A 2017 Best Practice for Private Sector Communications

Coordination between the public and private sectors are essential for communicating effectively to the public during emergencies. It is important for government agencies to build relationships with private partners during “blue skies” to ensure that proper plans and messaging are in place in the event of an actual emergency. New York City (NYC) Emergency Management has worked extensively to build a robust network of private partners from various industries that can assist with the dissemination of critical information to the public before, during, and after emergencies. In 2017, NYC Emergency Management conducted a communication drill with private sector partners to test the potential reach of New York City’s emergency messaging.

The responsibilities of the NYC Emergency Management Department, which coordinates the citywide emergency planning and response for all types and scales of emergencies, include the widespread dissemination of critical information. To fulfill this mission, NYC Emergency Management employs several notification tools, including but not limited to: Notify NYC, which is the City’s official source for information about emergency events and important City services; press releases; and social media.

The agency’s Public/Private Initiatives Unit supplements this capability by leveraging the trusted communication channels it actively maintains with private sector organizations. This distribution network is built around a core of 24 private sector umbrella organizations representing major segments of the City’s economy, such as real estate, financial, and legal services. To assess the reach and reliability of this network, the Public/Private Initiatives Unit conducted four no-notice, or impromptu, communications drills between 2010 and 2017. Following each drill, the umbrella organizations provided feedback via an online survey, then distributed the survey to its member organizations. The survey sought to identify the number of people within the private sector that could receive direct communications from NYC Emergency Management and its partners in the event of an emergency.


New York City’s private sector possesses unique resources, knowledge, and subject matter expertise that are essential to the City’s preparedness and response capabilities. As such, NYC Emergency Management partners with a number of umbrella organizations represent key sectors of the City’s economy, including but not limited to: finance, real estate, legal services, cultural organizations, private higher education, hospitality, and airlines. These organizations are collectively referred to as the private sector Emergency Support Function (ESF).

The agency also organizes several other ESFs as well, such as transportation, health and medical services, and infrastructure. The agency’s Public/Private Initiatives Unit actively maintains relationships with its private sector ESF partners to ensure that trusted lines of communication remain open. In an emergency, these ESF partners may deploy representatives to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the NYC Emergency Management headquarters to facilitate information sharing and accelerate damage assessment, emergency response, and recovery (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Source: New York City Emergency Management 2017

Each ESF partner may represent hundreds of member organizations in its sector. Therefore, each member can also serve as a powerful force multiplier in both collecting and disseminating information in an emergency. The department’s relationship with its ESF partners constitutes a network for emergency notification with the potential for an extremely wide reach. In a citywide emergency, NYC Emergency Management’s private sector ESF partners can amplify emergency messaging, potentially reaching millions of employees, tenants, students, and other individuals served by the private sector.

Figure 2. Source: New York City Emergency Management 2017

Figure 2 is a stylized network diagram showing connections among the agency, its private sector ESF partners, and the member organizations belonging to each of those partners. In this network, a message sent by NYC Emergency Management to its 24 private sector ESF partners is relayed to thousands of its member organizations, expanding the audience of recipient organizations (see Table 1).

Table 1. Private Sector ESF Partner Organizations
Airline Consortium NY State Department of Financial Services
Alliance for Response NYC (Cultural Organizations) New York State Restaurant Association
Business Networks of Emergency Resources Inc. (BNET) New York Stock Exchange
Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) NYC Department of Consumer Affairs
Consortium of Independent Schools NYC Department of Cultural Affairs
Consortium of Private Universities NYC Economic Development Corporation
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Infrastructure Protection Services Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY)
Food Industry Alliance of New York State Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA)
Hotel Association of New York City Charter Communications/Spectrum
NYC Department of Small Business Services Legal Forum

For this dissemination strategy to be effective, the network of ties among NYC Emergency Management, its private sector ESF partners, and those organizations’ member organizations must include decision makers authorized and prepared to disseminate emergency messages.


