Saturday, January 13, 2007

“Live from the PTWC”: Warning Center Goes Media Mainstream During Tsunami Watch

Wait a minute. Is this the same Pacific Tsunami Warning Center that is “not allowed” to use the media’s international news dissemination networks to issue urgent, time-sensitive tsunami warnings? (See two years of posts here if you want details of how that could work.)

Yes, this is definitely the same PTWC – the same building with the same personalities. But talk about a flip-flop.

Even as a tsunami watch was in effect and Center staffers were assessing the potential for an actual tsunami to arrive after the 8.2 Kuril Islands earthquake last night, at least two Honolulu TV stations were sending “live” reports to its viewers by reporters standing just a few feet away from the computers. Today’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin carries a photo taken last night inside the Center.

The message was clear: The PTWC was on the job, ready to tell the world USING CONSUMER-ACCESSIBLE NEWS MEDIA whether a tsunami had been generated.

Emphasis was added to the previous sentence to hammer home the point: PTWC officials now use garden-variety news media to inform the public, something they failed to do in December 2004 when hundreds of thousands died in the Indian Ocean region.

This blog takes some satisfaction at the PTWC’s turnabout; maybe two years of criticism about its hands-off media policy is doing some good, but it’s hard not to be cynical about the new accessibility, which seems designed to maximize the Center’s public relations.

As we asked here nearly two years ago, “…if the media can be used to transmit PTWC’s story all over the world, shouldn’t they have a role in transmitting tsunami warnings, too? Can it be, as suggested by the Center's director last week (see March 26 posts), that the PTWC is prohibited from engaging the media more energetically?”

Cynicism aside, engaging the media for PR spin may actually help NOAA, the NWS and the PTWC appreciate how the international media can be used to quickly transmit messages to their clientele and the public.

Call it PR with a positive purpose.