Five Things Leaders Can Learn from Mayor Bloomberg About Crisis Communications

Posted 10.30.2012

While the impact of Hurricane Sandy in the U.S. spread far and wide, the New York/New Jersey area definitely took the worst hit. The scenes of flooding, fires and dangling construction cranes on Monday night and Tuesday morning were truly stunning.

In the run-up to the storm, a friend of mine wrote that we were likely to see lots of examples of leadership this week. She was certainly right. Some dramatic examples that come to mind are the U.S. Coast Guard’s helicopter borne rescue of the HMS Bounty crew off North Carolina (see the video here) and New York City firefighters rescuing residents from a waterlogged inferno in Rockaway, Queens.

A less dramatic but equally visible example of leadership this week has come from New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg. With multiple press conferences a day before, during and after the storm, Bloomberg has kept his citizens informed and, in the process, given a seminar on how to do leadership communications in a crisis. If you haven’t seen one of the mayor’s press conferences, it’s worth a look to see how he does it. I’ve watched excerpts from a few of them today and read through some of the transcripts.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned about crisis communications from Mayor Mike:

Project Quiet Confidence: As I’ve written here before (long before Hurricane Sandy), leaders create the weather; not literally obviously, but leaders influence the response of others by how they show up. In all of his briefings, Bloomberg showed up prepared, appropriately concerned and quietly confident that his extended team and his citizens would respond to the storm in the most effective way possible. His quiet confidence likely gave confidence to others in a challenging situation.

Be Consistent and Frequent: I don’t know the exact schedule that Bloomberg has had for his pressers but it looks like he was up for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon each day before, during and after Sandy. Establishing an operating rhythm for his communications enabled him to get his team’s messages out consistently. Keeping people informed helps keep them calm.

Be Relevant: Bloomberg and his staff have done a masterful job of talking about the things that matter most to people. He’s kept his remarks relevant by providing information on preparation plans, evacuations, when the power will be back on, transportation updates and even the plans for Halloween post-Sandy.

Make Specific Requests: In a crisis, most people want to know what they can do to help or at least stay safe. (Then there are those who ignore all the requests at the peril of themselves and others.) Bloomberg has been very clear in asking people to do things that help themselves and the community – evacuate low lying areas, stay out of public parks until damaged trees are cleared, only use 911 for life threatening emergencies. Most people will honor specific, common sense requests. Leaders communicating in a crisis need to make them.

Put the Team Front and Center: In every press conference I saw, Bloomberg had the leaders of the relevant city agencies lined up behind him. They were there to answer questions but also to demonstrate that there was a unified effort to address the challenges at hand. Bloomberg went out of his way to recognize specific leaders and their agencies for the work they were doing. In a crisis, people want to know that qualified people have their backs. Bloomberg made sure that New Yorkers knew that.

What other examples of leadership have inspired you during the Hurricane Sandy crisis?