Lessons Learned from Protests, Power Failures and Prolonged Snowfall

| December 3, 2014

By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity

 

pricehowardbwriterNEW YORK — Recent days have brought broadcasters across the country a trifecta of disasters.

In Ferguson, Missouri – where tensions between police and the public were inflamed after the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer  – the community’s public safety resources found themselves overwhelmed when anger turned to outrage and to violence.

In Western New York, the snow started and didn’t stop until parts of the region were buried under five or more feet.  Transportation in many areas was seriously disrupted; folks were trapped on deserted, snow-covered roads and waited hours for rescue.  Suddenly, a region famous for its sense of community felt very isolated.

And just the other day, downtown Detroit was plunged into darkness when a major cable that was part of its aging municipal power system failed.  The system is being transitioned to the larger, better-resourced DTE utility – but that process could take up to seven years to complete – a long time to wait for badly needed modernization.

In each case, so many people turned to local radio and TV first for information and reassurance.

But if you wait for civil unrest to break out, wait until a blizzard is upon you, or wait until the lights go out before planning for and resourcing a response to these events, you have waited too long to make sure you can respond when your listeners and advertisers need you the most.  Delaying the implementation of a robust emergency action plan – and properly resourcing it – exposes you to the risk of being ill prepared to respond quickly, competently and meaningfully.  And a bad response – or worse, no response — may do irreparable damage to your reputation for reliability and service.

The good news is that regardless of the bad thing that befalls you, the planning and resourcing process is pretty much the same – because effective planning is done not by scenario – but by impact.

And this is where it gets easy and simple.  There are SIX and ONLY SIX bad things that can affect your station or any other business in an emergency:

    • Loss of People
    • Loss of Plant
    • Loss of Production Process
    • Loss of Cash Flow
    • Loss of Reputation/Brand
    • Third-party Stakeholder Impacts

You need to have provisions at the ready to keep your people on site and working, on the assumption that relief may not always be possible.  You need to be able to get by with FEWER people than normal, if folks can’t or won’t come in.  They need a place to nap, food and drink to sustain them, a warm shower, time and space to decompress from what are sure to be extended shifts on the air.

You also need to have their back when it comes to supplying them with a steady stream of reliable information, and the ability to access sources who can help bring depth and expertise to coverage of any emergent situation.  That means documenting key sources, building relationships with subject matter experts and first responders, being able to reach them wherever they happen to be and engaging audience members who can bring both emotion and information to your coverage.

You need to harden your plant – make sure its backup systems are comprehensive and are tested regularly.  You need to take prudent steps to secure it against physical threats and protect the critical infrastructure essential to your workflows. You need to stop treating your digital assets as stepchildren to your broadcast operations.

You make your production process resilient by having an alternate location from which you can operate – perhaps it’s your transmitter site, or a distant news bureau.  Maybe it’s the media center of your local high school or college – maybe it’s a sister station in your cluster, or even a competitor.  Maybe it’s a hotel conference room – or the station promotion van.  And you need a plan for transferring your operations there, and back again when things normalize.

Cash flow likely will be a critical problem for standalone stations that are not group-owned and may not have the deep pockets of larger operations.  So reserves need to be a part of your financial planning year to year to assure that for however long you can’t run commercials, you can still buy what you need and pay your recurring bills.  And in case you didn’t know, there are actually advertisers who need and WANT to be on your air in times of crisis – make sure you empower your sales team to help them.

Third-party impacts can involve your supply chain, so make sure you hold your vendors to the same rigorous preparedness standards you set for your own organization.  Make sure you’re on priority service restoration lists, for example, and have diverse suppliers for key resources.  Third-party impacts can also involve the families of your staff, who may be facing personal challenges and traumas.  Make sure you can provide counseling to ease your people and their families through difficult times – and take bold steps to show how much you care.  Be prepared to open your facilities to staff families – pets, too – to provide refuge from catastrophic events.

If you do all of these things, negative impacts to reputation and brand will be zero.  Positive impacts will be incalculable. But ONLY if you don’t hesitate to pull the trigger, blow up regular programming as appropriate, and worry first and foremost about staying ahead of the story — and about your people.

As I tell broadcasters so often: We don’t have licenses to play long music sweeps, harp about politicians, or give away family four-packs to a concert.  We have licenses to serve the public interest…and if we do that right, we build listener and advertiser relationships that make all the rest possible.  And we remain uniquely relevant in an age of media fragmentation and competition for the hearts and minds of our audience and our clients.

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Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is director, business continuity for ABC Television Network. He can be emailed at Howard.B.Price@abc.com or phoned at 212-456-1073.

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Category: Advice