Archive for the ‘Communications’ Category

Amtrak Train Crash Near Philadelphia

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

By a stroke of luck, I have twice missed being on Amtrak trains between New York City and Washington DC that crashed near Philadelphia. Early today, a southbound train operating at high speed struck a backhoe on the track, killing two track workers and injuring more than thirty passengers. Last year, a train en route to New York derailed, killing eight people and causing injury to more than two hundred. The tragedy of these disasters is that they are entirely avoidable and appear to arise from human error. This should prompt inquiry into Amtrak’s operating practices.

I took away some lessons about disaster communications after hearing the account of a passenger on the train, Steve Forbes. He was scheduled to be at the Washington DC studio of CSPAN to appear on the “Book TV” program to discuss his latest book, Money: How the Destruction of the Dollar Threatens the Global Economy and What You Can Do About It. Fate intervened as Forbes was a passenger on Amtrak Train 89 southbound from New York. Fortunately, he was not injured and returned home to do a shorter interview with CSPAN by telephone. CSPAN then filled the air time with a taped recording of a talk Forbes had given about his book at Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington DC.

I had scheduled the DVR to record the CSPAN program as I am a huge Steve Forbes fan.  The first time I met him was in the green room of Fox Business News when we were both guests on Alexis Glick’s show Money for Breakfast. Mr. Forbes was on an earlier segment of the program and when I met him I expressed regret that I had known he was scheduled to appear, I would have brought my copy of  Power Ambition Glory: The Stunning Parallels Between Great Leaders of the Ancient World and Today…and the Lessons You Can Learn for him to sign. Ever the gentleman, Forbes surprised me by sending over an inscribed copy of the book later in the day.

Over the course of his call-in CSPAN interview, Forbes addressed the issue of the condition of American infrastructure, calling for more private-public partnerships, and remarked on the disparity between the condition of our freight trains (which are among the best in the world) and our commuter trains; the former being in good shape as private owners are motivated to invest in maintenance, the latter being in poor condition for poor public management. He also addressed the issue of disaster communications; the passengers on Train 89 knew that it was too hazardous to exit the train and step onto electrified rail, but more than twenty minutes passed before any Amtrak crew informed them of what had happened. Forbes himself was on his cell phone to the CSPAN producer to arrange to phone in his interview given that he was not going to arrive in Washington DC that day.

Forbes touched on the themes of his book which addresses how abandoning the Bretton Woods system, in which the U.S. dollar was pegged to gold, completely undermined money as a store of value. I look forward to when his in-studio interview at CSPAN is re-scheduled as I am eager to hear his analysis of how our monetary policy has undermined small business access to credit. Meanwhile, Forbes’ experience on Amtrak provides a compelling lesson on disaster communications. Employees need to be trained to provide timely information to customers when service is disrupted and kudos to Forbes for his calm response in what must have been a frustrating situation.

Better Project Management to Minimize Risk

Monday, January 4th, 2016

In Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses, I wrote of the insights gleaned from examining the patterns of human error that impact your business. If your management style is to wait until the last minute to complete work and create needless stress, human errors will increase. Changing your management practices to allow for adequate preparation and response times will reduce the frequency of human errors – and improve your overall mental health! Today I learned the corollary to that piece of advice when I had difficulty accessing an online form for the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI). CCRI’s website and applications were accessible only to those using terminals on campus. I am working with a non-profit organization that sought to apply to participate in CCRI’s Annual Day of Service in which students volunteer to perform a day of work for local charities. The deadline for application is January 6. Had I waited until tomorrow or the day after, my stress levels would have been rising with each hour that I was unable to complete the online application. Fortunately service was restored by the close of business and we submitted our materials two days in advance. But the next time, I will pencil the dates in my calendar for one week in advance of the actual deadlines.

Communicating Status Updates

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015
Good Communications Practice

Good Communications Practice

One of the most challenging aspects of managing your operations through a service disruption is communicating status updates to all of your stakeholders. You need to first identify the key stakeholders who will require timely updates from you. These may include employees, the families of employees, customers, service providers, suppliers, board members and other advisers. Then you need to have a plan in place ready to execute with little or no warning when something unexpected interferes with your normal operations.

