Monday, January 3, 2011

Politicians and the PR of snow removal


How ya doin', New York?

Great moment during the NBC Nightly News' blizzard coverage last week: a New Yorker tries to shovel his car out of a snow drift - using a tennis racquet. Advantage: snow!

As a Winnipegger, it's easy to feel superior to everyone else on planet Earth when snow closes airports across Europe and North America, cancels an NFL game, closes the Eiffel Tower, and buries the reputations of the mayor of New York and the governor of New Jersey for being slow to respond and AWOL in Florida, respectively.  

Winnipeg snow removal isn't perfect, but the thing that makes us unlucky - getting piles and piles of snow, guaranteed - is the very thing that makes us lucky - we have dedicated plows, workers, and a plan in place to take care of it, because there's always more snow on the way. Even in July.

During most big Winnipeg snowfalls, my biggest complaint is that the the snow-removal equipment keeps me up at night, because that's when the magical elves get to work on making sure we can get to work the next day. Boo! I mean: Yay!

I'm constantly surprised to find that even the little guy in the little buggy has cleared the sidewalk on my street - both sides! - which also usually happens within 24 hours of a big snowfall and once or twice a winter "just because."

When I travel to Saskatchewan in winter, I'm appalled by the poor condition of the main roads, which are covered in surprise ice patches; the side streets are downright abysmal. My friends who live there tell me that the side roads NEVER get cleared.

When I lived in Boston as a kid, I was surprised and delighted constantly when school - located one block away - would be canceled for what amounted to half a centimetre of slushy rain.

Apparently, the city fathers of Beantown have to call a snow day the day BEFORE it snows, based on the expert predictions of Willard Scott and his ilk, which - as we know - are as bogus as Scott's sincere birthday wishes to Myrtle in Columbus, who today turns 110 years young!

Read: A typical snow day in Boston.

The PR of snow removal

In big U.S. and European cities, there's a huge reliance on Mother Nature to take care of the problem. Politicians know that their money and PR issues will melt away along with the snow, which (in most places) usually happens pretty soon after it falls.

But when a big city with millions of residents gets hit with 20 inches of the stuff, the plow drivers don't know what the hell they're doing (see my favorite viral video at the top of the post), and emergency workers can't respond to 911 calls, the snow - and shit - hits the fan.

Read: (NY) Mayor Michael Bloomberg digging out his reputation after storm

It's an old PR problem that gets worse when the politician in question doesn't get it. Take Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington D.C., who was at the Super Bowl in 1987 when his city was hit with a snow emergency.

In his own defense, he said, "We're not a snow town." Smoke some more crack, Mr. Barry.

Yesterday's This Week showed a report from World News Tonight in 1996, in which then-NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani (in his FDNY baseball cap - the "clarity" principle of persuasion!) helped push cars out of the snow - whether he just did it for the camera doesn't matter; since that's what most people saw, that was the perception.

Watch: This Week: Politicians on Thin Ice

The advice to politicians from ABC's round table panel of experts:
  • Be present and on the scene
  • Get outside (and help out)
  • Share the credit with clean-up crews
  • Get in a snow plow (maybe)
Good advice. And I would add "communicate constantly" to the list.

The king of snow-removal communication

The gold standard of snow-removal communication has to be Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and tweeter extraordinaire, with over a million followers.

During the snow emergency, he regularly tweeted his progress, including these gems:
  • "Almost Midnight, stopped to help stuck driver and 4 guys came forward to also help. So grateful for all of today's kind heroes."
  • "I'm on scene here in N Ward. Bravo to our police just apprehended an attempted armed robber. Heading back now continue inspecting streets."
  • "Thanks to the Nwk heroes who helped us get this ambulance unstuck to get to the dialysis patient."
Now that's one bad-ass mayor, and a social media lesson for our own Sam Katz. Why, I'd give my eyetooth to see ol' Sammy pushing an ambulance out of a drift, busting robbers, and, hell, just tweeting. 

Will it ever happen? Snow way!

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