January 11, 2017
Atlanta officials trying to avoid another winter storm PR disaster
These days you can’t even have a winter-storm pileup on the freeway without it turning into a major PR incident and its backlash. Sometimes, though, the bad press is well-deserved. Back in 2014, a massive storm swept through Georgia, leading to massive gridlock on metro Atlanta freeways, during which people trying to get home from work were stuck on the interstate all night, unable to move in either direction.
Memories of that major disaster and the subsequent PR mess weighed heavy on residents of the Deep South as a new winter storm threatened to sweep through the area this past weekend. States of Emergency were declared in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Schools were canceled well in advance of the storm’s approach, and local residents rushed to stores in search of non-perishable food items.
In this area of the country, storms that are common in the Midwest and Northeast can be major problems. The cities simply don’t have the equipment, training, and resources to deal with these kinds of relatively rare weather events. This lack of extreme winter weather preparation might look good on the balance sheet during municipal budget talks, but it comes out looking pretty shortsighted on the evening news when people are stuck in cars for hours on end.
Those images were on the mind of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed when he heard the report of the coming storm. Reed said schools and many businesses, including government offices made plans to dismiss early in order to avoid the major snarling backup that trapped people on freeways back in 2014.
Meanwhile, Atlanta International Airport reported that some airlines opted to cancel hundreds of flights, though the airport itself will remain open and working for airlines who still plan to fly in and out despite the storm.
While folks from colder climes might scoff at these measures, local governments, especially the elected officials, cannot afford a repeat performance of 2014. They need to be seen as prepared and on top of things, even if the efforts made are preemptive and considered overkill. From the perspective of public relations, it’s much better to be seen as too careful and caring than as the penny pincher that allowed people to sleep in their cars in freezing weather.