Friday, December 9, 2011

Why speed kills

Southern California and other parts of the state were hit last week (Nov. 30-Dec. 1) by a weather system with all the resulting damage resembling a major tornado in the Midwest.

Take a moment to visualize this. Thousands of trees blown down, many onto power lines, cars, homes and streets. Roofs blown off homes. Large metal canopies toppled. Damage expected to be in the millions of dollars, but even officials are reluctant to come up with more exact estimates. Winds topping 150 mph over mountaintops, but probably higher because the machines could record faster speeds.

As a former journalist who has covered disasters across the country, this event had all the severe markings of an F1 or larger tornado. A disaster not as bad as the Northridge Earthquake or this past April’s tornado outbreak – there were no deaths, thankfully - but much greater as average natural disasters go. Certainly, worse than most floods or brushfires. A “tornado-like” scene is a phrase I would have chosen to use if I were still writing newspaper stories.

Currently, as a veteran public relations professional who prepares crisis preparedness and crisis communications plans for public agencies and private companies, the shoot-from-the-hip criticisms and questioning we recently heard from public officials and others are, sadly, to be expected and planned for in our modern era of unrealistic expecations.

Rather than learn from this experience, use this as an ideal opportunity to remind residents about preparing for a major disaster and draw comparisons to recovering from a tornado, one of the first major public statements we hear from elected officials is a loud chastisement of electric utilities for such silly things as not effectively communicating with its customers about the status of restoring power.

Does the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors really need to chew out a utility just days after a disaster and while they are still trying to make repairs on a 24-hour basis? Does the California Public Utilities Commission really need to investigate Southern California Edison for a “prolonged power outage?” This wasn’t a typical “power outage” where we find when a few transformers blown up. This was widespread destruction.

Where do such critical responses – a seemingly growing bash fest – come from? It is very likely because of what behavioral scientists have been telling us: Changing perceptions and expectations skewed to the here-and-now thanks in part to speed-of-light technology. We now live in an era where we expect instant results and rely on immediate communications. We can’t wait for answers so we make fast conclusions (Thank you, TMZ and Fox News). We want our opinions to be heard (Thank you, Facebook and blogs). Our expectations are now so maladjusted that acceptable behavior includes making broad, baseless accusations before we wait for more information and more facts (Thank you, Twitter and the “comment” section at the bottom of news stories on the web). A recent Newsweek article (“Money Brain”) discussed the impacts of the Twitter generation, that one-click shopping and instant messaging encourages a desire for instant gratification. Even comedians joke about impatience – the Lewis CK YouTube video “Everything’s Amazing, but Nobody’s Happy” has registered more than 5 million views because he skewers, among many targets, a spoiled, impatient airline passenger who lost Internet service.

And do impatience, instant gratification and skewered expectations affect memory? How soon did we forgot the early warnings from Southern California Edison and others that this “severe wind event” was significant enough that it would take “several days” to repair electrical lines? How soon did our own county officials forget that they regularly affix their names to emergency preparedness statements that, for example, advise residents that they may have to assume they will “be on their own” for several days in a major disaster? These warnings further advise resident not to expect contact with authorities or from utilities because they are placing all their efforts at restoring power, water and gas.

Expectations. We all know the images from the Midwest when a tornado cuts a path across a town. We don’t blink an eye when we hear, weeks later, that people are still recovering from the disaster. Yet, in a wind storm that remained severe for two days and wiped out power to nearly one-half million people (not a Midwest town of 30,000, mind you), the current state of expectation is: Why are you not moving faster? Why have you not catered to my need to get twice-a-day or more frequent updates on the situation? As a professional communicator, I must now advise companies that should they experience a crisis they will be forced to expend considerable resources to provide constant updates over multiple platforms, spend money on advertisements apologizing for not performing at super-hero speed and cater to “stakeholders” they never knew existed. And the statements they make must be short and lack any forward-thinking phrases so as to avoid a possible lawsuit.

Seventy years ago, it was hours before the mainland United States heard the news that Pearl Harbor was bombed. If the same happened today, millions would have known about it in seconds via Twitter. A former General Motors Chairman said he could take up to a week in the 1970s to make an important decision. Today, CEOs of major companies are under the pressure from a global market that never sleeps to act on major issues within hours, sometimes minutes.

It’s all about meeting expectations skewed by a faster moving and more demanding society. Somewhere along the way, patience was replaced by indignation.

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