Friday, January 17, 2014

Missed opportunity

The 20th anniversary of the Northridge Earthquake has received what I would label as "modest" news coverage and attention.  Check: Make that "pathetic."

Remembering one of the biggest, most destructive earthquakes to hit California since the 1906 San Francisco killer (3,000+ died)  was a huge opportunity.

But, alas, that opportunity has come and gone.

If you ask the majority of the nearly 22+ million who live in Southern California about the Northridge quake, they may have some faint memory. Even among those who lived in the San Fernando or Santa Clarita valleys, or whose lives were disrupted because the Santa Monica Freeway was broken - they have put this quake in the lock box.   Ancient history.

What is was the missed opportunity?  A chance to compel people to be prepared. 

Some studies suggest that 40 percent of Californians are prepared for an earthquake.  First, I wonder how they define "prepared." But far worse: That means 6 our of 10 people are NOT prepared.  These are the folks who will come knocking on your door for food and water, placing an extra toll on emergency crews, jamming cell phone service (if it's available), etc.

In public relations, we know the difficult task of prompting people into action, especially when it comes to earthquake preparation.  Counties and cities do spend a scant amount of money annually to conduct campaigns.  However, "success" in these campaigns is measured with a low benchmark. I may draw some mean looks from my colleagues when I say this, but any participation mark lower than, say, 30 percent is, in my view, too low.  Set the bar higher.

Did news coverage of the Northridge quake prompt anyone to check their earthquake preparedness?  Probably not, since most of the coverage was focused on people's recollection, new earthquake standards and what governments are trying to do to create new building codes. There were a  few exceptions.
 
Our earthquake scientists used the opportunity to highlight the remaining problems, and, yes, the LA mayor did announce an effort to further prepare ourselves for the next one.  But, again, public attention to these "announcements" was scant. 

Why?

Timing and opportunity are everything in getting people to act.  An anniversary is a HUGE opportunity to go into over-drive on publicity, marketing and public relations. With focus on the anniversary comes a rare chance to flood multiple communications channels and launch multiple campaigns to get people to take precautions.

Why?  Behavior models will show you there are five steps to influence behavior - from the initial efforts to get attention to your issue, to getting people to recognize the issue matters to them, to prompting them to find out more about what you are talking about, to actually taking action.

The first few steps are crucial and is the equivalent to waving a hand in someone's face.  "Hey, over here.  I've got something important to tell you.  Yes, you.  Yes, it's important.  No, it will only take a second..."  Then, it's still a challenge to get them to take action. 

Consider your own reactions when you are leaving the grocery store and a signature gatherer asks you to support a ballot initiative. Your time is important, so do you really want to spend five minutes listening to this guy explain WHY this is an important issue?  And, then, if you are willing to stick around for this, do you take the next step to actually SIGN the petition?

The expected news coverage of the anniversary would have taken care of step one in this persuasion model. That is, now, an opportunity that has come and gone.  By this weekend, we'll be more concerned with a three-day weekend, the NFL playoffs, the weather or (as I write this - CA's drought declaration).  Our next opportunity will come with the annual "great shakeout" in October.


When there is silence on a topic, there is complacency. If we think we're safe, we relax. Just ask Japan.  Did more people get flu shots in recent days - only because we heard about people dieing? Why were these folks NOT motivated in the fall when the annual "flu shot" message was being given?


So, if you live in SoCal, just do yourself a few favors - Today, or at least on your day off Monday. 

Stock up on some canned food and non-perishables. Buy a few cases of water.  Know how to turn off the main gas valve. Strap a few things down or secure large cabinets to the wall. Review the family plan. Make sure you know who to notify.  Candles and flashlights. Fresh batteries.  A simple medical kit with plenty of antiseptic. Heck, go ahead and get a fire extinguisher.  Follow this guide.

We're WAAAY overdue. 


Friday, January 10, 2014

The big one

Pretty soon, you should be hearing about the 20th anniversary of the Northridge Earthquake that hit Southern California on Jan. 17, 1994.  A 6.7 shake that killed dozens, caused freeways to collapse, destroyed hundreds of buildings and more.

So, I'll get into the act early with my first few hours of hell.

A journalist at the time, my life predictably turned into one of those that define your career. Although 30 miles away from the epicenter, this one shook me hard, almost out of bed. The clock read 4:31 a.m.

I thought, "Damn, another one?"

