Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Complete Disaster 

There are disasters beyond crisis management control. They are so large and so complete that nothing one does can handle the outcome. As you may have been reading, the week-long power outage in New York City appears to have been one of those.

The sequence of events seems to point to a man-made disaster that came from a judgment call. The utility was trying to do the right thing for customers during a small blackout and apparently created a major failure. Rather than shutting down an entire area when some cables began to fail during a heat wave, the utility decided to run the system the best it could. That didn't work because for some unknown reason, all the other feeder cables overheated and failed too. Suddenly, the utility was faced with replacing all underground feeder cables to 100,000 consumers in the middle of the heat wave. Worse, the utility did not and could not know what cables had failed except by calls from customers. It first thought that a few had been blacked out, then it realized it was a few more, then a great deal more and finally, about 100,000.

Combine furious, sweating customers with incomplete information and a slow rewiring of the underground system over seven days and you have a disaster that no PR crisis plan can handle. New York's mayor defended the utility but that didn't prevent a number of politicians from demanding the resignation of the utility's CEO. The CEO apparently kept a level head and concentrated on getting the system back up, but progress was slower than expected and dragged on while the temperature soared. Of course, there were TV stories of utility company drivers sleeping in their vans to help inflame opinion.

How would you like to be the crisis communicator on this incident? There will be blame and lawsuit for months to come. It will take years for the utility to regain its reputation.


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