Friday, November 23, 2012

Crisis Recovery Communication, Part 1: The After-Crisis Thank You Note

Author's note:  This is the first of a two-part series on crisis recovery messaging.

Earlier this Thanksgiving week, a radio news reporter told of seeing long strings of utility trucks barreling west on the Long Island Expressway, obviously headed for the bridges that would take them off the Island and back to their various home states.  Their work was done. Finally!  The only Long Island homes still without power now are those whose systems were so compromised that they need major overhauls.

That's not to say that our post-Sandy problems are over.  Local trucks are still roving around our neighborhoods, dealing with the still-startling number of uprooted trees that dot the landscape.  (I spotted the truck in the above photo on the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway near the beautiful Bethpage golf course which hosted the U.S. Open earlier this year.  I wonder if golfers are still navigating around its huge fallen oaks, birches and maples as they play an early round on this beautiful Friday after Thanksgiving?)

Town tree trimming crews are still a common sight, and many smaller private outfits have moved in at this point to undertake  the next phase of clean-up. The drone of their chain saws and wood chippers is ever-present as Long Islanders tackle the last tangles of branches and load debris onto flatbeds for transport to centralized collection points. (See my next post for more about those.)   For me, these omnipresent crews and vehicles have come to symbolize the surreal post-cataclysmic atmosphere that permeates the culture here.  The trucks' constant intrusion into our peripheral vision mirrors the continuous undercurrent of survivor shock that we're all experiencing.  

Even though most communities have returned to some semblance of normal life, our thoughts are tinged with  the awareness that, just a few towns away, people are coping with the unimaginable.  For veteran New York City area residents, November 2012 is seeming a lot like September 2001.  Now, as then, we are in recovery mode.  And in a post-crisis situation like this, strategic messaging makes a world of difference.

Previously on this blog, I've talked about the strategic importance of saying thank you to staff after a project's completion (click here to see that post).  The other day my daughter, Jen, received such a thank-you note, but the "project" it referenced was actually Super Storm Sandy.  

Jen works for a company called FREE, short for Family Residences and Essential Enterprises.  FREE provides services, housing and care for mentally-disabled people, so that they can live safely in the community with dignity and experience a life that is as normal as their challenges may permit. Jen's on staff at one of their group homes for adults with psychiatric disorders.

During the morning of October 29th,  Jen's supervisor sent out an emergency text to all staff at the home, asking for someone to staff the afternoon and overnight shifts (which would bracket the brunt of the upcoming storm's onslaught).  Jen didn't hesitate to volunteer for the extra work, even though it was her day off.  Texting back her "yes" to accept the assignment, she explained to me, "I need to do this.  The other staff people on call either live far away or have families to look after during the hurricane.  I'm single, and I'm close.  And anyway, if I leave in the next hour I can get there before the wind gets too bad." 

So despite my motherly misgivings, Jen drove off as violently-spattering raindrops heralded Sandy's escalation.  She presided single-handedly at the group home throughout the worst hours of the hurricane.  With her help, its twelve residents rode out the storm's fury and resulting power outage in festive style, first watching a movie on a battery-powered laptop, then making dinner by flashlight (peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips).  Jen made sure everyone went to bed with extra blankets before preparing the house for the group's evacuation to FREE's emergency storm facility the next morning.  

After putting in the double shift, Jen navigated back home on Tuesday morning along storm-ravaged streets that were booby-trapped with downed trees and dark traffic lights. Tired and worn out, she was still buoyant about the experience when I talked with her later that day.  She knew she had made a difference.  Her support had made all of the residents much more at ease.  (And if you detect a note of mother's pride in this narrative, you are not mistaken.)  

This unexpected challenge was not a burden to Jen, nor was she scared at the prospect of riding out a hurricane with a dozen mentally-compromised individuals. She loves her job and she has great relationships with everyone in the house.  She's also in love with FREE as an organization, and I can certainly see why after reading the following letter, which she recieved two weeks later, along with a sizable bonus check:

"Dear Valued Team Member:

"It is a great honor having the opportunity to work in direct partnership with you as a valued member of the FREE family.  The magic that is created each day is something that is not easy to describe.

"The recent unprecedented epic storm was yet another opportunity of how the FREE team comes together in a time of need - a true reminder of the power of the human spirit.  We have been heartened to see so many of our valued team members make extraordinary efforts and sacrifices to ensure that the people we support were well cared for and have had what they needed, both during the storm and afterward.  Together, we have been able to successfully tackle the many challenges we faced as a result of Sandy.