The survey consisted of between 8 and 10 questions, depending on the differing composition of employment and tenancy across sectors. All respondents were required to identify the organizations for which they work and their job titles, as well as to report the number of people their organizations employ in the New York metropolitan area, and whether they are able to directly disseminate emergency information to their entire organizations. Additionally, educational, real estate, hotel, and cultural organizations were required to report the number of students, tenants, guests, and patrons their organizations serve, and whether these populations can be reached with emergency information, if necessary.

Additional optional questions included whether respondents subscribe to CorpNet and Notify NYC, how frequently they share the information with their organization, and the type of information they share (see Table 2). CorpNet notifications provide business collaborates with current, accurate information about emergencies to enhance awareness and aid decision-making. Notify NYC offers similar notifications but for public consumption.

Table 2. Do You Subscribe to the following?
  CorpNet Notify NYC
Yes 35% 58%
No 46% 31%
Don’t know 19% 11%

Finally, respondents were asked to provide feedback on improvements NYC Emergency Management could make in communicating with the private sector.


The 2017 survey, sent to 24 organizations, yielded 429 responses from different organizations, representing more than 3.2 million employees, tenants, students, and patrons. As with all drills, especially those done with no-notice, response rates can vary. Unquestionably, transitions in organizational leadership or within the industry impede the maintenance of relationships, as does new leadership understanding their roles.

The most recent survey shows that the network:

  • Represents a diverse population of more than 3.2 million people, including approximately:
    • 2.43 million direct employees and tenant employees
    • 786,000 university/college students
    • 10,000 hotel guests
  • Continues to expand its reach:
    • 2010’s drill represented 699,821 individuals
    • 2011’s drill represented 1,682,663 individuals
    • 2014’s drill represented 2,154,004 individuals
    • 2017’s drill represented 3,227,386 individuals

Population represented by responding organizations. The responding organizations reported a total of 3,227,386 employees, students, tenant employees, guests, and patrons (see Table 3).

Table 3. 2017: Population Represented by Responding Organizations
Direct employees 1,032,497
Tenant employees 1,398,268
University/college students 786,347
Hotel guests 10,274
Total 3,227,386

Respondents’ ability to widely disseminate emergency information. Respondents overwhelmingly indicated that they have the ability to reach all employees, tenants, students, guests or patrons in their organizations with emergency information. In total, 84% of respondents said they personally have the ability to forward emergency information widely in their organization.

Subscription rates to additional sources of emergency information. NYC Emergency Management offers two emergency notification services available on a free subscription basis – CorpNet for businesses and Notify NYC for the general public. CorpNet is intended for company decision makers such as C-suite executives, business continuity professionals, and life safety managers whose role is to manage a disruption to their organization. Notify NYC is designed for a more general audience and, therefore, does not provide the frequency or level of detail as CorpNet.

Respondents’ roles within their organizations and their relationships to umbrella organizations differ across various industry groups. For example, in some organizations, these liaisons play a role in emergency planning and response, whereas others are industry focused. Respondents who do subscribe to the notification services are highly likely to forward emergency information on to members of their organization. The most commonly forwarded messages pertained to severe weather, mass transit disruption, and police activity. Partners not registered for either notification service only receive alerts from the ESF.

Suggestions for improvement to NYC Emergency Management’s efforts. When asked what NYC Emergency Management could do to improve communication with organizations, some suggested expanded communications – for example, more timely notifications, notification choice in terms of incident type and geographic location, and more communication exercises. Typical examples included: “Improve the ability for an organization to choose which notifications they receive, based on incident type [CorpNet]”; “One centralized place to communicate and check for updates”; and “Develop opportunities for the private sector to get involved in communication exercises with NYC Emergency Management under blue-sky conditions.” Additionally, there were several requests for NYC Emergency Management staff to conduct preparedness presentations.


This strategy is not without its limitations. The failure of any one partner to forward the emergency information he or she receives can potentially leave a large number of “downstream” individuals in the dark. Still, the drill likely underestimates the number of people who could be reached through this channel.