I came across a great example of this when I went to the online database of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). I wanted to check the status of a trademark application my company had filed (three trademarks have already been registered to Prisere LLC!) but was unable to do as the USPTO computer systems were down. The website of the USPTO had a message announcing that a major power outage at its headquarters had occurred the day before, resulting in damaged equipment that required the subsequent shutdown of many of USPTO’s online and IT systems. These systems included the filing, searching and payment systems, as well as systems the patent and trademark examiners use across the country. At the same time, the USPTO was unable to receive documents by fax.

The website announcement was regularly updated to advise site visitors as to the status of the work underway to restore systems availability. It also advised of the measures the USPTO had implemented to ensure that all applicants were treated fairly and not disadvantaged for the fact that the systems were down. Specifically, the USPTO would consider every day that the system was down as a “federal holiday within the District of Columbia” such that these days would not count as business days towards which applicants had to meet deadlines.

I expect that within a few days of publishing this blog, normal operations will be restored, such that a link to the announcement will no longer be available, so I captured it as a screen shot to accompany this post. This is a great example of good communications practice. Service disruptions are aggravating for everyone: undoubtedly for the IT department of the USPTO that was working around the clock to resume regular operations and for the patent and trademark examiners who could not perform their jobs until IT access was restored. In addition, the individuals and businesses checking on the status of their filings would likely be concerned that their applications were at a disadvantage for the days that the system was not operational. I was particularly impressed by the creative way that they treated the days of service interruption as federal holidays. It is a much better approach than to waste time and effort trying to address each individual applicant whose filing deadlines occur within the time that the IT systems were down. And every applicant received the same treatment, ensuring transparency and fairness.

The USPTO proactively anticipated these issues and addressed them, minimizing stress for all concerned (although it was surely very stressful for the IT department!). They managed expectations by being clear and straightforward about what had happened and why and what was being done to correct the problem. I wanted to share this as I find it to be a great example of good communications practice during a disaster – in this case, a power outage causing an interruption of normal operations. Kudos to the USPTO for their skilled management of a difficult situation!

Protect Against Porch Pirates

Monday, December 7th, 2015
Be Sure to Sign for the Delivery

Be Sure to Sign for the Delivery

The newspapers are reporting a large volume of thefts due to so-called “porch pirates”, thieves who take delivery packages left outside of doorways without signatures. With the holiday season underway, deliverymen are unusually busy bringing gifts to homes and offices for recipients who are not always available to sign for them. Small businesses are also vulnerable, particularly home-based businesses.

You can take steps to reduce the risk of loss. First, try to schedule your deliveries when you know someone will be available to sign for the package. I pay for the delivery services to e-mail me in advance to schedule deliveries. This has been my longstanding practice, as I don’t want to be interrupted when on a client videoconference or participating in a live media interview. It also has the advantage of thwarting the porch pirates. A number of delivery services, such as FedEx, UPS, DHL and Amazon Locker, offer various options to schedule deliveries. You can also arrange to have your packages delivered to another location to ensure secure delivery. And of course, always require a signature – for packages you send to others and for those you have delivered to you. It is an extra layer of protection against loss.

International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015
International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction

International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction

Today is the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, (IDDR) a tradition that began in 1989 when the United Nations General Assembly designated an annual date to promote a global culture of disaster risk reduction including disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) is responsible for promoting the events around October 13th. In 2011, UNISDR launched a Step Up Initiative to focus on different partnerships each year, beginning with “Children and Young People” (in 2011), emphasizing, for example, safe schools. In 2012, the focus was on “Women and Girls”, particularly important as they often live in more hazard-prone areas. I was stunned to read that in certain communities devastated by the Asian tsunami, all of the casualties were female as they were working in the low-lying areas while the men moved to higher elevations for work. Another issue relevant to women and girls that we tried to develop in our UNISDR reporting is the need for safe evacuation facilities for women and girls. In 2013, the Step Up partnership was people living with disabilities and in 2014, it was older people. This year’s theme is “Knowledge for Life”, with an emphasis on local knowledge, or indigenous traditions, that help to manage disaster risk in the community. I was trying to come up with an example from my own experience and what immediately came to mind was the advice of my grandfather (who was a fireman) to protect glass windows with masking tape during a hurricane. Should the force of the wind shatter the glass, the masking tape makes the fragments less likely to disperse and cause injury.



