Y2k Retrospectives From Power Insiders: Chapter 4: The Media

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In the last Chapter we discussed early vendor results.

Chapter 4: Experiences with the Media


Dans Comments:

In the course of managing our companys Y2k program, I was interviewed by all four local TV affiliates, the local newspapers, even a few radio programs. A few experiences:

The day of the April 9, 1999 drill, the two local newspapers and a couple of TV stations came by. We had just performed the drills, and they wanted to know how everything went. Being a bit naove, I told them that we only tested our communications systems, and most everything worked just fine. Of course, then they asked what didnt work, and I proceeded to tell them. One of our drills found that a backup software program was inoperable. I emphasized that the program is not normally needed, as long as the primary program works, and that the drill didnt put any systems at risk. One of the reporters called me later that day, and I re-iterated this. Sure enough, the next day, one reporter basically said that we tests all our systems and were ready for anything come Y2k day. The other, focusing on the glitch, said that our generation controls were lost for a period of time, but manually operated the system. Needless to say, I saw two extremes, both of which were inaccurate, and I had to explain myself to our Vice President.

On another occasion, a local newspaper reporter asked to see us doing some Y2k testing, and to interview me. I was cautious, since this paper, one of those free kind that is placed outside convenience stores and food establishments, was notorious for digging up the dirt on any famous local person. About 5 minutes into the interview, I noticed that he was tape-recording me! I panicked for a moment, then made sure I didn't say anything controversial from that point forward. I showed him an actual test, the test process, and took him to an electrical substation. It turns out that he was so convinced that we were ready that he never ran our story; instead, he did a piece on the Joseph Project and on a local survivalist. I wish I could have done the same for some of the hard-core pessimists; perhaps they would have been more optimistic, meeting face to face and seeing that we had nothing to hide.

Finally, I learned something mundane but worth mentioning: The cameras used for TV are very heavy; one time I was helping him carry the tripod while the reporter walked ahead. He didnt look happy, so when she got out of earshot of us, I found out why: Those reporters, they get out of college and think they are too good to have to help carry this stuff.

In general, the media was pretty much what I expectedsometimes right on the money, other times they emphasized all the wrong things. At first I would explain at length what we were doing, but soon I learned that they really wanted just a few sound bites, and that the technical explanations were interesting but not needed.


"The Engineer's" comments:

I wasn't interviewed or had anything to do with the media. Way too low on the totem pole! :-)

In a general observation I have to agree with you that reporters (otherwise known as "The Media") only want sound bites. I think that is a major problem in society in general and most especially in regard to technical matters. Reporters in general have a little to none technical background, either in education or work experience. The result of this is junk reporting about junk science & technology. In general "The Media" will fess-up to errors such as misspelling a name or getting a figure incorrect; but will never acknowledge that they really didn't understand something or got the basic idea wrong.

I don't know if you (or any of the others) saw the recent Nova/Frontline special on global warming but it had a segment on energy production. It was very illuminating (forgive the pun) on the gulf between organizations such as Greenpeace who think you can get rid of all the coal plants and have everything wind or solar and reality.


Malcolm's Comments:

During our Y2K work, my association with the media was confined to what I read in the magazines or newspapers, saw on TV, or learned from the net. I had almost no direct input to any media organization at all. The only exception to this being during the roll over when I was contacted by Rick Cowles for information on how New Zealand was managing.

Almost all Y2K reporting in New Zealand was done through the governments Y2K Readiness Commission. They did a good job of making most people aware of the possibility of some disruption, and provided all households with a checklist of basic items that should be kept on hand for any emergency. One thing that their TV advertising did claim was that: "Power could go out for up to three days, and not just on the roll over, but may happen for up to three months after."

I attempted to follow up on this one to see where they got their information from, as I knew no-one in the power industry here in New Zealand who believed this. Having worked in the National Control Center for a number of years, I had inside knowledge of the equipment and methods used, and I still have many friends working there. This seemed like a good place to start the follow up. But everyone there was convinced that all grid control systems were OK, and that there would be no problems on that side. Another friend who works for New Zealand's largest generating company did confide that their NEW SCADA and Energy Management System was non compliant, and they were looking for additional people with experience in manual operations. our company, the second largest in the country, was in good shape, and reports from people in the next two largest companies also reported that they didn't expect any issues.

