February 4, 2014

Lessons learned from Atlanta's PR disaster

Hibre Teklemariam
When Atlanta was hit with Winter Storm Leon last week, the city ground to a halt within hours, leaving millions of commuters, school children, and members of the workforce stranded where they were. Roads became clogged with cars as conditions worsened, eventually deteriorating to highways made all but impassable by sheets of ice. And almost immediately, the media noted how unprepared the City of Atlanta seemed to be. Why wasn’t the city prepared for the oncoming weather? Why weren’t schools and public offices closed? And, most importantly, where was the leader who should have been seeing to those tasks?

As Tuesday turned into Wednesday and the national media continued to report on the plight of Atlantans, the mayor and governor’s offices began to respond to the crisis. Mayor Kasim Reed pointed to the simultaneous release of schools, government offices and business as the cause of traffic congestion. Meanwhile, Governor Nathan Deal claimed the unexpected storm had caught the city off guard. Deal’s point was shown to be false, though, as the National Weather Service released an emergency weather warning for the Atlanta metro area in the early hours of Tuesday morning—twelve hours before traffic ground to a halt on highways across the area. Neither man, though, took ownership of the situation, opening their offices to more and more criticism from the media and citizens.

Three of SunStar’s own were in Atlanta as the storm hit and experienced firsthand the hardships that faced commuters trying to leave the city. I recently sat down with Account Executive Hibre Teklemarian, one of our intrepid trio, to get her take on what Atlanta’s government could have done to avoid this Public Relations disaster. She identified three main problems that officials faced, and solutions to fix them.

Problem #1: No contingency plan.
In between the excuses that Mayor Reed and Governor Deal offered as to why Atlanta was crippled during this storm, it quickly became obvious that there was no contingency plan in place. First responders could not reach the stranded and, without that resource, many people were left to await the arrival of the National Guard to receive essentials like food, water, and blankets. Waiting for the federal government to step in—not to mention images of the National Guard handing out basic necessities—detracted from local authorities’ already damaged public image, making Atlanta and her citizens seem even more fragile to the millions of Americans watching the news.

Solution #1: Develop a contingency plan, now!
In the past few days, Governor Deal has formed a severe weather task force to examine exactly what went wrong as Leon bore down on Atlanta. Sixty days after its first meeting, the task force will deliver a report on measures that should be taken in instances of severe weather. The question, though, is why this wasn’t done before. In January of 2011, Atlanta was hit by a severe ice storm that crippled the city for a week—during Governor Deal’s inauguration, no less. Creating a contingency plan will go a long way towards making Atlanta look and, more importantly, be more prepared the next time a major winter storm hits.

Problem #2: Ignoring available resources.
Atlanta was absolutely at a loss last week as they battled major snow and ice with the city’s meager fleet of ten snow-plows. The second most important thing on many people’s wish list during the storm, though, was information, and it was nearly as elusive as road maintenance. Hibre noted that “everyone had out their smart devices—phones, ipads, anything with 3 or 4G capabilities—looking for basic information about emergency services, but the information wasn’t there.” One woman took matters into her own hands by creating a Facebook group dedicated to helping the stranded find a warm bed or a meal nearby. Her efforts to rally the community and connect people with the resources they needed were so successful that NBC Nightly News aired a segment on the group.

Solution #2: Use what you have.
A quick check around the world of social media reveals that the city of Atlanta has active Facebook and Twitter accounts. Both are updated frequently, but mostly with links to articles that have been posted to www.atlantaga.gov. It would have been helpful during the storm to report road closures, traffic conditions, and emergency instructions using #ATLStorm. A hashtag would have quickly started trending on social media sites and given people in need a direct link to emergency personnel and guidance from Atlanta’s leadership.

Problem #3: Being reactive.
Throughout the storm and the following days, Mayor Reed and Governor Deal appeared to be chasing the news, not creating it. Instead of heading off challenges and anticipating questions, they reacted to problems only after they arose. This problem is evident in the fact that Atlanta still lacks a contingency plan (see problem #1) after the last ice storm it encountered in 2011. Perhaps less frustrating than lapses in tangible comforts, but far more damaging to Atlanta’s public perception, is the appearance of disorganization and dysfunction given by reactivity.

Solution #3: Be proactive.
It would be wonderful to move forward from this winter and expect for Atlanta to never be hit with another ice storm. Looking back over its history, though, it seems much more prudent to expect bad winter weather with some regularity. Over the past eighty years, Atlanta has had eleven storms that dumped four inches or more of snow and ice over the region. That amounts to a storm similar to Leon occurring on average every seven years. With that in mind, Atlanta officials should consider how they will deal with the next major storm in every detail, from staggering closures to help traffic move more smoothly, to developing emergency resources that can be broadcast out to citizens and residents in advance of the storm.

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