Atlanta SnowJam 2014: Crisis Communications & Non-Stop Reporting

A winter snow storm snarls traffic and closes schools and businesses in Atlanta

Traffic leaving downtown is snarled as a major winter storm dumps 1 to 3 inches of snow on Georgia and the metro Atlanta area causing early school closings and traffic nightmares that prompted Gov. Nathan Deal to declare a state of emergency as the snow turned to ice in Atlanta on January 28, 2014. David Tulis (www.davidtulis.com)

So here we are three days into what’s being called SnowJam 2014.  It’s certainly been a harrowing week, but the ice is melting, the cars are being reclaimed from the interstates and the high temperature will be 53 degrees on Friday.

But … the schools are closed again on Friday.  The national headlines are making city leaders cringe.

  • The Washington Post: “The South’s Disastrous Response to the Winter Storm”
  • Reuters: “Deadly ice story turns turns Atlanta into parking lot”
  • Christian Science Monitor: “Atlanta Gridlock Fiasco”
  • This Politico piece by Rebecca Burns is getting a lot of buzz as well as she gives an excellent overview of some of the foundational problems that combined to hit this week: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/01/atlanta-snow-storm-102839.html#.Uur__vldV8F.

So where are we from a communications point of view?

First off, I always like to make a separation between PR issues and operational issues.  My point is that often, and definitely in this situation, the negative press coverage is a direct result of things that didn’t work well from an operational place.

What’s that mean?

  • School districts could have cancelled classes entirely or earlier in the day.
  • The City of Atlanta could have pushed harder for businesses to close before noon. They could have tried that “staggered departure” idea, although I really doubt that would have helped.
  • The DOT could have deployed more equipment, salt and sand earlier in the week.

Negative operational issues cause negative press, right?  You don’t have those headlines if everything flows smoothly.

A winter snow storm snarls traffic and closes schools and businesses in Atlanta

Three buses and a fire engine are stuck in ice at 10th and W. Peachtree streets snarling traffic trying to exit the downtown area during a major winter storm that dumped 1 to 3 inches of snow and prompted Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to declare a state of emergency as the snow turned to ice in Atlanta on January 28, 2014. Photos by Atlanta photographer David Tulis (www.davidtulis.com)

Ok, so now on to the communications piece.  There’s been a lot of talk this week about the performance of Atlanta Mayor Reed and Governor Deal.  Watching press conference after press conference the last few days, I’ve listened to reporters hammer them with questions about who knew what and when, who should get the blame and what the city and state will do to make sure this doesn’t happens again the next time.

We say that in a crisis there are three rules: 1) Respond Quickly. 2) Respond Honestly. 3) Respond Completely.  Our leaders certainly hit number 1, but the second … two not so much.  Details are dripping out, extending the negatives of this story day by day.  The more GEMA and other elected officials don’t disclose, the worse it is, and will be, as the photos, emails and texts come out in the next few weeks.

  • The Governor and his head of GEMA were clearly not on the same page with their messages. Their timeline of events contrasts in a pretty negative way.
  • Deal reached a point Thursday where he finally took a “buck stops here” position and embraced responsibility for the problems. He declared a search for answers, something I know our local media will push him on.  (Sidebar: There’s nothing like getting reporters angry to get them really interested in a story.  Those media folks caught up in the traffic this week are primed to dig deep.)
  • Mayor Reed, to his credit, took a great deal of the impact nationally, appearing on Today and MSNBC.  Other officials have been hitting their local media (Example: Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul has been using Facebook to keep his citizens updated.)  but Reed has been prominent with the national outlets.  I wouldn’t say his every move has been correct the last few days, and I expect he and his staff will be reviewing his Today and MSNBC interviews for ways to improve (Note: I offer a nice media training session).
  • The problem was that Reed’s main message seems focusing on telling national media that he’s not in charge of the interstates.  That distinction between “Atlanta” and “Metro Atlanta” might play somewhat locally, but it just doesn’t go very far with national media.  

Non-Stop Coverage

We can’t talk about this week without talking about how hard our local media worked on the coverage of this story.  It’s almost not fair to spotlight any one outlet or reporter, because everyone worked so hard for some many non-stop hours.  The tough questions are being asked, leaders are being held accountable, and hopefully that’ll continue until changes happen.

  • I heard uncounted stories of reporters and anchors getting stuck in traffic and spending five or six hours trying to get to their stations or offices. Where many folks would have just gone home, they didn’t.
  • WSB-TV gets a shout out (no judgements here) for their on-screen reporter box with 15 (or was it 25) reporters in it.
  • Hats?  I think Erin Coleman and Blayne Alexander shop at the same hat store.
  • Kudos to the AJC and other newspapers that lifted the paywall on their digital editions this week.

Charlie Hayslett of The Hayslett Group, a top local PR firm, noted this week on his web site that the bad press is likely to come with a price, perhaps even losing a Super Bowl bid (http://www.hayslettgroup.com/2014/01/30/708/) .

I’m not entirely convinced of that, but there is no doubt of the potential for a negative economic backlash.  I’m just saying that if people are still going on cruises after all their noroviruses, blown generators and floating poop barges, then I’m pretty sure the NFL will bring the Super Bowl back to our lovely southern city!

Editor’s Note: “Next time” could be next week.  My Weather Channel app has little snowflakes on it for Feb. 7.

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1 Response to “Atlanta SnowJam 2014: Crisis Communications & Non-Stop Reporting”


  1. 1 Becky Hann Kraegel January 31, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    The only time Atlanta hosted the Superbowl (2000), we had an ice storm. Many downtown hotels had no power. The city was slammed by the press then, and the storm was later cited as a major reason the city was not granted another Superbowl. Now people want to blame this storm for what will most likely be a losing bid. The short memories of the leaders in this city and state are appalling. I wish local news would find footage of the government’s responses to criticism about semis on the interstates that followed the storm in 2011, and run it side-by-side with responses to the same criticism this time. I believe they’d be identical.


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