At almost the same time (4:57 a.m.) on June 28, 1992, the 7.3-magnitude "Landers" earthquake had shook me out of this same bed and soon had me and a photographer heading to the epicenter to report on the damage there. (Landers is the middle of the Mojave Desert, so a large quake there did not cause as much property damage. Three people died, two of them from heart attacks. The cracks in the desert landscape were amazing).

I thought we would be done with a big quake for several years. After all, the 6.0 Sierra Madre quake had just hit a year earlier.

My initial reaction in the first few groggy seconds of Jan. 17, 1994 was this shaker was one of those famously large "aftershocks" to the Landers quake.  But, no, wait..... actually, this one felt too big for an aftershock.  Turning on the TV quickly confirmed that this one struck the San Fernando Valley with more serious consequences.  I thought, "Well, all my friends who talk about how CA will fall off into the ocean once day are now probably going bat-shit crazy: Three big quakes in three years!"  I wondered how many of my friends would be packing their bags for Colorado or Texas.

After making sure the family was safe -- remember, we did this drill back in 1992 -- and finally getting in touch with one of my editors who still phone service, I scrambled down to our Santa Clarita bureau, which also housed our printing press complex.

The printing presses were knocked offline and no one knew when they may come online.  As the hours passed, it would soon become one of the biggest questions facing my paper - can we even put out a paper tomorrow?

The roads on the way to the office were a mess.  A few fires had occurred and I could see fire trucks mopping up.  The radio in the car kept blaring out the updates.

I soon learned the Daily News' main office in Woodland Hills was in shambles. Had this quake struck during the day, I'm sure many of my colleagues would have been dead or severely injured because huge pieces of the building and light fixtures had fallen onto empty desks in the newsroom.

As it was, one of our photographers living in the Santa Clarita was almost killed by the book case that fell on his bed. He had just a leg bruise. A few inches separated his head from the heaviest part of the book case.

At the spacious Santa Clarita office I had a desk, some phone access and power.  But there would be no way the bulk our news team could use the offices in Santa Clarita because the quake took down the freeway leading up to our office from the San Fernando Valley. This same interchange at the Interstate 5 and Highway 14 in the narrow Newhall Pass was destroyed in the 1971 Sylmar quake. Plus, huge bridge sections of the 5 freeways beyond the pass had fallen.  The Santa Clarita Valley was, essentially, an island surrounded by broken freeways.

I would learn that an LAPD motorcycle officer rushing down the 14 freeway in darkness, on his way to help just  minutes after the quake struck, did not see that the interchange had collapsed. Officer Clarence Dean fell at least 40 feet and died instantly.  Yes, it was these same freeway overpasses and interchanges that had been rebuilt after 1971 with a stronger seismic standard...not.

In the days before cell phones, we had pagers. Today, they were dead or sporadically working. Phone lines were down in the Valley, so you could not "call into" those areas - even if we got paged to do so.  We had to make calls to friends outside the immediate area to to relay information. One of my editors, Pat Aidem, had to use this system to make sure her son was OK. He had been sleeping with friends in another city.  You live in Southern California long enough and you know how to do this "outbound" call system.  You also knew another trick - to dial numbers slowly to allow the telephone system time to "catch up" and send your call.  Dial too fast and you'll get a busy signal from this very over-loaded system.   I wonder if this would work today?  To this day, I keep a non-powered "land line"- just in case.

The main lifeline for our news team were radios installed in the fleet of vehicles used  by our photographers.  However, the main tower that "relayed" and boosted the signals of our car radios was down, so one photographer had to drive to the top of that hill and use his car radio to relay instructions and updates for the entire day. His car was the "relay station."  Being on that hill gave this photographer a "clear shot" to any of the other photographers below in the valley and now capturing the devastation. It was a smart move and I always commended Roger for giving up his chance to capture what any photographer lives for - just so his colleagues could do their jobs. What a sacrifice.


In Santa Clarita, we were driving out a few times from the office to survey the damage, interview people.  There wasn't any panic, but many scared people. The kids were most frightened.  But people seemed to be rallying, helping each other. I saw old folks being carried out of their damaged homes in chairs by complete strangers.  Broken water lines flooded homes and streets, and crews were out fixing them one at a time.   Batteries, water and potato chips were soon gone from the corner convenience stores that had power.  Other grocery stores lost power, but employees showed up and would relay bottles of water out from the back to customers standing in line. Cashiers improvised the payment system.  Sheriff's deputies kept close eye on these scenes.

