“This was the eye. You can see the curvature. Understand this is at night. The light is from lightning,” said Nick Underwood, an engineer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after flying into Hurricane Ian to gauge its strength early Wednesday. Ian landed later that day at the exact location that NOAA forecasted using the information Underwood and his crew mates reported after separate teams flew constant 8-hour shifts into the storm every day for a week.
Their information saved lives. With the forecast NOAA put out the previous weekend flying for the first time over Cuba, on early Tuesday Florida governor Ron DeSantis ordered 2.5 million people to evacuate from a dozen counties along the Gulf of Mexico, from Tampa Bay to the Southwestern tip of the Florida peninsula. Many did. The storm hit the area around the city of Fort Myers hardest, where material loss is catastrophic. As of Saturday, the death toll is 25 people.
Authorities expect casualties will rise as water recedes, but NOAA still seems to run the rare public advisory system that even unruly Floridians trust, the National Hurricane Center. Every season from June to November, hurricane veterans know the system will offer clear, consistent, and short messages.
Messages are clear because of a common vocabulary to refer to a storm’s damage vectors, wind speed, water surge, and rain. You might know the hurricane categories 1 to 5 of the Saffir-Simpson scale for wind speeds over 74 miles per hour (mph), when a storm is already very bad. NOAA tracks weather events far earlier than that. It starts identifying “disturbances” with an “X” in three different colors depending on the chance they will become “cyclones,” at which point they get a name and icon when becoming first a tropical depression with winds up to 38 mph, then a tropical storm up to 73 mph, then a hurricane, and then perhaps a fateful major hurricane with wind speeds of 130 mph or more like Ian.
NOAA started tracking Ian when it was a numbered disturbance off the coast of Africa in mid-September. By the time it was over the Western Caribbean as a tropical depression the week of September 19th, NOAA forecasted Ian would travel Northeast over the Gulf of Mexico towards Florida, where it would become a hurricane the following week. By Thursday 22nd NOAA started issuing consistent updates every three hours including immediate alerts or longer-term warnings for wind speed, rain in inches and surge in feet for every land mass in any country in Ian’s path.
Each update consists of a public advisory about a page long and a series of maps. Every advisory follows the same format in plain text, with a headline, a summary with coordinates, the alerts and warnings, a “discussion” paragraph with the likely scenarios, any hazards affecting land like tornadoes, and the time of the next advisory, signed with the forecaster’s name. And you must have seen the best-known map, showing the “forecast cone” with all the probable paths of the storm eye in the days ahead.
As any statistical model, the cone is hard to grasp. Instead of the cone, some people prefer to draw all the probable tracks in different colors in an “spaghetti map.” Other people need to see an animation to understand the storm motion. Others like an animation of satellite images, or of radar images, or of colored lines showing wind speed. Others will only trust their local officials, or their favorite forecaster on TV, Twitter, or YouTube, or will follow the European model, or will draw their opinion over the map with sharpie or will only believe it when they see the palm trees bending. People of every kind outside NOAA post their own remixes of all of these before every named storm. Because NOAA stays in scope, its messages travel far and fast on the Internet, maximizing their reach.
It’s better if you don’t have to deal with storms, but NOAA’s public advisory approach offers communicators a good case study in public advisories. Now that we learned so much about public health crises at such great cost, perhaps we should try clear, consistent, and short messages in pandemic advisories.
A short message about NFTs
This week at Verb we challenged ourselves to explain NFTs in as few words as possible. Like we always do, we had already spelled out the acronym, “non fungible tokens,” but in this case that helped even less than usual. We tried using “digital assets,” like the White House did, but that’s a generic term that applies to many things besides NFTs. Then we tried to explain NFTs to each other using simple words: after ten minutes of talking, we were annoyed and did not have a short answer.
After a break, we came up with a new idea: NFTs are coded trading cards. You can collect them, appreciate their rarity, save them in an album, wait until they go up in value, and then sell them or get new ones. This is a concept that you can surely get if you ever collected anything. In any case, it’s much easier to understand than the blockchain. You might think this idea is not grandiose enough if you’re convinced that NFTs will change the world, which makes it perfect for us: our friends at Compass UOL are using NFTs just for that, and we’ll only get there on the merits. Try their new app on iPhone or Android.
Edelman: PR will be “more like a newsroom”
That’s two agencies saying PR will work like a newsroom. First Verb announced its newsroom organization back in 2019, and last week Richard Edelman told The Drum magazine that his agency “is going to look a lot like a newsroom,” when they asked him what PR will be like in five years.
Of course, Edelman is the largest PR agency in the world and Verb is not, but hey, if you have ever worked in a newsroom, you know that you only need one editor to have your back to make your best work, so size it’s not all that matters if a thousand people won’t support you. In any case, we agree with Edelman that PR can use the speed and accuracy of a good newsroom, and we are growing into it.