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. 


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. 

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