Hitting the Target in crisis communication

targetI received this email (right) from the CEO of U.S. retailer Target Corp. (“Expect more. Pay less.”) in January. Target sent it to 70 million past and present customers. I thought it was a scam or spam because I haven’t had a Target account for 20 years. My son got the same message, and he discovered it wasn’t a scam: http://read.bi/LtorDk

Background: Hackers stole card numbers and personal information of maybe 100 million Target store customers (not online shoppers) in a two-week rip-off during the year’s busiest shopping season. New York Times http://nyti.ms/1dEqI8E

Timeline of Target’s “data breach” http://strib.mn/1jsB2lL

I was in Minnesota on 19 December when the theft was announced (Target is headquartered there) and have watched the company’s crisis communication since then. I.T. professionals will know more than I about lapses in Target’s information security, but I think the company’s crisis communication has been remarkably well-organized.

  • Once you know it’s real, the letter is simple and clear. The CEO is apologetic, offers a remedy and a Target website to go to get more information.
  • His email has the company’s logo but no other graphics, and the links in his message are in plain text, not HTML. Someone in Target’s Guest Relations or Press Relations understands the basics of email security.

Why PSA’s don’t work

For preparedness messages, as in stand-up comedy, timing is everything.

After thousands of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) like “preparedness for individuals” (in English and in Spanish), “preparedness for business” and “preparedness for New York City,” and websites like Ready.gov, only 6% of Americans have done any preparation at all, and just 17% say they’re ”very prepared” for disasters. You might conclude, as the authors of this article did, that The Preparedness Message Isn’t Reaching the Public (from the November 2012 issue of EmergencyMgmt magazine).

PSA’s do reach lots of people, of course, but they don’t seem to motivate people to prepare. Why?

No one is motivated by gory pictures or finger-wagging lectures from public figures. I know I’m not – and I’m generally receptive to preparation messages because I make my living spreading them. In fact, images of leaking nuclear power plants, collapsed houses, flooded villages, even distraught victims don’t motivate us; they overwhelm us. ‘Well, it’s hopeless’, we think to ourselves, or ‘I can’t do anything about it anyway.

Yet thousands of people all over the world donate generously to relief efforts for people they’ve never met in other countries- in Haiti, in Japan, in Indonesia – out of desire to help after a disaster. They won’t prepare themselves in advance, but they’ll willingly help others afterward.

Crowd-sourcing haze response in Asia

To stop annual fires that threaten the health of millions of people in Southeast Asia, separate the science of location from the politics of responsibility

A few months ago smoke from illegal burning in Indonesia represented an immediate danger to life and health in Singapore, where I live. On Friday June 21, “haze” originating in Indonesia caused Singapore’s Pollutants Standard Index (PSI) to peg the meter at 401, an airborne contamination level at which it is not only hazardous, but genuinely difficult, to breathe.

I think life-threatening haze from illegal fires fits into any broad definition of the word “disaster.” Haze reaches Singapore most years in the dry season when land in Indonesia is cleared for farming, but the consequences hadn’t been so miserable since the “large-scale air quality disaster” of 1997. There is no reason to expect it will stop until its perpetrators (by whom I mean landowners of palm and pulpwood concessions, not just the farmers who do their bidding) are stopped. Resilience professionals – emergency managers, business continuity managers, risk managers, crisis managers, security managers – could help.

As a downwind resident and as a resilience professional, I really want to know exactly where the burning plot is located so someone can figure out who owns it and who is responsible for burning it illegally. Helpless in the haze, Singapore government agencies pressed officials in Indonesia to make their land-ownership maps public specifically for those purposes.

Designing better emergency procedures

I recently found this two-page sheet of emergency procedures for Chevron House, an office building in Singapore’s Raffles Place. Chevron House has for many years had biometric fingerprint readers for access control, the only building in Singapore at which I’ve seen them. They must take security and emergency preparation seriously. I’m glad the property manager thought it worthwhile to create instructions for tenants (a visitor wouldn’t be answering a bomb threat call).

If you were designing something similar for your workplace, I’d suggest these improvements.

  1. The Office Emergency Procedure side says, “Please keep this in a prominent place”, but the Bomb Threat Checklist side says “Place this card under your telephone.” Both are good advice – for separate sheets of paper. The bomb threat side should be laminated if it is to survive under the phone on your desk for months or years.
  2. The Egress Plan view (upper left corner) is much too small to be read, especially through smoke in a fire (but I can’t read architectural floor plans even with clear light and eyeglasses). It should certainly have a ‘You are here’ label to orient the viewer. It should be posted next to stairwell exits and in elevator (lift) lobbies. It should be larger, of course, but the only sure way to learn evacuation is to practice, practice, practice.

