By Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI
Director of Business Continuity and Crisis Management
NEW YORK — Last year, it was the Halloween Snowprise – an early cold snap fed by a lot of moisture that produced a foot of snow in some places, and felled leaf-laden trees and power lines, blacking out parts of the northeast US for days.
This year – Halloween Week could bring a trick some meteorologists are already calling “potentially historic” — a strong tropical storm or hurricane named Sandy, with the Northeast again in the crosshairs.
This rare climatic event could be what one network weather anchor called an “atmospheric bomb” – produced by a hurricane colliding head-on with a strong cold front. The jet stream bows northward as it approaches the coast, sucking the storm closer to land, instead of pushing it out to sea.
The scenario is eerily reminiscent of the 1991 “Perfect Storm,” which left 12 people dead and more than $200 million in damage after it slammed into the East Coast. Power outages and flooding were widespread.
Now is the time to prepare. And I’d urge broadcasters in the Northeast to learn the lessons of two radio group operators, who faced serious operational challenges following the EF-5 tornado that leveled a third of Joplin, MO in May 2011, and Hurricane Irene in August 2011, whose impacts were felt across the Northeast for days.
Zimmer Radio’s six Joplin radio stations became one on May 22, 2011 – literally at the flip of a switch. Knowing that the group’s news/talk KZRG would be at the center of any breaking news coverage, Zimmer had pre-installed a toggle switch to put the AM station’s programming on its FM music sisters whenever necessary.
The planning paid off. Before the storm hit – through its devastating march through Joplin – and in the days that followed, the Zimmer stations OWNED the story. They stayed on the air, and online, providing nine days of continuous live coverage.
Zimmer’s Joplin operations manager, Chad Elliott, says his strategy was simple and essential:
- Protect people, and maintain the integrity of the plant
- Maintain critical operations & systems
- Maintain clear communications to keep everyone on the same page;
make sure everyone understands and can implement the plan
- Understand the breadth and depth of the coverage commitment;
plan for the long-term
- Establish key relationships with officials, disaster response agencies & experts;
know how to reach them BEFORE, DURING & AFTER the emergency
- Put ONE person in charge of scheduling, and provide them with clear directions
Elliott says you then have to provision your plan:
- Be self-sufficient for the first 72 hours following any catastrophe
- Invest in a two-way radio system to maintain communications when wireless and wireline phone systems are inoperable or overloaded
- Lay in supplies of shelf-stable food and bottled water
- Have first aid supplies handy, and make sure your people are trained
to administer first aid
- Have cots or sleeping bags in storage, along with flashlights and plenty of
And Elliott goes on to emphasize the need to care for the OFF-AIR needs of your people:
- Be prepared to house their families and even pets for an extended period
- Get your staff off the clock as soon as possible, to give them a break from the pressure and strain – and keep them rested for a long stretch of extended shifts
- Provide mental health counseling (eight Zimmer staffers lost their homes and possessions in the tornado)
The payoff, says Elliot, was summed by the actions of one Zimmer advertiser – a casino whose spots were blown out for the duration of the storm. The casino told the station to forget the spots – and keep the money. A thank you, from a grateful community – for a job exceedingly well done.
For the Cox Media radio cluster in southeastern Connecticut, a “perfect storm” would be what Yogi Berra colorfully called “déjà vu all over again.”
Keith Dakin, the cluster’s operations manager, still tells vivid tales of how his stations – and the rest of Connecticut – felt the wrath of Hurricane Irene, which claimed two lives and left a third of the state blacked out for days.
The three big FMs in the cluster (Cox has a partnership with a fourth, smaller FM there as well) were still playing music the weekend before the hurricane – but knew full well that trouble was coming. All of the big Cox FMs were staffed with live talent, to provide continuous storm updates.
Irene hadn’t even thrown its hardest punch at Connecticut when the Cox facility, housing its three big stations, lost power. Generators kicked in – and operated continuously through the middle of that week.
As all hell began to break loose that Sunday, the weekday morning teams – the “big guns” at any station — reported for duty. And suddenly found themselves anchoring a news/talk format – some for the first time in their careers.
Dakin says the Cox cluster was the only Connecticut radio group providing saturation coverage of the storm – and found itself being used intensively not only by listeners, but by officials with critical information to communicate to the public.
Station managers immediately tasked a staffer with the sole responsibility of maintaining the stations’ social media presence, which allowed Cox not only to dispense information TO listeners, but also take it in FROM listeners at the same time.
Dakin’s stations did not normalize programming until the Thursday after the storm.
