Houston Has Solved a Problem


The communications component of a crisis is often as much of a challenge as is the crisis itself.

Former Exxon Chair, the late Larry Rawl, was famously told in a congressional hearing that if the Valdez oil spill had happened in Japan the entire management team would resign to let others take over.

Mr. Rawl snapped back that the Japanese also kill themselves and he refused to do that. BP’s Tony Hayward, trying to manage the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and fire in the Gulf of Mexico ironically said he wanted his life back. This was a thoughtless comment given that eleven of his colleagues had actually disappeared in the disaster and were never seen again.

These unfortunate remarks happened on the international stage, but the same insensitivity can sink response to a local event too. Although there’s little advice on public communication in most of 100 urban emergency plans that I’ve studied, but Houston’s plan sets a very good tone.

“Be courteous and don’t play favorites…” is a solid start. Newsmakers say the darndest things to reporters, calling them left or right wing, saying their questions are stupid, or that they’ve asked the wrong question. This kind of abrasive behaviour would get you ostracized at a dinner party, and why some newsmakers think it will help the relationship with reporters is unfathomable.

Courtesy doesn’t cost anything and takes less time than discourtesy. The advice not to play favourites doesn’t work.  A newsmaker does have to deal with reporters on deadline ahead of feature writers whose magazine will publish a month later. But with all reporters on the same deadline, they should all be treated much the same.  One confusing matter these days is that most media also have websites with print, audio and video on them—so determining deadlines is tough.

Houston’s plan goes on: “avoid ‘off the record’ remarks…Never say anything you would not want to see printed or broadcast…” This sounds obvious, like not volunteering to a traffic cop what’s in your glove compartment if it’s inappropriate.

Many newsmakers think they will ingratiate themselves with a few juicy “off the record” remarks. But this raises a question.  What does it mean to have a remark “off the record…on background…on deep background…not for attribution…”? There’s no consistent definition among reporters, news outlets or spokespeople. Oh…except that what’s off the record is what you didn’t say.

“Listen to the reporter’s questions” is good advice in an emergency because if reporters have to make a public point of repeating the same question, it sounds as if you’re being evasive.

“Don’t accept the reporter’s definitions of what happened…Pause, think; take more time if you need it…” is logical advice from Houston’s plan writers, because by definition you, the expert, know what happened, what the issue is, and what can be discussed better than a reporter who has just arrived on the scene. If you don’t know, say so and also say when you might know.  You can also say that one of your colleagues might know.  Or you can say that no one may ever know.  What’s the truth?

“Respond only to the question you’ve been asked. Don’t speculate. Stick to the core message” is even more powerful advice if you recognize that the reporter might not be on the right track and adding safe, rehearsed, powerful information can be a good upgrade. But this can’t be done on the spur of the moment.

All cities need pre-written messages, policies and fact sheets to give reporters the ammunition they need to fill pages and newscasts in an emergency.

No urban emergency plan is perfect, but Houston’s sets a high standard for communication policy.

What to Wear


In 1967 Singer/Songwriter Scott MacKenzie (Philip Wallach Blondheim) gave some advice that may still hold.  “If you’re going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear/Some flowers in your hair.”  I did go, several times.  I dined at the Cliff House, Fisherman’s Wharf, and put a quarter in the human jukebox.  The human jukebox occupied a very tall cardboard box and would raise the cardboard flap and blow a tune on his trumpet when called upon.    

MacKenzie sang his advice after being a member of the Journeymen during the folk era, the group that included his mum’s friend John Phillips.  Phillips wrote and co-produced San Francisco before moving on to The Mamas and the Papas.  MacKenzie wrote for Anne Murray.  Phillips and MacKenzie reunited in the 1980s in a new Mamas and Papas and to write and produce Kokomo for the Beach Boys.   

That was a while ago. But today I’d wear red if I were going to Kansas City, Missouri.  The reason is their START program.  This stands for Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment.  Volunteers will be conducting triage at the scene of an urban emergency using a color-coded system.  From the bottom up, Green stands for a minor injury, Yellow means attention can be delayed, Red requires immediate attention and Black is for Deceased.  

I say volunteers because in an emergency, as in war, everybody gets promoted one rank.  It will no doubt be someone’s intention to have trained medical personnel conduct triage, but they will end up providing actual medical treatment, not assessment.  A range of volunteers, medical students, yoga instructors and others will be doing triage—believe me.

Will they know what a dead person looks like?  Do you?  I am not sure I can distinguish a dead person from someone in extreme shock or a coma.  Years ago I saw people in catatonic trances before medication all but made the condition disappear.  They looked dead, but weren’t.  I don’t want to bet my life that a well-meaning volunteer with no medical training in Kansas City can.  So, I’ll wear red, signalling I need immediate attention and am not dead.  

In Houston they too have a triage guideline that I don’t want to be part of.  Black is also the category you don’t want to be in.  But in Houston there are several levels of dead—cardiac arrest, obviously deceased, and severe multiple blunt trauma non-survivable. That last category is probably more accurately termed ‘almost’ dead to be precise.  By deceased, Houston plan writers also mean “Non-Urgent.”  What an ‘urgent’ death might be is not stated.     

Speaking of the color black, as in the Black Death, San Francisco uses this color to signify the worst kind of emergency needing immediate attention.  So if this city is in the category “black” it’s a clue to send all possible assistance.  If a person in Houston or Kansas City is the category “black” that means give them no assistance—there’s no point.  

Perhaps on second thought I’ll wear a sign that says, “I’m not dead…really.”

Birmingham seems almost alone among urban emergency plans studied in its reference to the need for an emergency mortuary.  But that’s a reality check for urban emergency planners and the people who will have to use the plans they write.

There will be death–death of pets, livestock, and people.  Traumatic as this will be, the public health implications and logistical challenges will be an equal or greater challenge.  Some have talked about pre-arranged agreements with undertakers.  Others think of using hockey and curling rinks to store bodies.  Kansas City’s pet-plan is about the most comprehensive and speaks of incinerators and crematoriums.  

This is not pleasant.  But not planning for the unpleasant is worse.