The power outage at Sunday night’s Super Bowl was strangely familiar to Ed Van Herik. He worked Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2003 at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. His job: To communicate with the media in case the stadium’s power went out.
“I can’t tell you what a shock it was to see an outage at the Super Bowl,” Van Herik told PR Daily. “I had a sense of déjà vu.”
In 2003, Van Herick was handling crisis communications and media relations for San Diego Gas and Electric, the company that supplied power to Qualcomm Stadium. California was still reeling from an energy crisis that had grabbed the public’s attention, in part, because of rolling brownouts.
“We took a look at Qualcomm Stadium and thought there was a potential for an outage,” he explained. The questions we asked were ‘How do we restore it quickly?’ and ‘How do we tell everyone?’”
Van Herik, who now runs Van Herik Communications, is a veteran communicator with years of experience working for energy companies.
When the lights went out in the Mercedes Benz Superdome about 90 seconds into the second half, confusion reigned. The broadcast booth had lost power; the millions of people watching at home saw an eerily half-darkened stadium. CBS went to commercial, and Twitter lit up with activity. Once the broadcast returned, a sideline reporter described the scene, but had very little information about the power outage. No one on the field seemed to know what was going on.
Van Herik’s job in 2003 was to make sure such a situation didn’t happen.
San Diego Gas and Electric had a communications team—with Van Herik as lead spokesperson as well as a team ready to dash off written materials—and electric crews that could diagnose the problem within five minutes of an outage.
The press tent was in the stadium’s parking lot. Before kickoff, Van Herik visited the press booth in Qualcomm to tell the media that in the case of an outage, a press briefing would occur five minutes later in the press tent.
“That gave me five minutes to get actual news,” said Van Herik, who had prepared several minutes of material in case such a press briefing became necessary.
In New Orleans, there was no press briefing. Instead, officials seemed to brief the media in an ad hoc manner. It took several minutes before TV announcers could say how long until—or even if—power would be fully restored. Once they were told the lights would come back on, it became unclear exactly how long the delay would last.
The announcer said it would be about 10 minutes; the delay actually lasted 34 minutes.
Van Herik said SMG, the company that manages the Superdome, dropped the ball.
SMG “knew at the beginning what the problem was, yet all of the announcers were fumbling for information. … No one likes an outage, but if you know how long until the power is coming back on, they can live with it.”
He continued: “It should have been relatively easy to explain to the press, but there was no explanation, and there didn’t seem to be anywhere to get the explanation.”
Around midnight CT—the game wrapped up before 10 p.m. CT—Entergy New Orleans, which supplies power to the Superdome, and SMG released a joint statement that Van Herik said made perfect sense.
Entergy and SMG blamed the outage on a piece of equipment that sensed an overload and behaved properly by shutting down the power. Despite the explanation, an Entergy spokesperson told Fox Sports that the blame falls on SMG.
“All of our distribution and transmission feeds going into the Superdome were operating as expected,” Philip Allison told Fox Sports
, which reported Allison as explaining that the “outage appeared to originate in a failure of equipment maintained by stadium staff.”
The companies blasted their official statement across PR Newswire, and Entergy posted the statement to its Facebook page
and shared it via Twitter
SMG, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania, directed PR Daily
's inquires to someone at the Superdome. Several phone calls to the Superdome went unanswered. Entergy did not respond to requests for comment.
Social media did not appear to be a major part of either organization’s crisis communications plan. Entergy posted three times to Facebook and only twice to Twitter. The outage wasn’t even mentioned on the Superdome’s Facebook page
. The Superdome doesn’t have a Twitter account, nor does SMG. The management company doesn’t have an active Facebook page, either. Its blog
hasn’t been updated since December.
Although social media didn’t exist in 2003, Van Herik said that if Twitter and Facebook had been an option, the communications team would have used it.
“It goes back to the basic crisis communications principle, which is that you are to be in control of your story,” he explained. “The more you can be center stage, the better you are. Even if what you have to say isn’t a game changer, you should still be the one supplying the information and as rapidly as possible.”
If an outage had occurred in San Diego, Van Herik wouldn’t have had time to tweet; however, he guaranteed that someone would have been on it.
“What are you doing to find out the problem? What are the problems? How long until power is restores? Those are all tweets.”
As this story was being written Monday morning, Entergy tweeted for a third time:
One minute later, the company fired off its fourth tweet since the outage:
On Tuesday, CBS News reported
that officials in New Orleans were worried about a possible power outage at the Superdome.