Guest Blogger, Alejandro Witschi

Sunday, May 17th, 2015
Back to School

Help From My Alma Mater

On May 17, the Brandeis International Business School honored 244 graduates at its 21st annual diploma ceremony. One of them was Alejandro Witschi, who was a graduate student intern at Prisere LLC last summer. UNISDR’s Regional Office in the Americas published a paper developed by Prisere LLC, to which Alejandro had contributed. We invited Alejandro to contribute a guest blog about his experience, which follows below. We wish him every success as he embarks on his career.


When I started searching for internships for the summer of 2014, I was looking for something in my field of expertise, banking and risk management. But in a pleasant turn of events I met Donna Childs; she was in need of a graduate student to support one of Prisere’s projects for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. After an interview, we decided to combine forces for this project, and maybe my background was not the usual for a job of this magnitude, but I had a strong personal attraction to this project.

My interest in contributing to this project relates to a disaster that occurred in my country and my personal feelings. A disaster struck Vargas State in Venezuela on 15 December 1999, when torrential rains and debris flows destroyed thousands of homes, and led to the complete collapse of the state’s infrastructure. The exact number of casualties was difficult to establish due to the lack of reliable census data in the state, but it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed. My other reason for interest in this project relates to the recent loss of my uncle, a former UN official and former Delegate of the Red Cross International Committee, who helped people around the world for almost 30 years. This motivated my interest in helping people as well, as my uncle did, precisely contributing to dissemination of best practices in disaster risk reduction communications in the Caribbean region.

At the beginning of the project, I reviewed the literature related to the United Nations work for disaster risk reduction in the context of the social and economic developments in the Caribbean region. Then I began to research regional best practices in disaster risk reduction. The process included gathering information from senior government officials in the Caribbean countries, each charged with responsibility for disaster risk reduction, emergency management or humanitarian response. I also interviewed leaders of NGO’s, including the Red Cross, in the Caribbean region. The experience was amazing because all of the participants in the project openly shared their experiences and this is reflected in a final report that I hope contributes to a safer, more resilient Caribbean region.

Securing Your Mobile Devices

Saturday, May 16th, 2015
Mobile Phones Are At Risk, Too

Mobile Phones Are At Risk, Too

As we prepare for the summer vacation season, we will be making greater use of our mobile devices to stay in touch with the office. However, even when we are in a relaxed environment, we must be as vigilant with IT security as we would be if we were at our desktop computers at our regular place of work. Mobile devices – smart phones, tablets and laptops – contain valuable data that can be compromised if we are not careful. The following are five suggestions to secure the data contained on your mobile telephone or tablet:

  1. Enable remote data wipe. This feature allows you to erase all of the data on your device should it be lost or stolen. The remote data wipe restores the device to its original state by performing a “factory reset” and removing all of the information you have stored on it. The Apple iCloud service offers this protection to iPhone and iPad users. There is a comparable Android solution within Google apps.
  2. Update the software on your device. We are conditioned to install the security software updates on our desktop computers, but often we postpone doing so for our mobile devices. Take a few minutes to verify that the software on your mobile device is up-to-date. Hackers will often exploit known threats to gain access to mobile devices. The software updates correct the vulnerabilities caused by known threats, so it is important to stay up-to-date.
  3. Exercise caution when using “Free Public Wi-Fi or Hotspots”. These services are very convenient when you are checking messages at the local coffee shop, but they are not secure. A hacker could hang out all day in a free public wi-fi area in the hope of capturing confidential information from customers checking their bank accounts online, for example. The safer alternative is to use a 4G cellular hotspot. Hotspots are built into the current models of mobile telephones.
  4. Turn off your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when you are not using these services. This will not only help to thwart the hackers, it will extend your battery life.
  5. Protect your mobile device with a password. A password for logging into your mobile device will make it more difficult for someone to gain unauthorized access to your confidential information. I change my password each month as an added precaution.