"Thank you for your commitment to excellence and continued efforts to inspire the people we support toward greatness.  We look forward with great anticipation to the next stage of our journey together.


Chief Executive Officer

Chief Operations Officer"

I've included the letter in its entirety here because it is a wonderful example of the after-project thank you note.  You can't help but feel appreciated and inspired as you read it.  Notice, too, that the two top officers of the company both put their signatures on the letter.  Even though they signed their full names, they used only their first names in the printed signatory line.

A message like this one has a huge impact in a post-crisis period.  As I've noted in a prior post, I feel that expressing gratitude is a mandatory element of remarkable messaging.  Any time people give of themselves, it's appropriate to acknowledge that gift, even if their contribution might be considered to be in the line of duty.  In times when people truly go above and beyond, however, it is doubly imperative to thank them -- and to do so in a way that is significant.  Besides being the right thing to do, it's also the smart thing to do.  The results pay off in the long run.

This letter, and of course the monetary bonus, has made Jen feel ten times more loyal to FREE now.  She's much more likely to volunteer for other extra assignments after getting such positive recognition.  She also will not hesitate to recommend the company's services to potential clients, and to introduce FREE to prospective high-quality job candidates from among her peer group.  I don't know if  Robert and Chris were counting on achieving those strategic outcomes, but they are theirs, nonetheless.  I'm convinced that FREE will reap rewards from this letter for years to come.  

One of my observations from Sandy is that during a crisis, people of good character are energized at the prospect of implementing their skills on others' behalf.  The best among us will derive intense intrinsic rewards from seeing their skills make a difference in high-stakes situations.  But that doesn't mean that the entities, agencies and charities that benefit from their efforts can assume that this intrinsic reward is reward enough, and take their efforts for granted.   Recognition is called for. If it's given, it will make a huge positive impact.  If it's withheld, well, that will create just as big an impact too -- but on the negative side of the scale.

Expressions of gratitude like the one above need to be sent out by every organization that sees employees step up their efforts before, during, and after a crisis.  The same goes for individuals, their families, and their circles of friends.

Are you making absolutely certain that the people who help you in a time of need are called out and specifically made aware that their service has made a difference?

Here's an idea.  Let's learn from Sandy.  Let's take the last few weeks of 2012 to think back and identify those who have done a double-shift of kindness in our own lives this past year.  Then let's consider how we can honor them in tangible, concrete, memorable ways.  It's the right thing to do -- and the smart thing to do.  

One last thought: in times of personal crisis, let's all give ourselves permission to reach out for help earlier, rather than later, as Jen's supervisor did.  We'll be giving others the opportunity to step up and utilize their skills in fulfilling ways that boost their human connection and energize their sense of purpose.  Let's ask for support when we need it, knowing that the world is well-seeded with Jens who are waiting to respond in times of need.  

Let's allow the angels among us to swoop into our lives when we need them -- then let's thank them from the heart when they do.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When You Leave Gaps in Information...

This cherry-picker utility truck is typical of the ones that have swept across Long Island in recent days.  We ride alongside them on our streets, pass clusters of them, watch strings of them rumble past.  When they don't stop at your house, and your house still has no power, then you feel doubly powerless.

A friend of mine lives on a street that was still dark twelve days after Sandy.  She and her neighbors noticed a truck parked at their corner, waited while its crew ate at the McDonald's there, then swarmed them to ask when someone was going to clear the one tree that had fallen on their wires.  The out of state crew leader, a shame-faced young man with a Midwestern accent, said he didn't know when they would get service.  My friend's neighbor said he would pay them for the favor.  The crew chief refused.  The team got back on their truck, which had Kansas license plates, and headed for another assignment.

 Reading the license plates and company logos on these trucks is a lesson in geography. I've personally spotted equipment from Ohio, Illinois, and Alabama.  Others swoosh by too fast for me to read the full addresses or phone numbers on their side panels, but the digits of exotically unfamiliar area codes jump out at me:  416, or 312.   The truck in this photo, which I saw this morning, wins the prize for being furthest from home (at least that I have seen).  It sports an Abbotsford, BC address.  That's a town in Canada, folks, three time zones away from here.  That truck's home base is 75 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and 3,000 miles from the spot where I passed it on Hempstead Turnpike.

It's unbelievable how many convoys have come from all over North America to help reconnect the electrical dots of our local power delivery system which the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and its operations contractor National Grid could not fix on their own.  These utility trucks, and their guys in hard hats, have come in from every direction.  Some were flown in by military cargo plane. They are the king's horses and the king's men, called in to put back together an aging Humpty Dumpty of a system that sat on its windswept wall for one hurricane too many.

