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Monday, November 24, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 8/7/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

COMMENTARY

During crisis, Toledo failed on PR front

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

There are three aspects to Toledo’s historic water crisis, which is historic for the Great Lakes and the nation as well as Toledo. Three aspects, and three areas of inquiry and discussion.

The first is: What precipitated the crisis?

The second is: How well did the city government respond to it?

The third is: How well was information disseminated and how good was that information?

I don’t feel like I know enough yet about the first aspect. And I think the public has a right to know. How did this go down? The whole story.

The second aspect will take a while for the entire community to wrestle with. I will say that my impression, at this moment, is that the city did a good job of dealing with the crisis itself. Fire Chief Luis Santiago was the incident commander, and he is a cool professional. But city employees in general, including the mayor and his chief of staff, gave their all, protected the public, got emergency water to people who needed it, and got the water system back on line.

So why are so many people disappointed and cynical about how it was handled?

I think because of the low quality of the public information in this crisis.

The Collins administration did not communicate well.

Let’s start with the first notice of the crisis — on Facebook at roughly 2 a.m.

In the emails and phone calls I have been getting, there is near-universal agreement on this: That doesn’t cut it.

Northwest Ohio has an emergency alert system, part of Ohio’s emergency alert system. It should have been used fully. TV, radio, and the newspapers should have been notified immediately. There should have been an email blast. The mayor should have first appeared at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. not approximately 9:30 a.m.

When I say should, I mean all this is what we can see in hindsight. I don’t blame the mayor or his people for not being fully ready. No one could have been. The question is what they have learned going forward.

There is much improvement to be made.

I have been talking to several current and former public relations professionals. One interesting person I spoke with was David Meeker,who is a former reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, press secretary to the mayor of St. Louis, and a longtime PR man. He teaches a graduate seminar in “strategic public relations” at Kent State University.

It turns out that there are protocols to managing emergency information. Here are four of the big ones:

1) There should be regular and orderly news conferences.

The standard is every four hours and in the same place. They should be conducted with decorum. The media should never be promised a specific kind of information at a specific time when the promise cannot be kept.

2) The mayor should act as CEO at the news conference — introducing, in this case, scientists and health professionals and placing them at the fore. The CEO should not be the person the press gets information from.

3) The focus should be totally on hard information and as much of it as possible.

No one speaking at the news conference should veer into opinion, or sermonizing, or a rant.

Mayor Collins’ malapropisms are inscrutable to some, endearing to others. But: “I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal, but this is not going to be our new normal ... Our city is not going to be abandoned.” Or: “Juan Valdez is knocking at our door” — distracted everyone during the crisis and obscured the good things his government was doing.

4) Finally, in a case like this, the science has to be explained, and in the clearest, simple English possible. It wasn’t, and it still has not been.

Mr. Meeker said that “... in a case like this, it is almost always better for the primary spokesman to be a person with technical or scientific background,” because he has credibility.

He also said something that hit me hard: “It’s not over.”

A crisis like this is not over until fail-safes and changes in policy are in place and people know it and believe it.

He said there should be a daily briefing by the city, detailing, each day, the progress that has been made.

This should go on until public confidence is restored.

He said the city should consider establishing a 24-hour hotline, which residents could call to discuss the water issue.

He said that, when adequate progress has been made, the administration should hold a town forum and come before the public to answer all questions.

Mr. Meeker said: “You can’t overcommunicate.” He said the city has to tell everything it knows, as fully and as truthfully as it can, as quickly and efficiently as it can.

The Collins administration undercommunicated. I think the mayor should call for the help of outside communications professionals just as he has called for the help of outside professionals in chemistry, engineering, and microbiology.

I spoke with a longtime TV news director this week. Smart guy. He told me he and his staff are gathering soon to critique themselves: How did we do informing and educating the public? What did we do right and what did we do wrong? What are the take-away lessons?

The Collins administration needs to put itself through the same exercise — and share the results with the public. First, because the public is entitled to this information, but also because it is the only way to begin to turn around the huge damage that has been done to the city’s reputation nationally. Perception is not only the presentation of reality. It can become reality.

We don’t want to be seen as the city on the lake where you cannot drink water. Or as a city that reacted to crisis like a bunch of discombobulated hysterics. And that’s how we looked at the end of the mayor’s news conference Tuesday, when the mayor began to lose his cool and his press secretary tried to abruptly and clumsily end the briefing. That was not the face we want to show the world.

We want to be seen as a city that deals with crisis in an orderly, rational, and forward-thinking way. I am gathering thoughts on forward motion now. Send me your ideas.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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