There's an interesting article in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle that restates what experts like my colleague Johnathan Bernstein have been saying for years: social media has almost eliminated the time you have to react to a crisis.
In the article, Chronicle writer Carla Marinucci describes how the proliferation of social media sites has created a new environment. Social media sites and, in particular, Twitter, have the ability to almost instantaneously shape public opinion. This is changing how media relations firms respond to crisis.
The message is clear and is not new: if you are still using the old ways of getting your story out, you have already lost your battle to maintain your organization's reputation in a crisis.
My old friend and colleague, the late Dave Fowler, taught me ages ago that one of the problems is that we train our media staff in public relations but not in crisis communications. This was in the day when we were transitioning from the standard twice-daily press briefings to the new world of constant news feeds. CNN was the game changer then and those of us who understood this did a better job of communicating our side of the story.
Times change and crisis communications has become even more complex and more critical. So give some thought to how you're preparing your media team. One person who handles press releases was never sufficient and will definitely not meet the needs of a modern crisis. Identify a team to support your regular media staff and provide training in crisis communications. When reaction time is measured in minutes, you don't have time to do this when it really counts.
NY did not mandate mitigation & Congress just rewarded them with BILLIONS. Not fiscally prudent to mandate/mitigate.
His point is well-taken and highlights one of the major problems with mitigation - it's ultimately about money (well, what isn't?). Our programs provide very limited funding for pre-disaster mitigation - much of our funding is provided after the fact which limits the benefits from mitigation. From one prespective it would seem fiscally prudent to wait to fund mitigation until you can use Federal dollars instead of local tax dollars.
However, such thinking ignores the opportunity cost of waiting until after a disaster to take action to reduce your losses. A 2005 study by the Multi-hazard Mitigation Council of the National Institute of Building Sciences, Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Assess the Future Savings from Mitigation Activities, found that ever dollar invested in mitigation saves society $4. The study also found that every Federal dollar invested in FEMA mitigation grants saved $3.65. This changes the cost benefit analysis consderably.
However, no matter how logical the argument for pre-disaster mitigation, we are still faced with the attitude that deciding to spend a dollar now in times of tight budgets is reality - potential savings are theoretical and besides, we all know "that won't happen here!" It's this same thinking that has resisted mitigation efforts on the East Coast barrier islands or the levees in California. For some reason, it always seems easier to fund rebuilding after the fact than to fund pre-disaster mitigation.
So it may well be fiscally prudent to bet on surviving a disaster and getting the Feds to pay but I think it's a sucker's bet and extremely short-sighted. Even if you win, you lose.
Case in point is the City of San Francisco which for years has worked to eliminate soft-story buildings that are prone to collapse in an earthquake. (Soft-story buildings are wood-framed, multi-story units that have either a garage or retail space that result in the removal of some of the building supports.) Since the program has been voluntary and the incentives to comply minimal, very few building owners have been willing to foot the expensive retrofit that involves installing a reinforcing steel frame. The City estimates that retrofitting the 2,800 most vulnerable buildings would cost $260 million but could save as much as $1.5 billion in earthquake damages.
Mayor Ed Lee has taken the unusual step of submitting legislation that would mandate the retrofitting of buildings of at least three stories and containing five or more dwelling units. Surprisingly for San Francisco (where politics is a blood sport), the Mayor seems to have the support of the Board of Supervisors (which functions as our city council) and the San Francisco Apartment Association, which represents landlords, even though funding details have not been worked out. Tenants groups are not yet onboard over concerns that the costs will be passed directly to tenants in a city where rents are already astronomical.
Mandating mitigation is politically risky and there's sure to be a lot of pushback on the Mayor's proposal. The success of the project will rise or fall on the answer to the age-old question, "Who pays?" There will no doubt be considerable discussion and compromise. But it is the right thing to do and it seems that the elected officials in San Francisco are willing to step up to the task.
For more information, see the story in the San Francisco Chronicle.