Jan. 9 2014 12:00 AM

BWL storm response, PR flubs tarnish years of goodwill


Billy Crystal’s Saturday Night Live character Fernando said it best: “It’s better to look good than to feel good.”

In the aftermath of the BWL Ice- Pocolypse, it’s not how you handled the actual problem as much as how you looked doing it. And “dahling, you’re not looking mahvelous.”

The two-week restoration process has taken a serious toll on the images of Mayor Virg Bernero, BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark, veteran PR executive Steve Serkaian … as well as the BWL itself.

When a crisis hits, people expect the person in charge to take charge, and do so very visibly.

Think Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush after 9-11, Chris Christie in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Mistakes, even major ones, can be survived if there’s a perception that The Boss is totally involved and responding as best he/she can to the crisis.

The alternative is to appear out of touch.

Who can forget that photo of Bush surveying the damage of Hurricane Katrina through the window of Air Force One rather than on the ground, or his infamous “attaboy Brownie” accolades for his inept FEMA Director Michael Brown?

People will forgive mistakes, but won’t forgive the appearance of their leaders “phoning it in.” That’s a big part of why Bernero, Lark and BWL are in a big hole and scrambling after two weeks of pile-iton criticism.

Nonetheless, Lark isn’t getting fired despite the urging of City Councilwoman Carol Wood and Grand Ledge state Sen. Rick Jones. He made mistakes (especially the insane decision to go ahead with his NYC vacation), but the people who decide his future generally agree Lark is still the best person for the job: an expert in public utility issues, former chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission and chief architect of Michigan’s leap into renewable energy during the Granholm administration. Tuesday night’s BWL public forum was designed in part to demonstrate that Lark still has the confidence of his board and employees (as well as Bernero), with a parade of BWL workers and executives singing his praises.

His ultimate fate likely rests with Bernero, highly secure in his job after being reelected to a four-year term with more than 72 percent of the vote. Even so, it is the hardest political hit of his eight years as mayor, being made more painful through skillful political exploitation of the crisis by his arch nemesis, Carol Wood.

Right now we really don’t know if there was anything the BWL could realistically have done differently as far as restoring power. Portions of the “crisis” plan released (under duress) last week are laughable, but the people running Lansing’s power company have a long track record of being very good at their jobs. It has made Lansing attractive to electricity-intensive companies like Jackson National Life, GM and Liquid Web.

An independent commission likely will evaluate the operational response.

But there’s no need to withhold judgment on how Bernero and Lark handled the equally important task of communicating with BWL owner/customers. It was mostly bungled.

The inept crisis communications may not have impacted the actual restoration process, but it left the impression of a CEO who either didn’t understand what was going on, or didn’t care. While the buck stops with Bernero and Lark, much of the blame falls on Serkaian, someone with decades of experience in high-visibility government PR.

The lack of a crisis communications is, in the PR world, an impeachable offense. Without a plan, mistakes are inevitable.

Now Lark and Serkaian are scrambling, quickly hiring outside PR consultants to write a plan that should have been created years ago. They are also belatedly adding a social media specialist to the staff who will also, hopefully, clean up a corporate website suffers from benign neglect.

The plan would have directed that Bernero or Lark, rather than Serkaian, be the “face” of the response. People needed and wanted to hear from their leaders, not the staff. Bernero was uncharacteristically low-key during the initial crisis and Lark was MIA. (Of course, it’s hard to be the face of the BWL from Times Square.)

Wood, never one to shy away from a chance to stick it to Bernero, has taken full advantage of the communication foulups. Her Facebook page, email list and smartphone have become unofficial communications hubs among the city, the BWL and thousands of BWL customers. She demonstrated that she cared, even if her efforts didn’t have much impact on the actual restoration process.

The BWL faces major challenges with the now-obvious need to make major upgrades to its system with smart meters, a smart grid, an updated crisis management plan and a totally revamped communications program that emphasizes two-way communications instead of the current one-way channels. But that isn’t the biggest challenge.

Reflecting on the Tylenol poisoning crisis that could have destroyed his company, Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke noted, “Nothing good happens without trust. With it, you can overcome all sorts of obstacles.”

The BWL has spent two decades building trust — to see it squandered in just two weeks. That restoration will take a lot longer.