or the trains.  All are a shambles. We don't know when bridges will be passable.  We don't know the new shape of our coastline.  We don't know when we will see more gasoline tanker trucks pulling into our corner gas stations (with many local fuel pumps displaying Out Of Gas signs, those of us who still have functioning cars are nervous about obtaining the gas to drive them).

Nerves are fraying at the 7-11 and in the Target parking lot.  In some cases, tempers are flaring and harsh words are being shouted.  The voices of our leaders help ground us and enable us to have patience, forbearance and fortitude as we all work through this together.  When Governor Christie chokes up as he talks about the vanished icons of his beloved Jersey shore, our emotions get a push in the right direction.  We are all in various stages of shock, and we need to be kind to each other.

The election signs have been torn loose and scattered by the gale, an almost symbolic sight as we reflect that partisanship has no place in a crisis.  We need to pull together.  Those of us whose neighborhoods are intact need to rally to help our friends who have lost so much.  Our leaders, whichever party they belong to, give us direction and call out our humanitarian impulses.

Whatever the future holds for New York, we will all look back on these first few post-Sandy days as a time when we came to grips with the chaos and coalesced into action.  We did this under the leadership of calm voices that offered solace and sympathy even as they provided structure in the midst of our shapeless fear.

As a communications maven, I'm often critical of the way our top dogs express themselves.  But last night, sleepless in a dark house, straining to follow a press conference through the tinny speakers of my emergency radio, I was grateful for leaders who kept up a constant stream of careful messaging.   It's hard to have your normal yanked out from under you.  Good leaders are aware that their words are anchors for their audience, giving them something to hold onto in the storm.  It's remarkable how strong words can be when they are the ones we need to hear.


  1. hey neat post its bert from new hyde park

    1. Welcome, Bert! I'm glad you liked this post. I hope your neighborhood is recovering from Sandy.