As I sat around the conference table with fellow Raleigh public relations professionals for our NCPRSA board meeting on Wednesday, the snow began falling and whirling and swirling outside the windows. Thirty minutes earlier, I had boldly proclaimed to my team that I just didn’t believe “it” was going to happen. (But I packed a bag just in case that morning.)
Getting a room of PR people to abruptly end a discussion is no easy task, but one that was done when we were told under no uncertain terms that the building was closing. Our cars were covered and the lanes of the streets were no longer distinguishable by the time we got to the parking lot. That didn’t stop us from doing what everyone else did at that exact time — attempt to make a break for it! Yes, we all knew what happened in Atlanta earlier in the month, but that didn’t stop us from rushing to the safety of our own homes, needing to pick up our children or succumbing to the panic of a milk and bread shortage.
I had to make a game-time decision between joining my family at home or returning to The Clairemont House, knowing that my choice would determine where I would likely be “stuck” for the following days. With a scheduled dinner with out-of-town clients staying near the office, I decided to head downtown. Hey, one of them is Canadian, and I knew she’d never let me live it down if I cancelled over a couple of snowflakes! So, after it took 2.5 hours to drive 10 miles, I put my car in park (at the office for the next three days) and myself in observation mode. I knew it was about to get interesting.
The snow continued, businesses closed and fiery traffic accidents became the topic of national news. Most of the restaurants had closed, and we altered our dinner plans. I marveled at the most quiet downtown Raleigh scene on my walk to the Marriott to join our clients. With few choices, we decided to dine there. Enter smart communications observation #1.
The lobby, bar and restaurant of the Marriott became a makeshift home of winter storm hostages. Our clients included people from around the country, as well as a local who couldn’t make it home. Our fellow refugees shared similar stories. Some had cancelled flights. Some didn’t get out of their downtown offices soon enough. While many embraced the spontaneity like schoolkids on a snow day, for others, tensions ran high. For Raleigh Marriott City Center, it now had to figure out how to service a sudden surge in guest numbers with a short staff.
The hotel rose to the challenge. As soon as we nabbed an open table in the bar area, the server let us know that if we planned to order food, they were working on a limited menu due to being understaffed, and she listed the four or five items available. She was friendly and direct. She let us know right away before we looked at the regular menu and got our hearts set on something we couldn’t have. The beauty of this simple and clear verbal communication was reinforced by the customer service actions all around us. The suited manager was busing tables. The always-smiling bartender had been there since the morning shift. I never saw a Marriott staff member look frustrated, nor did I hear anyone complain.
Across the Triangle the next night, Carolina Theatre decided the show must go on despite the fact that the weather kept many ticket-holders glued to the local news instead of enjoying a live performance by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. After much criticism for this decision involving the upholding of its refunds policy, enter smart communications observation #2. Theatre management issued a statement on its blog called, A Letter to Angry Fans Concerning the Weather.
Having worked at a performing arts center early in my career, I understand that you simply can’t reschedule a stop on national tour. I’ve also found that people who work in arts organizations typically do it as a labor of love for the arts and the community. The letter reminds readers that the target of angry and threatening comments, which can be expressed through impersonal, online channels, are people. People who are most likely hardworking, community-supporting neighbors. Extra kudos to Carolina Theatre for continuing to evaluate the feedback (despite the harshness) and respond by offering tickets to an upcoming show.
The snow began to melt on Friday morning. Having been away from home since Wednesday morning, I was busy trying to wrap up work for the week when smart communications observation #3 was delivered to my inbox. A letter from Triangle Business Journal’s publisher, Bryan Hamilton, let me know that this week’s print edition was coming, albeit a little late. In addition to really admiring the tone of the note below, I think it conveys that the TBJ staff really tried to make it happen. And when they knew it was time to accept defeat, they shifted gears to anticipating their customers’ questions of when will I get it and what can I do in the meantime? Providing instructions on how to get the content online was absolutely brilliant, and I received this email before I would have typically received the print edition on my doorstep, leaving no time to even ask the question, “Where is my TBJ?”
Bravo, Marriott! Bravo, Carolina Theatre! Bravo, Triangle Business Journal! Also, my hat is off to the NC State students who helped stranded motorists, our local news crews who worked around the clock to provide updates, our fire/police/emergency responders, Clairemont client PDQ for delivering free food to those stranded and those helping others, and the Thursday lunch staff at The Raleigh Times (who might have also been the dinner staff and the late night staff) for embracing the “we can’t go anywhere, we might as well drink beer” mentality of its wall-to-wall patrons who had very few choices of open places in downtown Raleigh.