Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How to anticipate issues: a hurricane story

For the past year, I’ve been living in south Florida. When “hurricane season” began in June, we paid attention as new residents to advice on how to prepare. We bought 5 gallons of drinking water, canned food and a solar-powered hand-crank radio/flashlight that can also charge a phone (allegedly). We bought an extra can of propane for our gas barbecue.

And then we kind of forgot about it for the past few months. There were no hurricanes, not even a tropical storm that seriously threatened our area.

Thursday, 11am radar
All that changed last week. I was preparing to travel home from St Louis on Tuesday when I finally looked at the weather forecast. At that point there were a number of predictions for Matthew’s storm path, but under any one of them, we were going to get wet in Ft Lauderdale sometime on Thursday. My phone started to buzz with group messages from local friends about shopping plans and potential evacuation destinations. I joked about buying toilet paper in Missouri to bring home.

Once home, my husband and I went through our ‘prep list’ once more. We inventoried our pantry and freezer. We needed just a few things from the grocery store (including toilet paper), and took care of that early Wednesday morning. We began listening to more news reports and weather forecasts and made a Twitter list of local government bodies and media to follow for news.

Thursday morning I had a conference call for work and told everyone that there was a good chance
we’d lose power (and with it, internet access) sometime later in the day. We moved the last things in from the patio and put down the metal storm shutters.  The local forecast, even as the first bands of wind and rain hit us, continued to be dire, with strict warnings about staying off the roads from now until well after the storm passed. Our last task was to fill up the bath tub with clean water, and plug our phones in so they’d be fully charged whenever the power went off. Then we sat inside and watched and waited.

The experience of preparing for a natural disaster has some interesting parallels to the process of issue anticipation and management for agriculture research projects. 

The first and most important part of managing public issues is anticipating them.  In agriculture technology policy environment, it may be a pending policy decision in a place we’re working. Looking at our own work, we identify scenarios that could require issue management, including:

  • Complex research results that take our work in a new direction, 
  • Activities like field testing where our work is visible in a new way to stakeholders, 
  • Difficult questions about some aspect of our work. 

Potential issues arising from our work and from the environment around us can be easily inventoried through a simple SWOT analysis. This exercise should be done on a regular basis as the project evolves --- and it should include the entire team of technology, regulatory, product development and communication professionals.

The next step in good issue management is to prepare for those potential scenarios well ahead of them actually happening. The time to have influence over how an issue will evolve is before it has a lot of attention from stakeholders or in the worst case, has become a crisis. Key activities in this period are:
  • Defining the issue, collecting background, drafting key messages or talking points and identifying others who can help provide more context around the issue. We often develop ‘issue briefs’ – internal documents containing all of this information for easy updating and reference.
  • Strategic actions that could help avoid the issue altogether. Examples could be preemptively publishing results with our own context or proactively building relationships with the community around a field location to build local support. 
  • Monitoring the environment. We actively look for signals that the potential issue may be developing into something real, by listening carefully to stakeholders, following key influencers and tracking media. 

All of these activities are best done early on. Once a ‘trigger event’ occurs and the issue is more broadly known, stress kicks in on all sides and there is much less ability to have an impact. So we anticipate, we prepare, and then we wait.

Back to Hurricane Matthew.

We knew when we moved to south Florida that we would be in an environment that is vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes. We heard stories from people here who lost power for two weeks after Hurricane Wilma 11 years ago. We were invited by a friend who lives ten miles further inland in a house with a generator to come to him if evacuation from our home was ever required. At the beginning of hurricane season, we paid attention to advice about stocks to keep.

Hurricane Matthew’s approach was signaled by devastation of Haiti and movement across Bermuda, and all of the forecast lines finally converging on a path up Florida’s east coast.  The local authorities, especially Florida Governor Rick Scott, did a terrific job in keeping people informed and encouraging them to prepare before a specific ‘trigger event’ when the first weather was due to hit south Florida around noon on Thursday. (Read this fascinating NYT piece about risk communications for evacuations.) All of our options would be much more limited as stores and roads closed across our area.

As it happened, we were very, very lucky in south Florida. Hurricane Matthew didn’t make landfall anywhere near here, and because it stayed off shore, the winds and rain were much less than originally feared, no worse than a normal south Florida thunderstorm. We didn’t lose power for more than a few moments. We came through it with a bathtub full of water we didn’t need.

Our friends in north Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas took a more direct hit from Matthew after going through the same preparation that we did, even evacuating in some cases, and lives were surely saved because of that. We were infinitely more fortunate than those most vulnerable people in Haiti, who simply didn’t have the resources in the first place to prepare or to shelter, and who are now suffering devastation beyond the worst that we feared. (I support the work of the World Food Programme annually and in response to emergencies like these.)

As in issue management, the time and energy spent to prepare for Hurricane Matthew was well worth it. I’d prepare the same way all over again, but there will probably be some people who won’t take the warnings to prepare for hurricane so seriously next time. Every time we prepare for an issue in our projects and the worst-case scenario doesn’t come to pass, I feel relief but also worry that my colleagues won’t want to go through the preparation exercise next time.

Maybe thinking about a potential issue as a hurricane warning helps. 

We have to anticipate and prepare, with a well-stocked communications pantry and a watchful eye the forecast, because there’s always a storm brewing somewhere.

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