As Hurricane Sandy Hit the Coast, PR Pros Adjusted and Informed


As Hurricane Sandy worked its way toward the East Coast on Monday, Oct. 29, communities braced for the worst but hoped for the best. Businesses were shuttered, airports were closed and cities up and down the coast essentially were shut down in anticipation of the massive storm. And just as communities scrambled to adjust to the storm threat, so did communicators. Earnings reports for Monday and Tuesday were delayed, Google cancelled its launch of a new smartphone, the Nexus 4, and Facebook was forced to cancel an event for the launch of its new Facebook Gifts platform. But it wasn’t all PR postponements and cancellations, as there was important work to be done. As the storm approached Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., Amy Mountain, director of communications, was deep in a student evacuation plan. Its Emergency Management Group, composed of a variety of departments across the college—security, operations, facilities, dining services and communications—has at ready a number of crisis plans depending on the situation. The college has a plan for loss of power, which it was expecting. “This would affect the way we communicate, but we knew kids would have their digital devices charged,” says Mountain. So social media would play a big part in communicating to students. So Mountain and her team used texts, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter to keep students informed if they had to be evacuated from housing with no back-up generators. Community representatives were also consulted in case students had to be relocated off campus. “It all worked like it should,” says Mountain. THE BEAT GOES ON Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Karyn Ravin, president of Maletzky Media, was feeling perhaps what many communicators in the New York area were feeling. “Here we were in epicenter of the media, with all of all these programs to promote,” says Ravin. The gut reaction was to pitch clients, she says. “But we wanted to be respectful, so we just maintained the status quo.” Well, almost. Maletzky had some critical decisions to make about an event scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 30 for client Big City Moms. The organization’s Biggest Baby Shower event was expected to draw around 1,000 pregnant women. As weather predictions became more dire, they weighed the pros and cons of postponement. “We called our vendors and made sure everyone understood that safety was of the utmost importance,” says Ravin. The event, to be held at the Metropolitan Pavilion, was postponed until Nov. 19. But the PR show did go on at Maletzky. A satellite media tour set for Thursday with a client to remain unnamed went on as advertised, after the agency confirmed appointments with every single broadcast station that it was all clear. BAD WITH THE GOOD Not all PR work that went on during Sandy was deemed professional. Clothing retailers American Apparel and Gap were roundly criticized for sending out questionable messages to the public. On Monday afternoon, Oct. 29, as the storm hit New York and New Jersey, Gap tweeted the following: “All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?” Then, on Monday night, as the storm’s winds were clocking at 60-80 mph across the region, American Apparel sent out an e-mail blast offering 20% off to customers for the next 36 hours “in case you’re bored during the storm.” People wondered how these retailers could be promoting sales while much of the Northeast was suffering. But for the most part, communicators did their jobs. At LifeBridge Health, a healthcare organization in Baltimore, the communications team began planning for Sandy the week before it hit. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter and a blog would get the word out for the public, patients and staff. “A website would be ready at the push of a button,” says Betsy Haley, communications and social media manager, LifeBridge. The communications staff there was responding to the situation as needed, adds Noel Lloyd, LifeBridge’s communications coordinator. Yet they also wanted to be proactive, posting two quick videos on Facebook, one of them an interview with the head of the hospital’s command center. Speaking of being proactive, here’s some crisis planning advice from Mountain, based on her Hurricane Sandy experience: 1. Be inclusive. Make sure you establish open dialogue with all key stakeholders— before you call them in a crisis. Silos don’t work. 2. Keep messaging simple. Like 4-year-old simple. People must be able to follow your directions, especially in this type of crisis. 3. Try to keep a sense of humor. It may sound trite, but you’ll get through a crisis better if you keep thinking positive, and sometimes humorous, thoughts. Anything to get through a crisis of the magnitude of Sandy. Politicos Cite Devastation, Global Warming in Sandy Statements Most politicians made a statement after the clear devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy became known. But no comments were more important than that of the key players in New York and New Jersey—plus a couple of presidential candidates. Here are some excerpts of their statements, followed by short observations. • N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo: “We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems and that is not a good combination.” Cuomo puts global warming into play while giving his legislature some budgeting advice. • President Barack Obama: “America is with you; we are standing behind you; and we are going to do everything we can to get you back on your feet.” A presidential-like statement if there ever was one. • Presidential candidate Mitt Romney: “I have a job to do here in New Jersey that is much bigger than presidential politics. And I could care less about any of that stuff...If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.” In an insisting tone, Romney ensures the public that he means to concentrate on Sandy and not his campaign. • New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: “The level of devastation at the Jersey Shore is unthinkable.” As he does regularly, Christie chooses words that have a lasting impact both in the press and with the public. • NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be—given the devastation it is wreaking—should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.” Like Cuomo, Bloomberg takes the global warming path, and ends up endorsing Obama for President in the process. CONTACT: Amy Mountain, mountaina@etown.edu; Karyn Ravin, karyn@maletzkymedia.com; bhaley@lifebridgehealth.org; Noel Lloyd, nlloyd@lifebridgehealth.org com.

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