“I regret to inform you”…by text message

A human resources manager in Singapore told me during an exercise she planned to notify next-of-kin of  injured or deceased employees by text message (SMS). I was stunned. If there were a worse way to receive sensitive, painful information, I can’t imagine what it could be.

The rules for ‘breaking bad news’ are:
1. in person: never by phone, email or text
2. in time: anxious relatives want news – good or bad – as quickly as possible
3. in pairs whenever possible: a man and a woman are the best combination
4. in plain language: the facts, frankly and clearly
5. with compassion: as you would want your doctor to tell you.

Here is a page of tips for breaking bad news from Counsellor Suzanne Anderson MSW at SACAC in Singapore. You can learn more about death notification and practice doing it in Suzanne’s Crisis Communications & Crisis Intervention course.

WCDM Disaster Management Conference

The World Conference on Disaster Management (WCDM) is the leading global gathering for emergency professionals from the public and private sectors. The speakers are from all over the world. The networking opportunities are tremendous; 1,800 attendees are expected next year. And Toronto is a spectacular place to visit in the summer.

The theme of the 18th WCDM from June 15-18, 2008 is “Resiliency – Individual, Community and Business.” If you live in Asia, and you work in emergency response or management, business continuity, risk management, security, disaster recovery or crisis management, WCDM is an opportunity to share what you’ve learned by making a presentation.

Submit your presentation idea by December 2, 2007. You can submit your proposal online: write up to 250 words to describe your presentation, then click on “Call For Papers.”

Where *Is* That?

I receive email warnings from the U.S. National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Tsunami Warning Center about earthquakes that might cause tsunami events in the Pacific Rim. The service is fast, free and helpful to emergency response authorities.

Just since late July I’ve received alerts for several earthquakes: two in the South Pacific, two in the Aleutian Islands (Alaska), the big one off the coast of Peru. The PTWC warnings are text-based so they can be received on the lowest common technology denominator, I suppose. The alerts contain no HTML links to the PTWC web site where you could see maps showing the locations of earthquakes.

So I can find it hard to place an event’s latitude and longitude in my mind – “2.7 NORTH 127.5 EAST”, for example. Most people can picture “the coast of Peru,” but I must admit I’m a bit hazy about “North Moluccan Sea.”

Where is that, anyway?

You can find out quickly and simply, and in stunning detail, in Google Earth. Download and install Google Earth (15 megabytes) onto your computer. It’s free. And sign up to receive the PTWC alerts by email. They’re free. too. Then wait for an alert message to show up in your mailbox.

Inside each alert you’ll find data for these parameters:

Egermency! Egermency!

Playing a Russian submarine lieutenant in the 1966 film “The Russians Are Coming“,  actor Alan Arkin repeatedly mispronounces the word “emergency” as “Egermency! Egermency!” to hilarious and memorable effect.

The real challenges of communicating in an emergency – when those involved don’t share the same first language – are illustrated effectively (and humorously) in this video commercial on YouTube for Berlitz language schools, featuring an imaginary German Coast Guard operator misunderstanding a distress call.

The commercial drew laughs in a presentation at July’s World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto, Canada.

Prime Time BCP

Here’s an amusing 30-second television advertisement from Fidelity Investments that illuminates the benefits of contingency planning.  The spot originally ran in the United States; it’s posted on YouTube.

The premise: your investment is safe because Fidelity has a recovery plan for electric power failures.

This may be the first TV spot in the world for the benefits of business continuity planning. It’s certainly the first one I’ve ever seen, and I’ll bet it’s the first that reached a mass audience in America.

Contingency planning must be ‘ready for prime time’ if the largest mutual fund company in the United States thinks its advertising can compete with ads for beer, babes and burgers by showing investors it can keep the lights on when other companies can’t.

This is no small-change decision: advertising on “Desperate Housewives,” for example, costs USD $394,000 per minute.

Think of the future possibilities: in only 24 hours, intrepid CTU agent Jack Bauer develops a BCP to save the civilization as we know it…

Too far-fetched? Not in Hollywood…

Ladies and gentlemen, start your Tivo‘s.

Tsunami wave warnings

UNESCO‘s International Tsunami Information Centre offers tsunami warnings by email from 31 seismic stations and 79 tidal stations around the Pacific. Sign up at this link. It’s a bit jarring to get an email with the subject “tsunami warning”, but nice to know it works. Hosted by the U.S. National Weather Center‘s Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, the system is administered by the ITSU/Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. These are the member states. Note: there’s also a warning system for the Indian Ocean and for the Atlantic/Mediterranean.