It is Monday, January 26, 2015 as I write this, and New York, where I am based, is predicted to get hit by the largest snowstorm/blizzard ever in just a few hours. So how are elected officials handling themselves in the media so far?
Extreme weather situations present unique widows of media opportunity, both good and bad, to elected officials. Before the extreme weather hits, it is a uniquely good time for elected officials to communicate through the media. When a storm is looming, the news media, even the usually cynical political press, tend to play it straight. Elected officials get a lot of airtime to sound warnings and to help prepare citizens for dangerous situations, possible power outages, etc.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been omnipresent the last few days, and he has come across as responsible, measured and thoughtful. The mayor has achieved saturation coverage in all local (and some national) news media. Additionally, all government agencies appear to be well coordinated. As I came back to New York from Florida last night, I was struck by how neon warning signs every few miles on the highways warned citizens of the upcoming blizzard and begged people to stay off the roads as of Monday afternoon.
Additionally, all stories about the storm covered news on how city officials are covering roads with salt in advance, requiring street cleaners to work 12 hour emergency shifts as of today, and hiring a large crew of temp workers.
New York City officials are doing an excellent job of communicating to citizens that they re taking the storm seriously and are doing all they can to help citizens.
In some ways, a big snowstorm is a ideal communications opportunity for elected politicians. Here are several things that make snow different from trying to get attention for other public policies and actions.
- The media and the public are fascinated by the weather, so a politician is guaranteed coverage of almost anything said about extreme weather. People really want information about snow and snow prep.
- Extreme weather really is important, because people die when they don’t prepare properly. This forces the media to play it straight. Snow preparation isn’t seen as “political” by reporters or the public.
- Interesting visuals. Politicians get out of the office and their suits when snow emergencies begin. TV cameras get to show politicians in outdoor, casual gear in front of snow plows, and that makes for better TV.
- Be the hero. Smart politicians like Senator Cory Booker are out pushing cars from ditches (while the TV cameras roll), and this makes for great TV coverage as the hero/man(woman) of action.
So far, this all seems like good news for politicians. However, all of this good stuff ends after the snow has fallen. After a major snow storm, politicians are faced with the following potential crises, some of which can destroy entire careers:
- If streets of say, wealthy campaign contributors, get plowed faster than streets in middle and lower class neighborhoods, you can bet people will be screaming bloody murder. (this has happened in Chicago and elsewhere).
- If the streets of the wealthy are plowed last, then a politician can be accused of cheap populism (New York City’s Mayor was accused of this last year).
- Failure to manage expectations. If you say this is going to be the worst snow storm in 50 years and streets will be shut down for a week, you look like a genius if roads are open in 2 days. But if you fail to mention, in advance, how bad things are going to be, and then roads are closed for 2 days, you will look like a colossal incompetent. Same storm, different set of managed expectations.
- Worst of all, is if a politician is caught being outside his/her city when a storm hits, especially if that politician is in a sunny, tropical locale.
If you are planning your government’s emergency media response, call Media Training Worldwide at 212.764.4955