Snow Daze: A Cold Lesson on Perception Management

April 9, 2014

Instant Insight: 3 Lessons Learned from Snowjam 2014

There is an often-droll ritual that happens in Atlanta when snowflakes appear on our weather apps.

(It involves a mass beeline to grocery stores for milk and bread.)

Meanwhile, local TV stations report on the resulting empty aisles, and there’s a collective ribbing among friends that we actually made the grocery run in the first place. Then, with noses pressed to the window — kids and adults alike — we wait for the inevitable dusting of snow that melts before it hits the ground. This is a typical Atlantan’s perception of winter.

Snow is a novelty, and we average just more than two inches in the city annually.  And here lies much of the problem that we saw during what the media dubbed “Snowjam 2014” on Jan. 28, when there were sheets of ice along with 2.6 inches of snow on the road, stranding thousands of motorists during a massive gridlock throughout metro Atlanta. Children were stuck at schools, and drivers camped out on the roadways — or simply abandoned their vehicles to seek shelter at local businesses such as Home Depot.

Did we, as a community, go into this day a bit blasé about what was initially a 60 percent chance of snow? Perhaps. Are we unable to drive on sheets of ice? Admittedly so. It is safe to say that our perception of winter played into the outcomes we read about and experienced.

Open to interpretation

As leading professional communicators, PRSA Georgia Chapter members often talk about managing reputation and communicating with our clients’ or organizations’ respective stakeholders in real-time and with transparency.

Building repute takes internal commitment and enthusiasm for delivering brand values and requires the consistency of employees’ behavior to sustain it. Then there is the task of managing the perceptions of our external audiences. Where do reputation and perception intersect? While similar, they really aren’t the same thing.

Perception is a subjective interpretation of reality that shapes opinion as well as action. It is the foundation of reputation. Our notions about a company, person or experience are based on the facts at our disposal at the time, whether that means a complete and fair assessment or not. Because of this, we often have a knee-jerk reaction to defend or rebut something or someone who doesn’t get a fair chance.

The perspective on how officials in Atlanta and the state of Georgia handled the events will vary, even among those of us who live here. The degree to which there are long-term ramifications on convention and tourism business and infrastructure, in particular, will largely be dictated by how well we can inform and increase awareness of actual events. This is the role of our leaders as well as our citizens.

The people who step in to change perception and seek to enlighten without a stake in the game reveal the strength and durability of a reputation. How do they accomplish this? Through dialogue, understanding and clarity in the message.

Real-time communication

Being in the business of communication is interesting, exciting, demanding and immediate. The pursuit of clarity is unending in our business endeavors, but in our lives, we can and should strive for this for the greater good of our communities.

We saw citizen journalism come alive during Snowjam 2014 as real-time communication became the focus of Jan. 28. The need for sharing information with family members, schools, employers and employees, neighbors and authorities became a lifeline. We also heard wonderful stories of humanity and heroics as communities came together for support. Businesses became shelters offering warmth and food to those who were stranded.

Much of the conversation centered on methods of future communication — not just among city officials or the governor’s newly appointed Severe Weather Task Force, but among companies who didn’t communicate as effectively as they could have, school districts and their protocols for closings, and families deciding on their own emergency back-up plans.

And wouldn’t you know, less than two weeks later, we had the opportunity to prove what we learned as Atlanta and much of the Southeast received a second, more intense, wave of snow and ice that shuttered our schools and offices again.

This time, early calls for canceled classes, work-from-home days and a state-of-emergency announcement kept most people off the roads for two days. According to CNN: “It appeared people in Atlanta had learned their lesson.” Was it enough to change perceptions? Only time will tell.

Every day, we create our own perceptions about any number of encounters that we have — both good and bad. Managing those for ourselves is a good exercise in self-discipline, and managing those for clients remains at the heart of a strong brand reputation.

While people will likely spend time and energy discussing purposeless aspects of the events in Atlanta and casting blame, if we work to gain clarity on the best ways to avoid a repeat scenario, then we’re really working to change perception.

3 Lessons Learned from Snowjam 2014

Sometimes we find that we’ve put ourselves in crisis mode by underestimating the effects of projected outcomes. Our defined perceptions make us look left, so to speak, when we should have been looking in the other direction.

But agile organizations will make the necessary shifts, and do it quickly through decisiveness and an overall appreciation for mistakes and improvement. Here are three key ways to prepare for the unexpected:

1. Keep it thin.

The chain of command should only consist of a few people in a crisis situation. Have protocols in place that streamline the hierarchy of day-to-day operations even further when you’re in emergency mode, and build time parameters in to the decision-making process to keep things moving. A backup to the pecking order is important in case someone is unavailable.

2. Label the communicator.

The sole job of one senior-level person during a crisis should be to communicate to both internal and external audiences. This person should have the authority to push for the information that he or she needs. Don’t multitask this role — it’s too important to get sidetracked. The way an organization communicates to its audiences can make or break any best-laid plans.

3. Streamline social media.

Even if they aren’t responding directly, people are listening and reading. Keep all communication channels active and alive — websites, email, social media, text messages and phone trees. (Yes, those still exist.) If you make the decision to focus on only a couple of media for efficiency, then let people know that plan by posting messages on the dormant media and pointing them in the right direction.


Neil Hirsch, APR
Neil Hirsch, APR, is president of PRSA’s Georgia Chapter and global external communications manager of Novelis.


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