“Everybody talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” –– Essayist and Novelist Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900)
Last week’s snowstorm yielded a couple of unexpected results. Forecasters in New York City who labeled the coming event “potentially historic” and used adjectives such as “devastating” and “crippling” were wrong; in fact, they weren’t even close. After predictions of 2-3 feet of snow, New York’s mayor and the governor effectively shut down the city and parts of the state–roads, subways and trains, and schools were closed. But the storm dropped just over a half a foot of snow in Central Park and only came close to the predictions on Long Island and in New England. Then came the finger-pointing, as some folks were angry that businesses and individuals were hurt by the official “overreaction.” But Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo defended their decisions, saying they were based on the National Weather Service’s forecast. “We got lucky,” said de Blasio in the storm’s aftermath, refusing to apologize for playing it safe.
An unusual apology did come, however, from the National Weather Service (NWS). An agency that rarely acknowledges mistakes, the NWS put on its public relations hat and issued a mea culpa. Meteorologist Gary Szatkowski tweeted,“My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public. You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn’t. Once again, I’m sorry.” NWS Director Louis Uccellini said, “It is incumbent on us to communicate forecast uncertainty. We need to make the uncertainties clear.” Uccellini talked about how the agency will try to use more effective language to avoid similar scenarios in the future.
More than a century after Charles Dudley Warner’s humorous complaint and with all our advanced technology, humans still can’t do anything about the weather, although meteorologists, forecasters and politicians can certainly do better with how they communicate. While the science of forecasting is constantly improving, Mother Nature will always be unpredictable.
But when the National Weather Service gets it wrong, is it a good PR strategy to apologize each time? Your thoughts?