The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, announced yesterday that he will open an investigation to determine why LIPA's storm recovery efforts have failed so miserably.  It has escaped no one's attention that, even bulked up with thousands of reinforcements, restoration has lagged far past the "week to ten days" that was promised.

And that's where the topic of remarkable messaging comes in. Throughout this disaster, LIPA's messaging to its customers has been distinctly unremarkable. The acting Chief Executive Officer of LIPA, Michael Hervey, allowed his company to set public expectations by quoting a timeframe for project completion --  then he pulled back and did very little further communication as the days and weeks wore on.  In fact, the company decided to limit its press releases, stay silent in the face of escalating criticism, and not even return phone calls from civic leaders.

This is not an unusual response pattern when leaders are faced with a crisis.  If you are the kind of boss who has been relying mainly on blarney and bluster to manage situations, you're caught empty-handed when a situation surpasses your power to talk past the problem.  In a continuing and overwhelmingly bad circumstance, you find that your initial "Calm down, everyone" speech doesn't go the distance.  As the crisis unfolds, your usual empty-suit messaging tricks don't apply, so you tend to shut down the messaging entirely.  But that response pattern  paves the way for a different disaster of the public relations kind.

I have a motto that relates to this.  It goes:

If you leave gaps in information, 
people tend to fill those gaps with their own information, 
and it's usually negative.  

If the suits at LIPA had kept ahead of the communications process, stayed in constant contact with the media and supplied more frequent updates, I believe that they would not be the subject of such suspicion and animosity now.  As it is, news reporters are teasing out stories from "insider sources" about poor project management, antiquated systems, inadequate supply reserves, and ineffective leadership -- but I wonder if the real central story here isn't one of bad messaging.  

Not everyone realizes that LIPA's messaging problems go back at least thirty years to the time when our current governor Andrew Cuomo's father Mario was the governor of New York. Accusations of corruption, paybacks and cronyism go back at least that far.  It may have taken a storm to blow down the wires, but the lines of communication started fraying a long time before Sandy picked up steam on October 29th, 2012.

Someone should write a novel about Long Island's doomed Shoreham nuclear power plant that was closed in 1983 before it ever pumped a single kilowatt because an evacuation plan was never factored into its operation.  Some one should tell the whole story about the scandals and lack of government oversight that forced Long Islanders to endure huge rate hikes to pay for the Shoreham plant debacle. It's the stuff of a Nelson DeMille potboiler (Mr. deMille is a Long Island-based author who has written other novels based on local news stories).  But as far as I know, neither Mr. DeMille or any other author has had the courage to go near the Shoreham story.  In the absence of a work of literary drama, you can read about it in this New York Times article.

As it is, the true story about the failure of a local utility's campaign to nuclearize an island with a population density second only to Japan, and the way it set back the economic growth of a whole region, remains buried under decades of political obfuscation.  But the root of the story again involves gaps in communication.

In fact, one could make a pretty convincing argument that, had LIPA's predecessors been more open in their communications throughout the Shoreham plant's bidding process, planning and early construction, the whole anti-nuclear debacle of the early 1980's could have been stopped.  The powers that be, including then-governor Mario Cuomo (again, for emphasis, the father of our current New York governor), might have been persuaded to abandon the Shoreham project before millions were spent to bring it to near-completion.  If only the officers of LIPA's predecessor Lilco had had a better dialogue with the public, then perhaps the present utility would not be saddled with so much debt servicing that precious little funds have remained available for the infrastructure improvements and maintenance that would have blunted Sandy's impact.  

Alternatively, if those early-80's power plant developers could have produced -- and communicated -- creditable evidence that the Shoreham plant was goof-proof and evacuation of the Island's East End would never be necessary, perhaps its indigenous suburbanites who had nightmares of nuclear contamination would have been mollified. Then the protests that I remember so vividly -- parades of picketers camping out at the gates of Shoreham construction sites -- would not have occurred.  LIPA might have become a utopian utility characterized by cheap nuclear energy, low electric bills, and a picturesque waft of cooling tower vapor on a North Shore hill.

Then again, if Shoreham had opened as planned, and its beachfront nuclear facility had been in operation at the time of Sandy, would the 13-foot storm surge have caused the Long Island Sound to swamp it in the same way the Japanese tsunami flooded the Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear plant last year?  Would Sandy have caused a dreaded nuclear contamination catastrophe on top of all of its other devastation?  

