Communication Problems During Crises Lead to More Frustration

7 Nov

Living in the New York area has been a challenge for the last week and a half. Best wishes to all of those and their families who have suffered during Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath. I hope things get better for you soon.

As a professor who teaches on the topic of crisis management, I always emphasize that each crisis has TWO aspects that require pre-planning and then action at the proper time: (1)  the activities involved with handling and resolving the crisis AND (2) communication (public relations) about how the organization has planned and the actions it is taking. As marketers, it is is always important to remember that perception often is the reality that customers, the media, government officials, and others use to assess the organization’s responsiveness.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, many public utilities have done everything they can to restore power to the millions of homes that were (are) without power. Their own employees have worked around the clock; and tens of thousands of workers have been brought in to help. And the financial resources have been committed to get things done quicker. So, in MY view, the utilities get good grades on part (1) of crisis management.

However, the public utilities typically have not  responded well on part (2) of crisis management: communicating with constituents. To paraphrase NY Governor Cuomo and others: “People don’t really care if 80-90 percent of power has been restored if they are still without heat, light, etc.” And it is these people who are especially frustrated by what they feel is a  lack of communication about what the utilities are doing and when their power will be restored.

As just one example, consider this November 5, 2012 story from TV station News 12 Long Island: “More than 200,000 Long Islanders remain without power a full seven days after Superstorm Sandy hit, and many residents are getting fed up with what they call LIPA’s poor communication. Residents looking for restoration timetables or reasons why their neighbors have power and they don’t say they’re tired of being put on hold or getting disconnected when they call LIPA’s service number. In a statement to News 12 Long Island, LIPA says it has provided storm communications through numerous channels, including phone calls, E-mails, and public outreach. ‘Because of the extensive damage from this storm, we have not been able to get down to that level of granularity for individual specific customers,’ the utility says. Adding to residents’ frustrations, LIPA’s outage-tracking Web site was inaccessible for about 5 hours today. The outage map was put back online at around 8 p.m. this evening with major changes to the way it’s set up [due to earlier inaccuracies].” This is the new URL: http://stormcenter.lipower.org/report.html.

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