Once you have updated the passcode protection and software on your own devices, be sure to share these suggestions with your employees to help keep your business safe.

Stopping Robocall Abuse

Friday, May 15th, 2015
Technology to Fight Robocalls

Technology to Fight Robocalls

Robocalls are not just annoying; they lower our productivity. But solutions are available to reduce the intrusions robocalls make to our work lives.

Robocalls are auto-dialed, pre-recorded marketing messages made to landline and mobile telephones or unsolicited text messages sent to wireless numbers. Certain auto-dialed messages, such as emergency weather alerts or calls to landline phones made to raise funds for non-profit organizations, are permitted by law. But unsolicited, auto-dialed marketing calls are not. Regulatory agencies appear overwhelmed to fight robocall abuse; each month, more than 150,000 people complain to the Federal Trade Commission and to the Federal Communications Commission about robocalls, far more than the reported violations of the government’s Do Not Call Registry made by live telemarketing solicitations. Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology enables robocallers to escape detection by using spoofed, or phony, telephone numbers, making it near impossible to trace the calls. So the Federal Trade Commission decided to fight fire with fire by offering a $50,000 prize to the most promising technology to fight robocalls.

One of the prize winners was Aaron Foss, founder of Nomoboro, a call-blocking technology. Foss estimates that 35 per cent of all calls placed to telephones in the United States are robocalls. Even if you are savvy enough not to fall for the fraudulent scams of the robocallers (who often seek information such as your social security or credit card numbers), you are still being robbed if you receive a robocall. If the call or text message comes to your wireless device, the minutes or text count against what you have paid for on your monthly plan. But the biggest loss is that of time and productivity. Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported (in contexts other than robocalls) the cost of frequent interruptions, such as

  • Increased frequency of errors made when performing tasks. Even an interruption as short as 2.8 seconds is sufficient to double the error rate made when a person is performing work.
  • Lost productivity. It takes, on average, 25 minutes, to resume a task after being interrupted.
  • Increased rates of stress and illness. Losing one’s concentration from frequent interruptions correlates with higher stress-related ailments, such as fatigue and headaches.

At home, you can screen calls from unknown numbers with your answering machine or voice mail, but that is not a viable option for small business owners who must be responsive to potential customer inquiries. Nomorobo, one of the winners of the FTC’s challenge award, may be able to help. It is a free service that intercepts all calls after the first ring and compares the caller’s number with its database of known robocallers. If the call appears to be legitimate, it goes through and the phone continues to ring normally. If not, the call is blocked. The number of false positives (that is, calls that should have gone through but were mistakenly blocked) is reported to be negligible. If you have the experience of losing a legitimate call, you simply add the caller’s telephone number to your wanted-call list so the call will go through next time.

The FTC advises that you should not answer a robocaller as that only invites more abuse. Typically, the robocall recording will ask you to press “1” to accept their marketing offer and speak with a live agent or “2” to be removed from their calling list. Pressing any number confirms to the robocallers that it has successfully identified a live telephone account (the numbers to which they place calls are often randomly generated, so unless someone answers, the call software doesn’t know it found a target) and you will only receive more calls, even if you asked to be removed from the call list. I am trying out Nomorobo to see how it works for my business. According to its website, Nomorobo claims to have blocked nearly 33 million harassing robocalls. Anything that stops unwanted interruptions is like found money and this service is free.

Texting Can Wait!