So having determined that the reports of a possible three day failure hadn't come from any major player in the electricity industry, I attempted to find out from the Y2K Readiness Commission where their information had come from. It was like hitting a brick wall. The only response appeared to be: "Prepare for outages of up to three days duration", and of course this is what the media picked up on.

Our own IT section had no contact with the media at all. Our Y2K director was never approached by the media, and our Public Relations Manager, who has daily contact with the media over electricity and gas issues, was never quoted with anything to do with Y2K.


Jim Cooke's Comments:

I was lucky to not have a lot of exposure to the media. We had company PR people who handled most of that although we had to brief them. Most did a good job although they had the habit of overstating what we told them. For example, if we said we were 60% complete on some part of the project, they would tell the public we had completed "most" of the work. we'd argue that 60% complete wasn't "most" but they said the public could understand "most" but not 60%. I still don't know if they were right but, then again, I'm still not sure what "most" means either.

I did have to go to several informational meetings with the public. I was struck by the fact that the same small group of individuals always showed up no matter where the meetings were held. They obviously didn't believe a word we were saying and took delight in hooting us down if we made any statement that was optimistic. One of their favorite questions was "What about the Navy Report?". We had no idea what the Navy Report was. When we found out it was apparent that the report was part of the Navy's attempt to engage in some what-if exercises and had no relationship to our work. Not being aware of the whole Y2K subculture that had been developing, we were baffled by all of this.

If there's ever another project with visibility of Y2K it would behove all those involved in the actual work to try and understand all the opinions of the public. I don't think any of our PR people were aware of the Y2K subculture either. If they were, we could have presented information differently.

As part of our contingency plans, we assumed that the media would want to do standups in front of a substation or at a hydro plant rather than in our press room. We had 5 PR people in vehicles in different parts of our service territory on December interested so those 5 people spent until 1 in the morning sitting in their cars waiting for something to 31 ready to go to wherever the press showed up. By the evening of the 31st, the press was no longer happen.

It was a good New Year's Eve.


David's (Factfinder's) comments:

Fortunately, I didn't have to deal with the media in my modest role in y2k at a nuclear power plant, that was left to our media relations group and the companies Y2K project manager (like Dan).

I did hear many amusing stories in the EUY2K forum from Rick Cowles, who frequently was misquoted. One of my favorites was a reporter who quoted Rick as saying that there were "chips" in the reactor vessel, lol. I got a kick out of that one, and kidded Rick about it. Of course, no way he would have said that, he knew better.

Dan's examples of how two reporters had drastically different "stories" based on the same information he provided is amusing but not suprising. This sounds very similar to the "doomer" and "poly" views being so different when discussing the same subject on the old TB2000 forum. 'Tis the same with any controversial subject, slant the story to fit your views...many of us do it, reporters do it better, and politicians are the experts...;)


Discussion question: Were you ever interviewed by the media for Y2k? If not, what did you like or not like about the media coverage?

Next Chapter: Its going to start getting interesting: Our experiences with Y2k message boards (Early 1999)

-- Dan the Power Man (dgman19938@aol.com), May 04, 2000


In Dan's comment is this little gem:

"I showed him an actual test, the test process, and took him to an electrical substation. It turns out that he was so convinced that we were ready that he never ran our story; "

Where is the responsibility that comes with journalism? I think I will continue to read just the arts and sports section! I cannot think of anything more irresponsible, in the y2k climate of uncertainty, to have positive info. and not report it.

This is truly sad. I do not know if we will ever see responsible journalism again on a large scale.

Thanks again guys for engaging in this series.

-- FutureShock (gray@matter.think), May 05, 2000.

I forgot to include my comments on testing in the last chapter, but I could get around to that someday.

Regarding the media, one had to notice the internet fora all but demanded compliance statements from every company in the world. As a software contractor who oftentimes worked on Y2k, I saw NO firm treat remediation as anything other than another maintenance project. Nobody talked to the media about those, and nobody talked to the media about this last one.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), May 05, 2000.

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