A crisis communication playbook as Bay of Bengal turns into the womb of cyclones

crisis communication challenge
The most successful crisis communication strategies begin with accepting that there is a problem, showing the face of leadership, and giving regular updates on what is being done.

By Abhijit Roy

Crisis communication in the age of social media: Gati, Tej, Murasu, Aag — Do these words mean anything to anyone now? Perhaps not yet, but will soon. These are just a few of the 169 tropical cyclones that are likely to emerge over the north Indian Ocean, including the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, according to the India Meteorological Department.

Cyclone Yaas hit the east coast in late May 2021, causing widespread devastation in the coastal regions especially in the Sundarbans. It left a trail of nearly $3 billion economic damage for West Bengal alone. The Bay of Bengal is a fascinating expanse of tropical waters: still and blue in the calm of January winter, or raging and turbid at the peak of the summer rains.

Around 16,000 kilometres from Bengal in the Amazon rain forests, satellite images showed large scale deforestation. During the 1990s and 2000s, the Brazilian rainforest was sometimes losing more than 20,000 square kilometres (8,000 square miles) per year, almost the size of Meghalaya. Neighbouring China emitted more than a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide in 2019. The year 2020 ranked as the second-warmest year in the 141-year record for the combined land and ocean surface, and land areas were hottest on record, according to meteorologists.

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The butterfly flaps its wings and Kolkata gets battered

As the butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil or China, it stirs a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. The Chaos Theory of the Butterfly Effect is now manifesting itself with alarming regularity over our oceans. As global warming intensifies, the trough-shaped Bay of Bengal has become one of the world’s most tempestuous stretches of water, turning it into a regular cyclone generator with the potential to cause crippling damage to life and property.

It is the largest bay in the world – 500 million people live on the coastal rim that surrounds it. It is also the site of most of the deadliest tropical cyclones in world history. According to a list maintained by Weather Underground, 26 of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones in recorded history have occurred here.

For businesses, climate change has become an overwhelmingly disruptive force. CESC, the 122-year-old utility company responsible for keeping the lights on in Kolkata and Howrah, bore the brunt of it, as Kolkata and its adjoining areas took a direct hit from super cyclone Amphan on May 20, 2020. It battered the city with wind speeds of over 190 kilometres per hour. CESC’s catchment of 2.9 million consumers spread over 567 square kilometres of Kolkata and its sister city Howrah in the Western banks of the river Hooghly, lay squarely on the path of this unparalleled fury of nature. Almost a year later to the date, cyclone Yaas hit West Bengal.

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The womb of cyclones

Cyclones are going to hammer the east coast with an unrelenting mercilessness, as the Bay of Bengal has turned into a womb of a series of cyclones due to its typical features. The worst places for storm surges, say meteorologists, tend to be shallow, concave bays where water, pushed by the strong winds of a tropical cyclone, gets concentrated or funnelled as the storm moves up the bay. The Bay of Bengal is a textbook example of this type of geography.

Super cyclone Amphan, had severely tested the resilience of CESC. As the cyclone left in its wake a devastated city, it also critically hit the power distribution infrastructure of the company. Poles were uprooted, trees fell snapping power cables, waterlogged streets, created a treacherous situation of electrocution risks, preventing repair work, it all resulted in large swathes of the city going without power for days.

A crisis communication freeze

Crisis communication simply froze as the company grappled with an unprecedented crisis. Frantic phone calls from desperate consumers, citizens went unanswered. Victoria House, CESC’s headquarters in Kolkata, was enveloped in an eerie radio silence as the storm brutally assaulted the city. When leadership eventually communicated, it was robotic, matter-of-fact, and devoid of empathy. As restoration of power supplies became the priority, the organization’s messaging to its consumers and the citizens left a lot to be desired – a lesson it is unlikely to forget soon.

The valiant efforts of CESC employees working relentlessly for days on end to restore power went largely unsung. Very few came to know that these teams were working without worrying about personal safety or their families, who were equally suffering from the aftermath of the cyclone. It was their matchless commitment to consumers that most of the city could switch on their lights and fans, in less than seven days of the storm. A similar situation in New York in 2011, when hurricane Sandy hit Big Apple left the city without power for over two weeks, and an estimated damage of $18 billion.

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A cyclone-ready action plan

CESC was delivered a tough message last year, so when Cyclone Yaas unleashed its fury, the company was well prepared to face the onslaught. It adopted transparent and proactive communication with all its stakeholders, shoring up its field force to be deployed at a moment’s notice and ensuring enough supplies of fuel, spares and essential backup material were available to maintain business continuity.

Regular communication was conducted with the highest administration of the state including, updating on the preparedness and execution. Real-time communication channel was established with IMD (Indian Meteorological Department) for weather updates. Separate WhatsApp groups were created for live Communication and prompt action – Internally and with External Stakeholders (IMD, local Police Stations, Municipal Bodies etc.).

All channels of communication — from mobile, social media to press and television — were kept posted of all details of readiness without triggering an alarm. The company had created a near-perfect template for crisis management, with transparent communication at its core to handle the situation. The communication was timely, transparent, credible, and compassionate – a fantastic example of lessons well learnt.

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Proactive maintenance and a Plan B

It undertook proactive maintenance and inspection of its distribution networks, ensured that measures to prevent electric shocks were taken. Special attention was paid to ensure uninterrupted supplies to the city’s hospitals and healthcare infrastructure, as they were wrestling with the Covid19 crisis, vaccine cold-chain points were double-checked to prevent any outage.

Manpower, especially field force, was ramped up and kept in a state of high alert to be rushed into handling any crisis. Enough raw materials and coal were stored to maintain the supply chains. In fact, nothing was left to chance.

The Fauci effect

The pandemic has shown us remarkable instances of public communication in both extremes. While the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, kept up a steady stream of communication backed by scientific evidence and data, countries like China battened down on all channels of information. In fact, there is a Fauci effect as a number of US colleges and universities have seen a surge of students who say the Covid-19 crisis inspired them to pursue the public health field, and crisis communication in particular.

The authenticity of communication is a vital element in getting everyone on the same page. We have seen examples of how apparently brilliant communicators like the New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, make a powerful impact with his daily press briefings on how Big Apple was handling the pandemic but faltered at the finish line when it was exposed that he had failed to reveal the actual number of deaths.

Crisis communication with compassion

As natural disasters, calamities, pandemics, health crises, adverse economic events become disruptions, organisations need to have robust crisis management and business continuity plans. Communication will be one of the most vital chapters in this overall crisis plan. Stakeholders, citizens, governments, shareholders, and employees would demand communication, delivered real-time. They would look for a confident leadership that not just knows how to handle the crisis, but also has a survive and thrive plan.

The most successful crisis communication strategies begin with accepting that there is a problem, showing the face of leadership which is in charge of the situation, and giving regular updates on what is being done to correct it. Also letting its customers know that the organisation is taking down the lessons from the crisis and acting to prevent its recurrence.

Above all, stakeholders will appreciate and reward empathy. Let us not forget that social media has transformed communications for all times to come. Every person with a smartphone is a powerful communicator. This is a double-edged weapon like any technology. Enterprises must learn how to leverage it and must educate their communicators on how to speak the language of these tools. Without this, the consequences could be even more devastating than the cyclones that are churning in the crucible of the Bay of Bengal.

(Abhijit Roy is a technology explainer and storyteller. He spent more than 20 years in the IT industry after starting his career as a journalist.)