Reverse-engineering the Crisis Communications ...


Checking email during the morning of February 21, I received a smattering of notes that asked me if I was OK.


I didn’t understand. Did they know something nefarious had yet to reach me? Then I came across a note that added the context of a flood in San Jose. Seeing the video footage on CNN — it looked like someone had dropped a lake on part of San Jose — I finally understood.

It was a disaster.

Worse, it seemed to be a disaster that could have been prevented. The City inferred that the Santa Clara Valley Water District provided flawed projections on how much water a creek could handle before flooding. The Water District took the position that its data was accurate, implying that the City failed to act on the information it had shared with a sense of urgency.

Finger-pointing is not typically part of the crisis communications playbook (in spite of what we see from Mr. Trump).

With this in mind, I thought it would be a useful exercise to reverse-engineer the sequence of events that followed the disaster with a focus on San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.

To frame the crisis communications, we created the following timeline.

San Jose flood timeline

Just like a crisis in the corporate world, people want to hear from the individual who’s at the top of the org chart — in this case, the mayor of San Jose.

The timing to communicate during a crisis can be a tricky variable. You’d like to have the complete story as well as a plan of action when you go before the public. On the other hand, there’s pressure to publicly share “what the hell is going on.” It’s been our experience in crisis work that the greater the severity, the greater the need for immediate updates (as opposed to waiting for all the facts).

Mayor Liccardo understood this dynamic, speaking to the public shortly after the flooding disaster. Here’s a video clip from his initial public appearance.


He does a lot of things right, not the least being he’s out in the field where the disaster happened, not talking from the pristine City Hall environment.

Also, he doesn’t try to rationalize or sugarcoat the situation:

“This is a very serious situation. Our firefighters are working hard to evacuate residents … we know this is going to continue.”

Too often, crisis communications manically focuses on staying on message which can often leave the spokesperson sounding scripted. In contrast, Mayor Liccardo comes across as an actual human being in updating the community on where things stand.

Within 24 hours, the finger-pointing has officially escalated to CYA level. Recognizing the trajectory of this debate is not going to have a happy ending for anyone, the Mayor takes ownership as you’ll see below:


In this clip, we see how the person talks is just as important as the words.

When the Mayor communicates, “Let me say this. The bureaucratic finger-pointing stops today. This happened in my city. I’m responsible,” he leaves no doubt that a) he’s in charge and b) there will be time to analyze what went wrong, but right now the focus should be on helping those in need.

Fast forwarding to today, the bickering continues. Who knows if there will be ever be clear resolution on who did what, when, and a plan of action to ensure this type of disaster doesn’t happen again.

Last week Mayor Liccardo sent out an email that began:

Dear Friends,

On Feb. 21, San José experienced its worst flooding in a generation. In a matter of hours, rising water forced thousands of families to flee their homes, often with no property other than what they could carry.

In the weeks since, I’ve talked to hundreds of our neighbors whose lives have been forever changed. I have heard many heart-wrenching stories. I talked with a young mom struggling to keep her newborn healthy in our emergency shelter. I met a gardener who’d bought a used truck just days before the flood made it — and all of the uninsured equipment upon which he depends for his livelihood — inoperable. Their emotions — the loss, the anger, and disbelief — are shared by thousands of neighbors.

In the wake of this tragedy, my consistent message has been simple: As San Jose’s Mayor, I take responsibility for the City’s failure to better warn our residents. As a result, we have focused our energies on two objectives: first, fixing these problems to avoid another disaster like this one, and second, helping flood-afflicted families get back on their feet.

I like the way he cuts to the issue and writes with the overriding tone of empathy. If I were going to quibble — and I suppose I am — “message” was a poor word choice. It carries the connotation of being scripted. A phrase like “my consistent position has been …” would have been stronger.

Still, in the eye of the crisis, Mayor Liccardo made the right moves in reassuring the community that we will get through this.

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