No answers are to be found in the airbrushed annals of Long Island history, and none are likely to be forthcoming in the litigation, blame and wrangling that's intensifying here and now in 2012.  LIPA CEO Michael Hervey has said he will resign.  Officials, including our present Governor Cuomo, are appointing task forces and promising to hold people accountable -- as soon as they figure out which people.  Questions will be asked!  Inquiries will inquire!  Indignation will be expressed!

And after the headlines die down, local residents like me will open up our LIPA bills and gasp.  You know all those out-of-town trucks?  Someone will be paying them for the favor.

No one is communicating whether the cost of Long Island electricity, already high compared to most of America, will go yet higher after all the lines are repaired and all the substations are working again.  So I'm filling in that gap in information with my own negative information:

Long Islanders like me have no idea how much more we'll be paying for energy by this time next year.  But it will make our high energy bills of today look like bargains.  

I wonder how affordable the electric bills are in Abbotsford, British Columbia.  Maybe it's time to move.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day: Your Vote Is Your Voice

In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the American flag gained a new level of significance in the New York City area.  In the days after the Twin Towers attack, people hoisted flags as a defiant gesture that said, "We're still here.  We're still free. You can batter us, but you can't break us.  We are not victims.  We will go on.  We will prevail."

In the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, New Yorkers have again raised their Stars and Stripes to communicate the same message.  Flags are flying:

  •  On the desolate streets of Breezy Point in Queens, where a hundred homes burned to the ground.  
  • From the overpasses of the Long Island Expressway, as fuel trucks once again roll underneath them.  
  • On still-dark storefront windows, just above the hand-lettered CLOSED signs.
  •  From the rafters of houses with toppled trees in their yard. 
  •  On anything that still remains vertical along the roadsides and ruined wastelands of New Jersey's coastline. 
It occurs to me, as I see these symbols of hope and solidarity, that America has its own unique heritage of gutsy survival that goes back to the very first settlers on our shores.  When our leaders say "We will rebuild," they echo the declarations of countless other pioneers, colonists, city-dwellers and farmers who have said the same in the wake of enemy attacks, floods, droughts, earthquakes and fires.  All Americans have tenacity in their genes.  Our very flag tells the story of  progress amidst peril: fifty sky-borne stars, bright independent states, emerge from thirteen stripes that symbolize the original colonies and the blood that was shed to preserve them.

How can any American fail to go to the polls today in the shadow of such a heritage?

No matter how much we have lost, no matter how urgent our other daily affairs may seem, today is Election Day.  It's time to add our voices, one by one, to the chorus of all those who affirm that America still has a mission, and that part of that mission is to be a beacon of freedom.  In America, our votes count and our voices matter.  Equality means we all get to elect whom we prefer to be in leadership.  No matter what our background, education, race or religion.  No matter how big or small our bank account is.

Voting says, "My country matters to me.  I pay my civic duty in the voting booth today, because so many have paid far more dearly to preserve my right to do so."  We have different views, but we have one loyalty: to ensure that this nation, this idea, this America, keeps moving into the future and facing its challenges with the same bold defiance that is mirrored in the flags now flying from our shattered Northeastern shores.

Your vote is your most basic way to add your voice to the American story.  Don't let the story continue without you.  Find the time to get to the polling place today, my countrymen and women. Stand in line with your neighbors at the polling place today and experience the solidarity that we all share as citizens of a great country.  Then enter the booth alone and pledge that you will help see our nation through, whether or not our next round of elected officials are the ones you have voted for.

Our country is bigger than any quarrel that divides us.  No matter what you think of our current politicians and problems, when you vote today you raise your personal flag over the shifting landscape of controversy to say, "This is worth preserving.  We will rebuild.  We will prevail."   

Monday, November 5, 2012

In Times Of Crisis, Character Shines Through

The event that's now being called Super Storm Sandy continues to impact the Eastern seaboard of the United States.  The wind has passed, and in the storm's wake, people struggle to cope with the damage.  In the process, peoples' true character (or lack of it) is showing.

Up and down the coast, buildings have been swept off foundations that up till last Monday were assumed to be secure.  Millions of people remain without electricity. Gasoline is scarce.  In many areas, authorities are only now allowing people back into the hardest-hit zones. so the scope of the destruction is only now being realized.

The devastation has hit all classes in society.  People who invested a lifetime of time and energy to create their perfect seaside retreat are now weeping as they sift through its muddy debris.  Working-class families pile ruined furniture on the curb as snowplows clear the sand from their street.   Less than a mile from my (thankfully) safe and secure house, an emergency shelter is filled with people who have been left with, literally, nothing.