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Texting: It Can Wait!In Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery, I advised of the risks to your company when employees use their personal automobiles for business purposes. It is not just company-owned or leased vehicles that expose you to liability risk! Now businesses are focusing on a new emerging threat arising from driving: accidents caused by employees distracted by cell phone use. The National Safety Council estimates that 1.2 million automobile accidents, one-quarter of all yearly accidents, involve cell phone usage. Prudent companies aren’t waiting for legislatures to pass laws banning the use of cell phones (either voice conversations or texting) while driving; they are taking proactive measures to enhance safety.

Consider the policies of AT&T, which is not only a large corporate employer, but also a major cell phone service carrier. It has revised its corporate policies and engaged its nearly 250,000 employees in its “Texting & Driving? It Can Wait” campaign, which includes:

  • Engaging the teenaged children of AT&T employees in a youth advisory council to help refine messaging to be delivered to classmates in their own schools, advising of the hazards of texting or calling while driving.
  • Creating a resource center of information available for download to educate about driver safety with the use of cell phones.
  • Branding more than 2,000 company vans and trucks across 50 top markets with the “It Can Wait” message.
  • Developing a pledge to refrain from texting while driving and promoting it on the company Facebook page where over 11,000 individuals have already signed their commitments.
  • Providing information on product packaging and retail displays in over 2,000 company stores to educate about the “It Can Wait” campaign.
  • Donating $1.25 million to non-profit organizations promoting safe driving practices.

AT&T is to be commended for proactively addressing a risk arising from irresponsible use of its mobile telephones. That risk isn’t limited to driving, however. Employees operating hazardous equipment, such as in certain manufacturing facilities, or performing other functions where concentration and attention are critical, should also be advised to refrain from using their cell phones while working. To protect your small business and your employees, you should create a policy around the use of mobile telephones, particularly those phones that are owned or paid for by the company. It is important to give guidance to your employees and to document that you provided such guidance. You may want to refresh the policy on your company web site or Intranet or e-mailing it to employees as well as updating the company handbook. Emphasize that the message of “It Can Wait” is not just limited to the risks of teens texting while driving!

A Small Victory for Productivity

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012


Today I was very pleasantly surprised when I received a call from a major telecommunications company. I had received unsolicited text messages from this company (for which my mobile telephone company charged me). I am not, and have never been, a customer of this phone company and I do not wish to pay for the privilege of being abused by intrusive mobile spam. There is nothing more annoying than the vibration of your cell phone over a meal. You apologize to your companion for the interruption, but since the phone is for emergency use only, you have to check the message.  Then you find out that it is a spammer or robo-dialer harassing you. Does any company really think that this is the way to acquire customers?

So I filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission’s online form. Although the process took only five minutes, I thought it a waste of time, as with the volume of complaints they receive, I certainly did not expect a response. But I filed my complaint as a matter of principle. Did you know that you may file a complaint if you received a call that used a recorded message instead of a live person, even if your telephone number does not appear on the Do Not Call Registry?

Calls from companies with which you have an existing business relationships are exempt from the provisions of the Do Not Call list, unless you have instructed them that they are not to solicit you. That was the issue of interest to the telecommunications company that called me. Apparently, the FTC forwarded my complaint to the company for a response. The company was embarrassed to learn that as its service is not allowed in my building, I cannot possibly be a customer. The representative of the company was apologetic and promised to further research the matter.

The National Do Not Call Registry was established to allow us to opt out of receiving telemarketing calls at home. Personally, I don’t agree with the approach. I believe telemarketers should only be able to call those who have “opted in” to receive such calls. That would dramatically reduce the call volume, wouldn’t it? But the government is reporting success with its approach: according to a recent Harris Interactive poll, 92% of people who reported placing a number on the registry said they are receiving fewer calls; 78% said they’re getting “far fewer calls” or none at all.

Companies that violate the provisions of the Do Not Call Registry may be subject to fines of up to $16,000 per offense. With the government desperate for revenues, the FTC may be motivated to follow up on individual complaints. In any event, I feel better for not having tolerated the abuse. As small business owners, particularly those working from home-based offices, these unwanted intrusions are a drain on our productivity and entirely unacceptable.