Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Panic and Politics Make Bad Advisors

Congressional Hearing Today With U.S. Department of Energy Sec. Steven Chu

For six long days, the world has watched as Japanese coastal communities, devastated by last Friday's earthquake and resulting tsunami, struggle to restore vital infrastructure for communication, transportation and electricity.  Among the damaged facilities are nuclear energy plants in the Fukushima prefecture. Sensational headlines on major news sites are begging the question: “What if this happened here?” 

The tragedy that has unfolded as a result of this unprecedented series of natural disasters is being overshadowed by the emergency operations underway at these nuclear energy stations.  Broadcast coverage has ranged from informative to absurd.  Nobody is helped by headlines like “Japan Facing Nuclear Nightmare.”

Because of PCG’s long history in the electricity sector, we’ve become the touchpoints for information from many friends and family - folks just looking to make some sense out of the constant coverage. 

The information gap Americans – and people all around the world - are trying to fill to understand the event became clear this morning when our building’s maintenance engineer stopped to ask me and my colleague if we thought the Japanese plants could blow up like a nuclear warhead. We assured him, no. It was evident his question was spurred on by the deluge of news stories predicting the worst.  

For utilities, this represents a big challenge to explain why U.S. plants are safe. So how do you combat this perfect storm of fear and sensationalism? We are encouraging our clients to remember crisis communication principles.

1.     Know your audience and be aware of their concerns, biases and fears. PCG has been providing traditional, online and social media monitoring reports to our clients multiple times throughout the day to ensure no surprises as they develop appropriate responses to an evolving situation.

2.    Avoid discussions of relative risk. Reporters are clamoring to connect the events in Japan with what could happen here. As is often the case, it is impossible to truly compare a plant in the U.S. with a plant on the western shore of Japan. It’s important to talk about what we do know rather than speculating. 

3.    Keep your message simple and positive.  When asked if a plant in the U.S. is safe, it is tempting to provide an answer loaded with detail and technical information. Sometimes, the audience simply needs to hear a simple yes and then one or two quick supporting points why. This is a fast moving situation and a new update comes out every five minutes. These unpredictable changes require spokespeople to constantly take a step back and make sure the messages are well-formed, simple and salient.

Even though the news about Japan will evolve five minutes after this is posted, these crisis principles remain constant.

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