Both Cox’s Dakin and Zimmer’s Chad Elliott say they can relate to each other’s experiences.
Like Elliott, Dakin says you’ve got to have a strategy in place BEFORE an emergent event forces you to throw out your everyday playbook:
- A simple, instant way to put one station’s programming on all of your other stations is essential.
- Computerize your key emergency contacts, but keep a hard copy in all of your studios;
make sure that list is kept up to date
- Stockpile shelf-stable consumables, and pre-arrange lodging close to your facility
- Pre-arrange for generator refueling, and make sure your staff keeps all of their own
battery-operated devices charged
- Think about a backup transmission infrastructure
- And give your air personalities a quick hit of “Journalism 101” – make sure they know how to conduct a meaningful interview, and give them some research support so they can ask good questions on the fly
- Pay attention to rumor control. Vet ALL information coming in from unofficial sources BEFORE putting it on the air
- And partner with the TV news leader in your market. You’ll instantly double or triple the size of your field force, and bring additional expertise to bear on your own coverage.
TV will join you willingly; remember, when the cable goes out, over-the-air digital TV usually disappears, too (and no one will sniff at some cross-promotion)
- Set aside space for your salespeople – there will be sponsors who NEED to get on the air during an emergency, and your sales folks have to make that happen
- Social media outlets are as important – perhaps even more important – than your over-the-air signal. Dedicate resources to your social media efforts – and don’t forget pictures and video for your websites, which should be constantly updated
- Don’t hesitate to pull the trigger on your format, or on extended coverage
- Make sure you RESET the situation for your listeners EVERY 15 MINUTES AT LEAST…and DON’T BURY YOUR LEGAL ID. TELL PEOPLE THE TIME…listeners need to know to whom they are listening, where the station is located, and what time it is
- If you have the time to prepare for special coverage, cut some special imaging to “prime the pump” – and remind listeners you will be their reliable source for information, regardless of your usual format.
No matter where you operate, the response and resilience planning process is the same. Remember there are only SIX KEY IMPACTS that will affect any business in an emergency:
- Loss of Plant
- Loss of People
- Loss of Product (Technology)
- Loss of Cash Flow
- Loss of Reputation
- Internal & External Stakeholder Impacts (Staff, Listeners, Sponsors)
And to prepare for these impacts, you need to ask SIX KEY QUESTIONS:
- What is backed up HERE?
- Where do I go if I CAN’T operate HERE?
- What do I need when I get there?
- Are there interdependencies or special circumstances for which I must account?
- How do I communicate with and train up my people to successfully invoke my plan?
- How do I normalize post-incident?
You must assume you’ll be on your own for at least three days. Your plan must be simple – a checklist-style, graphics-driven format works better than long narrative – and it must be communicated and exercised often. Semi-annually at least, quarterly is better.
Build key public/private relationships with local officials and first responders in advance of any crisis. And of course, BACKUP EVERYTHING – preferably somewhere OTHER than your main facility.
Cross-train your staff so they can fill any position in a pinch; don’t even worry about the budget. Consider purchasing an offsite emergency notification system to mass message your staff. Control the chaos as best you can, stay calm on the air and online – and for goodness sake, keep good records for your auditors and insurers – and so you can document your great work for proof of performance imaging AFTER all danger has passed.
The disaster preparedness and resilience planning process really is that simple. And yet even readers who support it wonder how they’d pay for it.
Here’s the answer. Now, before the storm approaches, is the time to reach out to local insurance agents, hardware stores, truck dealers, landscapers, local utilities, hospitals, contractors – anyone who can offer HELP to your listeners before, during or after the storm — to sponsor special coverage as a contingency package, much like school closings during the winter. Create RePOs (Recovery Partnership Opportunities) – brand your advertisers as “Partners in Preparedness.” And let them share your reputation as the dependable source of authoritative information and other assistance when times are tough.
Informing and comforting the afflicted is still what radio does better than anyone else. Plan now so you can be your community’s light in the storm.
Howard B. Price is the director of business continuity and crisis management at ABC News in New York, charged with maintaining operational resilience at all ABC News platforms. He also serves as an in-house consultant to the ABC-owned Television Station Group. A 37-year veteran of radio, television and newspapers, he is a two-time EMMY Award winner, and a recipient of The George Foster Peabody Award. He has worked domestically and internationally as a news producer, assignment editor, bureau chief, reporter and anchor. Reach him at Howard.B.Price@abc.com, via Twitter at @mediadisaster, or though his website, MediaDisasterPrep.com.