Generally, response rates for any internet-based survey are low, so the no-notice drill may have received a narrower circulation than information in a true emergency. Emergency information distributed through the formal private sector ESF partner network would likely be shared through informal communication channels between professionals in different firms and even different sectors. These relationships provide a meshed network of communications ties that overlay the formal “star” structure described in Figure 2.

This mesh is an indirect benefit of another NYC Emergency Management’s programs. Partners in Preparedness is a nationally recognized program that supports building relationships by regularly bringing together employees from private sector organizations across many industries before emergencies. Social science research has routinely shown that communities with strong relationships are more resilient in disasters. NYC Emergency Management’s networks complement the work of private organizations in this space – including the Association of Contingency Planners, the Contingency Planning Exchange, and the Disaster Recovery Institute-International – that work to enhance ties among emergency preparedness and business continuity professionals.


The survey results from these drills show that the communications network maintained between NYC Emergency Management and its private sector ESF partners is robust and capable of reaching a wide audience across the New York metropolitan area. The strategy is successful because it draws on trusted relationships that NYC Emergency Management cultivates with the private sector. These partners know that in a serious citywide emergency, seats are available for them in the City’s EOC, where they will work closely with City officials to coordinate response efforts. The private sector ESF partners in turn have trusted relationships with the security, safety, business continuity, and operations personnel within their member organizations. These individuals have the authority, capacity, and habit of making emergency information widely known in their organizations.

Reaching New Yorkers via the institutions where they live, work, learn, and play on a daily basis is a valuable augmentation of existing emergency communications efforts. The survey reached a population yet to be engaged by NYC Emergency Management’s existing emergency notification channels (CorpNet and Notify NYC), underscoring the importance of this distribution strategy. Multiple and sometimes overlapping channels of communication may be necessary to reach the widest audience. This overlap should not be a source of confusion as long as the messaging generated by the City is consistent. Ensuring that the City is speaking with a unified voice is a priority for NYC Emergency Management.

Ultimately, the survey results show that this strategy increases NYC Emergency Management’s reach and has proven to be a useful strategy for rapid dissemination of a message across multiple organizations in a range of sectors. The survey not only represents the potential to reach 3.2 million individuals; it also extends to their families, friends, and personal networks, and helps make New York City more prepared and resilient.

Kathryn Howard, MPA, CBCP (pictured above), is the Deputy Director of Public/Private Initiatives at the New York City Emergency Management Department. Howard works to enhance the resiliency of NYC’s private sector, most notably through the nationally recognized Partners in Preparedness program. She has responded to many emergencies in NYC as a member of the agency’s leadership team, and deployed to Puerto Rico to assist in Hurricane Maria response efforts. Howard is a Special Advisor to the DRI Young Leaders in Resilience Committee, and holds a B.S. in Political Science from Binghamton University and an M.A. in Public Administration from Baruch College.

Ira Tannenbaum, MBA, CBCP, is the Assistant Commissioner for Public/Private Initiatives at New York City Emergency Management. As the primary liaison between the city, businesses, and private sector organizations, Tannenbaum coordinates the integration of private sector concerns, interests, and resources to support New York City’s emergency planning, preparedness, response, and recovery activities. In 2013, he was recognized as a White House Champion of Change in Community Resilience and Preparedness for his innovative work to increase private sector participation in emergency planning. Tannenbaum has served as an adjunct professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Yeshiva University and a M.B.A from Baruch College.

Amanda N. Coats, MPA, ABCP, is the Analyst of Public/Private Initiatives at NYC Emergency Management and an alumna of the John D. Solomon Fellowship for Public Service. At NYC Emergency Management, she works to integrate the private sector into NYC’s emergency planning and response by overseeing the Private Sector/COOP Emergency Support Function and supports the members of the Partners in Preparedness program through targeted outreach and program development. Coats is a member of the DRI Young Leaders in Resilience Committee, holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an M.P.A. in Emergency and Disaster Management from Metropolitan College of New York.

Ryan Hagen is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld fellow in the department of sociology at Columbia University, with research interests in risk, organizational behavior, and the construction of expertise. His research has been published in the journals Social Forces and Sociological Science.

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