We were instructed to come back to the office within an hour - to check in and give status reports.  Some kind of order was slowly returning ....then a 5.0 aftershock hit.  I was standing the rear parking lot of the printing press building........

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Trouble with the curve

Sometimes a great idea can be tripped up by the smallest of things.

In this case, Samsung had a great idea in bringing Michael Bay, the director known for filling our movie screens with eye-popping visuals, to introduce their new very large "curve" TV screen.  

But as we all know too well by now, Michael and the teleprompter went out of synch. Michael got flustered. Tried to save it.  Then said, "sorry" and walked off stage. The emcee recovered nicely. However, the story about the "curve" TV became how Michael had trouble with the curve ball thrown at him.

And, then, it became a mini feeding frenzy with bloggers and media. ("Meltdown" "Freak-out" Really Jim Edwards? "Peace the f*** out" Really Joshua Topolsky??   "Flame out" USA Today??)

Michael did post a note on his blog, which was good.  We PR folks would have advised him to do this, show a bit of humility.  A few others have chimed in about a "teaching moment" for anyone who is thinking of presenting live. 


Now comes the creative part.  What does Samsung do next?

Evaluate and monitor the reaction.
If this "flub" story has legs, do you just roll with the punches and consider any coverage to be good coverage for your product? The key here is to accurately measure whether this kind of news is actually contributing to more positive consumer reaction to the Curve.  Notice I didn't say "media" reaction because the carefully orchestrated roll-out effort that preceded Michael's appearance is already a media "win."  There are tons of positive stories, starting with the intro of an curved HD screen four months earlier at another trade show.

Dare we...
PR folks, and I'll include advertising, may wonder whether this incident could be turned around into an even more memorable effort a few weeks or months from now.  For example:  A cute advertising campaign could focus on how this new screen leaves you "speechless - even if you're Michael Bay."  Again, this will take some careful planning and, of course, Michael's approval.  Having fun, making light of a stumble can have positive PR results because we average humans love it when we can laugh at ourselves and take ourselves a bit less seriously. 

Stay tuned.

Jan. 8 update: WSJ reporting across-the-board challenges ahead for Samsung. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

RIP Mark Lacter

Tributes and recollections continue to pour in about Mark Lacter, a very fine journalist and an exceptional business editor.  After hearing from colleagues and reading other tributes, it is clear that Mark possessed some unique skills as a business journalist and editor. 

His business acumen.  Covering business is not easy. Companies tend to hide things, protect their reputation and dole out details in small chunks.   For many readers of business stories,the focus generally is on whether a company's stock is rising or falling, a new product, a profile of a quirky business, an acquisition or profiles of leadership.  Mark always knew there is more to covering business and challenge himself and others to dig deeper. As an editor, he challenged other writers.

There are plenty of great writers and editors who can take complex subjects and present them in easy-to-understand terms.  Mark went beyond this - primarily by either spotting trends or nuances that really mattered in our daily lives, and by challenging the assumptions and prepared statements of business leaders, elected officials and others.

There were trends that only Mark spotted.  I was constantly amazed by his attention to detail - he would hear someone raise an issue or make a statement and Mark would pull up a fact-based observation that challenged that convention. These details would be amassed from his ability to search, poke and prod.  There are plenty of business leaders, elected officials and source who would squirm under Mark's intense stare and line of questioning.  Why? Because he was smart, came prepared and ask questions no one else was considering.  There were the routine business stories that needed to be told, but Mark's quest was to report on those that deserved to be told.

Mark possessed a genuine curiosity - a trait not all journalist possess.  This served him well because he would not accept blanket statements or lines of thinking.  He would dig, scratch. He did not want to follow the patterns of other business writers.

What is amazing to me is that mainstream business news organizations did not grab Mark in these latter years and promote and nurture his brand of journalism. Sure, his freelance work was easily picked up by large news organizations and he was nominated for awards. But as a few others noted in their remembrances of Mark, he lacked an ego and was not pretentious. Did his lack of showboating keep him out of consideration for greater things? Who knows? 

What I hope will happen is that journalism schools will take note, and other business editors will study Mark's style - to show others one of the better examples of business writing and business editing.The nuts and bolts of Mark Lacter business journalism needs to be catalogued and chronicled.






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