PR Lessons from Winter Storm Jonas


imagesBe ready to hear your East Coast-based colleagues insert plenty of quotes from old movies and TV series into their conversation these next few days; especially those colleagues who live in places like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York City. You can also expect a detailed analysis of Payton Manning’s arm strength from that colleague who swears pro football is unimportant. They had time on their hands beginning Friday night and lasting until today as Winter Storm Jonas dumped in excess of 3 feet of snow on those metropolises and generally made exiting the house on the southern East Coast an adventure.

Now, for that quote: As Mad Men’s Don Draper said to Peggy Olson in season 6 during an episode when both ended up working in the office on a weekend, “I’m always working. [And] You’re always working, Peggy.” Alas, that’s how it is for PR people, too. Even during off hours they’re thinking, often to themselves, "That could have been communicated better" or "If I had been running communications there, I would have…"

So it was with PR people and Jonas, especially for those whose work schedules had them set to travel today. Some, of course, were preparing to join us tomorrow as PR News honors PR's top women, in New York City. Like me, I'm guessing they spent moments between bingeing documentaries by seeking updates on local subway and bus schedules and searching for news about Amtrak and the airlines.

So what did we learn this weekend?

Lesson 1: In a Weather Disaster, Like a Social Media Crisis, Over-Communicate Your Message and do so on Platforms Where Your Customers are Likely to be. Huh, you’re not sure what your customers’ favorite social channel is? Find out. Fast. Early Saturday, several airlines, Southwest, Delta and JetBlue among them, were busy on Twitter, dispensing information to stranded and delayed passengers. These tweets also put potential travelers on notice to prepare for the worst.

By contrast, Amtrak’s online app, up until Monday morning, told visitors about service interruptions in California. Information about delays or schedule changes along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, its gravy train revenue-wise, was scant. Travelers using the app had to settle for a corporate-speak paragraph about the importance of safety and how Amtrak would provide information as soon as it could. After that gobbledygook followed a series of very poorly written announcements, including one saying that all passengers would need reserved seats for travel on Super Bowl Sunday. Using the app device that allows you to check on the departure status of a train was of little help.

Early this morning, Amtrak’s app acknowledged that a storm in the Northeast Corridor could result in delays. Finally. [Incidentally, my subsequent trip on Amtrak from Washington, D.C., left on time, was pleasant, arriving in N.Y. only about 15 minutes late due to having to proceed slowly at certain points.]

Lesson 2: Just as in Other Kinds of Crises, Time is Critical.  Again, we have to give props to the airlines for their communications this weekend, recognizing that they've always been in a 24/7 business and that the digital era has only made it more apparent.

Throughout the D.C. area travelers knew late Friday morning, well before the snow began falling, that United and American Airlines had cancelled their weekend flights from Reagan National and Dulles airports. Announcements were heard early and often on news radio and local TV news stations. Well done.

Even the D.C.-area’s sometimes-beleaguered surface and underground public transport system, Metro, provided an early and clear announcement: Friday afternoon it said the system would be down all weekend. It was an unprecedented announcement from a system that usually attempts to remain open despite weather issues. Moreover, the announcement did more than alert travelers; it also signaled to everyone in the D.C. area that Jonas was going to be serious business.

Lesson 3: A Word for Journalists and Bloggers. Sure it was a weekend, so the skeleton crew in the newsroom likely was even thinner than normal due to the weather. Still, an Internet search Sunday evening for news stories about Amtrak service or delays yielded nothing new. The latest stories were from Friday night or early Saturday. There’s an opportunity waiting for someone to take it.