Friday, March 19, 2010

How Humans Think and Behave in a Crisis


While I’m not one of those 2012 apocalypse loonies, it certainly does seem that our world is beset with more than its fair share of crises: economic meltdowns, natural disasters and random acts of violence.

TIME magazine recently published a fascinating article about how the will to survive can trump social norms in the event of a serious crisis or disaster. Author Jeffrey Kluger cites a new paper by an international team of social behaviorists that compares the two of the greatest maritime crises in history: the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania.

While most shipwrecks are relatively slow-moving disasters, the Lusitania sank just 18 minutes after it was hit by a German torpedo. The Titanic stayed afloat for 2 hours and 40 minutes — and human behavior differed accordingly. According to the authors of the paper, "The short-run flight impulse [on the Lusitania] dominated behavior. On the slowly sinking Titanic, there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge."

One of the key takeaways is that leaders need to move quickly in a crisis situation to 1) restore some semblance of order and 2) disseminate information about what has just happened and what needs to be done next.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

High Tech: Reporting on the Crisis in Mumbai

First, speaking for everyone at Makovsky + Company, let me say that our hearts break for India and the people of Mumbai, both residents and visitors. Like New York, Mumbai is the financial capital of the nation. Like Mumbai, we in New York are unfortunately all-too-familiar with the consequences of terrorism.

Over the weekend, I spent a lot of time channel surfing the news networks on cable TV, trying to get a coherent perspective on the deadly terror attacks, with little luck. Coverage was brief, often contradictory and peppered with commercials. Finally, I turned to the social media, which were rich with raw, up-to-the-minute information and images.

For example, as the mainstream media struggled to catch up with fast-breaking news, the technology-empowered social media, including users of Twitter, were posting real-time accounts of the crisis to their friends and family worldwide. (Twitter is a free micro-blogging service that allows its users to send and read other users’ brief text-based updates — or “tweets.”)

While it’s true that there were lots of rumors and false reports on Twitter, bloggers like Amy Gahran, a self-employed media consultant, worked hard to separate the facts from the hokum by checking out rumors.

We’re all citizen journalists today. I just wish we didn’t have to be combat journalists.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The [Divorce] Court of Public Opinion

Tricia Walsh-Smith, an angry New Yorker engaged in a bitter divorce with her husband, a wealthy Broadway executive, is continuing to air her grievances on YouTube in the second of two videos about her impending divorce. The original video — which was downloaded more than 2.5 million times and was picked up by 383 mainstream media outlets in the first week — can be seen here.

Whether Walsh-Smith has helped or hurt her cause is immaterial … although I would imagine her shenanigans are unlikely to impress the judge who hears her divorce case. As MSNBC’s senior legal analyst Susan Filan said, “In the end, a divorce, as upsetting and emotional as it is, is just a financial transaction.”

As a PR practitioner in New York, who has worked for law firms and handled crisis management assignments, what concerns me is the increased potential for sudden, swift blogstorms — like this one — when parties to a lawsuit or crisis decide to take the communications into their own hands. My concern is intensified when the ultimate decision is the responsibility of lay people (members of a community or jury), who may be swayed by what they see and hear on the internet.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

An Unintended Side Effect of the Subprime Fiasco

Since our public relations firm is based in New York — a world center for banking and financial services — we’re following the ins and outs of the subprime mortgage crisis with more than average interest interest. In fact, our president, Ken Makovsky, has written about it on his My Three Cents blog.

One of the more interesting side effects of the scandal was reported by Bloomberg News: “Judges in at least five states have stopped foreclosure proceedings because the banks that pool mortgages into securities and the companies that collect monthly payments haven't been able to prove they own the mortgages.”

The article goes on to report that a man named Joe Lents in Boca Raton, FL, hasn’t made a single payment on his $1.5 million mortgage since 2002, when his mortgage bank, Washington Mutual, first tried to foreclose on his home. The efforts ceased when WaMu couldn’t find the paperwork!

“If you're going to take my house away from me, you better own the note,” said Lents.

He’s one of the lucky ones. Millions of other subprime homeowners are on the verge of bankruptcy and foreclosure. If the banking industry doesn’t address its own shortcomings, it better be ready for the inevitability of regulatory intervention if we want to protect consumers and the U.S. economy.

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