For communications watchers like me, it's instructive to observe how a catastrophe of this magnitude brings forth the entire spectrum of human responses.  Some examples:
  • A woman was overheard saying, "My power's out, and I waited in line two hours for gas, then they told me they had run out, so now I'm going home to get drunk."
  • A radio news reporter asked a nurse who'd been taking care of the elderly people on her storm-ravaged block why she had gone out of her way to help others.  "I'm a nurse," she shrugged. "It's what we do."
  • High school students whose classes had been cancelled for the week set up a table in front of the local grocery store and asked shoppers to donate canned goods for people in need.   
  • A hand-lettered sign appeared on a shuttered storefront:  "Looters will be shot by local vets."
  • One of my neighbors made a big pot of soup and took it door to door to offer it to people who have been without electricity for six days.  
How do you react to cataclysm? 

We tend to shed our carefully-manicured public images in the tough times of life.  Our storm-damaged puppet personas are hung out to dry, and our real character becomes visible.

In situations like this, it seems to me that there are two basic types of people.

If you are accustomed to having a larger view of life -- a view that looks beyond your own concerns, desires and ambitions -- then when trouble comes, an internal compass of integrity will guide your steps.  You will feel that your fulfillment comes from continuing to be an honorable person, no matter what ones outer circumstances may be.  You will choose to act out of a sense of purpose. You will be motivated, not by fear, but by a core belief that things happen for a reason and even tragedies contain opportunities, and you will look for ways to instill meaning and value into even the most random-seeming circumstances. Your communications will be other-centered, seeking to heal rather than hurt.

However, if you customarily have a smaller view of life, your reactions will be starker. By smaller view of life, I mean that you have based your sense of security on externals -- your possessions, your position in the community, your bank account or your BMW -- and your energies have been focused on acquiring and maintaining them. To the degree that your external acquisitions have fed your sense of well-being, you might find that you are on shaky emotional ground when your edifices of pride and complacency get swept away.  You will find it difficult to escape feelings of fear or anxiety.  Hardships and uncertainties will easily move you to act out of despair, greed or desperation.  Your communications will be self-centered as you use your words to try to manipulate or dominate others, vent your rage, and re-establish your illusion of control.

Which of these patterns describes you?

Sometimes it takes a hurricane to reveal the hollowness of our life outlook.  The book of Proverbs puts it this way:

If you're slack in the day of distress, your strength is limited.

In other words, if you can't be a person of character when times were tough, then you need to realize that you're not as invulnerable as you have presumed yourself to be.  And that awareness can turn into the resolve to forge a new beginning.

When the New York City Marathon was canceled due to the storm this past Friday, many runners had already arrived from all around the country and the world to compete. They found themselves in Manhattan without a race to run.

While many howled in outrage, some of these world-class athletes decided to turn a negative into a positive. First a few, then hundreds, took to social media to communicate with each other and plan an altruistic alternative event: a marathon of service.  On the Sunday of the cancelled marathon, just a few miles away from where the race would have started, they swarmed into devastated neighborhoods wearing orange jerseys and bearing backpacks full of supplies. They spent the day cleaning homes and mopping basements.

Some had prepared a whole year for the marathon.  They were in great shape.  They had endured rigorous training.  They were ready for a challenge.  When life presented them with a different challenge, they responded with compassion, using their strength for the good of others and trusting that the outcome would justify their sacrifice.

How have you been prepared for the moments of crisis that come your way?  Where can your strengths make a difference in the chaos?  What messages will issue from you as you seek to right your ship and navigate the problems ahead?  Will your words and deeds inspire others, or tear them down?

If you're already looking at life through the lens of a larger purpose, good for you.  You will not only be happier in the long run, but you will be physically and psychologically healthier.  But if you catch yourself reacting poorly to life's big and little catastrophes, you still have the opportunity to change your words, actions and attitudes to make the best of the situation.

Advice columnist Ann Landers used to say, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

When it comes to catastrophes, that truism is doubly true.  I hope you opt to be part of the solution.  And that means that I hope you decide in favor of becoming a person who views life as a series of opportunities to serve a larger purpose.  Start now to develop that perspective, so that in the day of distress, you're ready to run the race that life sets before you.

Living a life of higher purpose today will prepare you to lead others through the hurricanes of tomorrow.    And in the process, you will build a strong foundation of character that will never be swept away.

Note:  With this column, I am doing away with Manager Mondays as a weekly feature.  I intend to turn the blog into a more general commentary on good communications tips and practices. I'll still comment on workforce messaging, but I will do so on a semi-regular basis.