hawaii public relations


“What happened today was totally unacceptable,” Hawaiian Governor David Y. Ige relayed to a terrified- and outraged- state, “many in our community were deeply affected by this. I am sorry for that pain and confusion that anyone might have experienced.”

2018 was barely two weeks old, and the people of Hawaii had already spent 38 minutes of it hiding in terror, in cupboards, under beds, holding their children close. They had all been the recipients of an alert message sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency at 8.10am that morning.

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”, the message read. Mercifully, it was exactly that: a drill. It just wasn’t meant to be sent to the phones of civilians.

Following a brutal 38 minutes of radio silence, officials and agencies began posting official notices on social media correcting the mistake, declaring the alert a result of human error, not the work of hackers or a hostile government. Still, the damage had been done.

“We fully felt like we were about to die,” said Allyson Niven, a mother in Kailua-Kona, “I drove to try to get to my kids even though I knew I probably wouldn’t make it, and I fully was visualizing what was happening while I was on the road. It was awful.”

Ray Gerst was on holiday in Oahu with his wife; they were celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary. They received the alert as their bus turned into Kualoa Ranch as part of a tour. “All the buses stopped, and people came running out of the ranch and said, ‘Just sit still for a minute, nobody get off the bus, nobody get off the bus,’” Gerst said. They were taken in the mountains and dropped off at a concrete bunker, with no cell signal, for 15 gruelling minutes.

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The administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, Vern T. Miyagi, held a press conference that afternoon, discussing a detailed timeline of the events that morning. He said the agency would try to fix the mistake, with three key measures in place: all future drills suspended until a proper analysis of the event, the institution of a two-person activation rule for tests, and a cancellation command that can be triggered within second of an error.

Still, it seems the damage to the agency’s reputation has been done. “So this was the most terrifying few minutes of my LIFE!” lamented Twitter user Paul Wilson, a professor at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, “I just want to know why it took 38 minutes to announce it was a mistake?!?”

What’s done is done, but the island simply cannot afford to have another false alarm. If the public trust sees its faith in government systems eroded beyond return, they are unlikely to be reachable when it really matters.

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Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 175 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions. Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, and a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, was named to PR Week's "40 under Forty" list, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations" is an industry best-seller. A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities.