Communication Failures in Disaster: The Impact on the Private Sector with Cynthia Murray

"That whole idea of what being a citizen means is that we all have responsibilities to make our government work and to make our communities stronger." -Cynthia Murray


Our guest, Cynthia Murray, the CEO of North Bay Leadership Council refers to this as the "next normal." Scott and Cynthia discuss the responsibilities of citizens and leaders in rebuilding a stronger, more resilient community. They also talk about rescaling and upskilling, equity, upstream investments, and more. We are an ecosystem, interconnected with each other. If we work together, the extent of what we can rebuild is unimaginable. Tune in and discover the power of collective will!  

The private sector is no doubt one of the first to be greatly affected in the event of a disaster. While we are all looking to revive the economy, some changes must be implemented first.


  • 02:58: The Next Normal
  • 07:56: How to Prepare Businesses 
  • 16:03: VUCA Times
  • 20:37: Investment Matters
  • 24:02: Build a Collective Will
  • 28:17: Break the Political Tension



03:12: "We need to start thinking about what the next normal is going to be… because there's a lot of things that we should be doing now to get us ready for speedier recovery and build a better situation." -Cynthia Murray

06:42: "Time doesn't freeze while you're examining an issue and real-world events continue to change the frame." -Scott Adams

20:37: "Upstream investments are to try and prevent the problem from ever occurring. When you invest in early, you save money than trying to solve the problem later." -Cynthia Murray

22:38: "Money is the least of it when you think about the cost and human lives and heartache. It's not just the deaths, it's about people permanently being affected." -Cynthia Murray

24:10: "The only way we get anything done anymore is through a collective will… if we do that, we'll be able to work much better and get the government we deserve." -Cynthia Murray

26:47: "That whole idea of what being a citizen means is that we all have responsibilities to make our government work and to make our communities stronger." -Cynthia Murray

28:25: "We have to start looking at things as ecosystems. You can't fix one thing and think you're done because that will hinge on another." -Cynthia Murray

29:18: "We need to rebuild trust in government. If you don't have a big government working on solving a problem on a national scale, you will not solve it." -Cynthia Murray

Guest Host: Scott Adams

professional photo of man with blue suit jacket, dark blonde hair and a short beard

Scott Adams

Scott Adams is a 2020 Masters of Public Affairs graduate from UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. With over two decades of experience in California public policy, politics, and business; he has worked in the public and private sectors on issues including technology, telecommunications, clean energy, housing, infrastructure, and water.






Meet Cynthia: 

Cynthia Murray Portrait seated in green jacket

Cynthia Murray is President/ CEO of North Bay Leadership Council (NBLC). Murray served eight years on the Marin County Board of Supervisors and seven years on the Novato City Council, including one term as Mayor. She received the 2010 Women in Business award from the North Bay Business Journal for her achievements in economic development. Murray serves on the boards of many organizations including the North Bay Life Science Alliance, Bay Area Council Economic Institute; First 5 Sonoma County Commission, Sonoma County Health Action Council, Healthy Marin Partnership, Marin School to Careers Partnership and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Policy Advisory Council. Murray is a graduate of Rutgers University, spent 20 years in sales and marketing, and is an adjunct professor at Sonoma State University and Dominican University.






Scott Adams: Hello, this is Scott Adams, and welcome to this video interview as a follow up to the research paper, Disconnected: Understanding Communication System Failures During Disasters. The focus of these videos is to support the policy paper that was funded by the ReBuild NorthBay Foundation and the United Way of the Wine Country to really explore the various dimensions of the problem and serve to inform stakeholders about issues related to the problem and steps forward. Today, we're honored to be speaking with Cynthia Murray, the CEO of the NorthBay Leadership Council, a board member at the ReBuild NorthBay Foundation, an adjunct professor at Sonoma State University, and a former Director of emergency services for the county of Marin. She's got a ton of experience on this issue. And today, we are going to be speaking with her about some of the constraints that exist for individuals and organizations in preparing for disasters, the role that government and cooperation will play in preparing our community for the next normal where we will be experiencing this constant threat of disasters. So welcome, Cynthia.

Cynthia Murray: Thank you. Pleasure to be here, Scott.

Scott Adams: Great. Well, we're so appreciative of your contributions to our paper, your insights were incredibly helpful. And you raise the number of issues that, while we touched on them in the paper, we wanted to dive into them a little more so I am going to jump right in. The first question is, the paper defines what we call the new normal. I think a lot of people are calling it the new normal. California faces where there's this constant threat of disaster due to climate change, due to this whole host of things. But in our conversation with you, you phrase it a little differently, you called it the next normal. I was hoping you could expand for folks watching this what you meant by next normal, and how that is different than new normal.


"We need to start thinking about what the next normal is going to be… because there's a lot of things that we should be doing now to get us ready for speedier recovery and build a better situation." -Cynthia Murray


Cynthia Murray: So I went with the next normal because there's just too many new normals. We keep having a lot of change going on and everybody says, Oh, this happens. So it's the new normal. And what I really think we need to do is start thinking about what the next normal is going to be. What is it going to be like when we get through the pandemic, through this recession, through this fire season and start to anticipate that, look forward and start to get ready because there's a lot of things that we should be doing now to get us ready for speedier recovery and build a better situation.

Scott Adams: I think that's a really great and compelling point that you made. So before we dive into the sort of paradox and prevention, what's preventing us from taking these steps that you're encouraging us to take to get ready for the next normal, you also made a really interesting comment to us that you didn't want to get back to normal because many of the things in our society weren't working that the state of disasters of wildfires and PSPS and COVID have on Earth. Can you dive in a little more to what you meant by that?

Cynthia Murray: Well, I think one of the biggest lessons learned and what we've been experiencing, and it's by no means over is that it's revealed that there was just a lot of things that weren't working, and that we were like living with it or burying it under the rug depending on your point of view. But it's really exposed a lot of the inequities in the economy how so many people are being left behind and they're calling our recession right now is she session or a woman recession. The last one was a man session, but this one is inordinately affecting women. And a lot of it is because if women are working in the lower end jobs, a lot of them are deemed essential jobs now. They also get lower pay. And there's just a whole lot of things that we're seeing that besides women, people of color, all had different abilities and capabilities to contribute to the economy. But we're really stymied in many different ways. And far as equal pay, social justice, misogyny, just the way how we're set up economically that certain jobs are just dead ends and only available to get into better jobs because of access to education and things like that. So that's a huge thing. 

I don't think most of us realized how bad the economy wasn't working for so many people until this happened, and the dropping employment so quickly just really went, whoa, this is just amazing. And now they're saying that at least 40% of the jobs that have been lost will not be coming back. And that a lot of the jobs that came back require different skill sets so we have some real challenges ahead. This has also exacerbated the move to automation, and robotics, and artificial intelligence because the human capital with the fear of bringing people into work where they're going to be exposed and possibly get the virus is really made by a lot of companies. There is time to invest in doing things where we don't need to put people there to get people out of harm's way, and that's going to displace workers too. So we have a huge rescaling and upskilling issue we have to face in the workforce.


"Time doesn't freeze while you're examining an issue and real-world events continue to change the frame." -Scott Adams


Scott Adams: Absolutely. Those are all such great points. I think about one of the challenges that myself and ReBuild NorthBay Foundation experienced when doing this policy paper is that time doesn't freeze while you're examining an issue, and real world events continue to change the frame in the post, initially, we had started off looking at the impact of these large scale wildfires and public safety power shut offs. But with COVID, you talk about inequities, the other disasters I mentioned talked about the impact that, say the power system, the power grid has on communications grids. But with COVID, power was fully working. But this whole broadband digital divide throughout the nation was completely exacerbated by that, where as you said that the affluent were able to very quickly and efficiently transition to work in school, from home where a huge portion of the state's world population. And some of the folks in our low income neighborhoods in urban areas, they don't have access to wireline internet or can't afford that technology, they were left behind. And that's been really a challenge that we wanted to dig into more in our paper. And we didn't get to as much as we should.

Cynthia Murray: I totally agree with you. And it's one of the issues that NorthBay at NorthBay Leadership were really fighting to see improvements in the telecommunications network via broadband or whatever it takes. Because not only it is hurting the ability for students to do remote learning, but for workers to do remote learning. For all of us to have our meetings which were on zoom all day, it's just become a huge equity issue. And it's something that we have to figure out, how do we improve that? And it's funny because it is even affecting Apple when you look, watch now with the new shows, how many times is somebody on a new show have bad internet? We and they lose the connection, or you can hear them or whatever. So it's quite remarkable how much we understand we need it now.

Scott Adams: Done it. Well, such a good point. Now, I wanted to shift focus, again, in terms of preparation and assessment. And in our conversation, I know that in the COVID, the pandemic that in your role as well. Just the CEO of NorthBay Leadership Council and as a professor, you were tracking a lot of the work of Harvey Feinberg, I believe who's taking a look at the paradox of prevention in health care. Our paper use the similar approach and we found Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther are from the Wharton School of Risk Management. And they talk about the ostrich paradox. So really being someone who represents a business roundtable and who's worked in government, what are your thoughts, what are the big constraints and hurdles that the businesses and governments need to overcome to prepare themselves for the next normal?

Cynthia Murray: Well, preparation has always been the bane of emergency services. It is so hard to get people to do the basics, like be prepared for 72 hours that you're going to be on your own to have a go bag, all those things. In business, having continuity plans, it's astounding how many businesses have emergency plans, but they don't have that continuity plan for what happens after the 72 hours and they're still trying to keep the doors open. So it is absolutely fascinating. I love the idea of calling it the ostrich, what was it?

Scott Adams: The ostrich paradox.

Cynthia Murray: Ostrich paradox. Because people do tend to not want to think about the negative, they don't want to think that a disaster is going to happen. And they want to have that sort of sunny outlook like, well, it's not gonna happen today, and probably not tomorrow. So I'll worry about it later, and I'll deal with it when it comes, it will work out. But I think having multiple disasters right now on so many different levels is really making people wake up. One, I've seen huge changes in people understanding the need for redundancy in the supply chain. When everybody was unable to get the mask, to the ventilators, to the personal protective gear, it sort of woke people up, like even toilet paper. Oh, my God, we need to have some ability to make sure we have things that we can access within the United States, because a lot of stuff was coming in from outside the United States and also within our region. So that's been a business opportunity. A lot of companies here pivoted to make hand sanitizer, and mask, and facial shields, and personal protection and things like that. So one of the amazing things about American manufacturing is that they can turn around and start to make things that we need if we give them the tools to do that. 

So I hope we can enable that flexibility, which has just become critical for a business to be able to pivot and do that. A lot of businesses are struggling now and really afraid. Winter's coming, like the restaurants and at any business that's been working outside knowing that the bad weather is coming, and there's not a great solution for insights. So we really need to try and work with them as their technical things. We can provide technical assistance, we can provide to help them make it safer inside. Is there other ways that we can help them maybe start to market a product they can sell as opposed to just have people in the restaurant? It's incumbent on us to try and work with the businesses we have in our own community to see if there's ways that they can make it through this. The scary thing is they're saying a third to 50% of our businesses are probably not going to be able to survive this. And so we're going to be forever changed, and that's part of the next normal. What businesses are we losing? What businesses are we going to need to figure out? How do we get them to have that kind of business in our area because we'll be birth without it. And what do we do to try and start new businesses, and bring in maybe the businesses that are needed now that we didn't know we needed before.

Scott Adams: Yeah. And I think that's a great segue into, we talked about this increased need, for this increase move towards digitization. I mean, as a global society, we've become very internet and technology dependent, and that's just been exacerbated by COVID, and shelter in place. And really, when you look at the prolonged impact that this pandemic is head on our communities, our state, on our nation on the world, it's not a real end in sight. At least that we can see that need to digitize, like you said, so the restaurants and the businesses shifting to online using those apps. But there's a real critical role, and bringing it back to the paper we're largely dependent if we're going to be inside the power companies, and the telecommunications companies, and the internet companies, to who by some counts done good jobs in certain areas. But there's an increased need to continue to evolve, innovate, and how fast and quickly they do things. You mentioned a military term to me earlier, I believe it was VUCA. Can you tell me about that and how that really, people might need to change their risk models and investment strategies.

Cynthia Murray: Definitely. And just to underline what you're saying that the utilities and the cable companies, they're all become our lifelines. And not only for work and in school, but for sanity to stay connected to our families and to people we care about when we're isolating at home and trying to just stay sane through this. So I discovered this term, you've heard military terms like SNAFU and FUBAR. So VUCA is a military term, and it stands for V for Volatility, U for Uncertainty, C for Complexity, and A for Ambiguity. And that doesn't describe the time we're in, I don't know what does. And I was quite encouraged to find out there was actually a term for what our times are right now, but a little frightened too because if it's already existing, that means we've been through something like this before. And I didn't know about it, but I think that that is a summary of how we need to look at where we are and where we're going. Because we don't see any end to the vVUCA situation. Every time we start to think we have a handle on it, the virus turns and twists, and is something else or affects different ways. We think we can go back out and then it hits again. And we have to go back in, just the business response, the opening and closings, and opening and closings, which is just people getting hired, laid off and then rehired, and laid off a week later. 

I mean, it's just the chaos in the uncertainty is just phenomenal. And I don't think any of us in our lifetimes have been through anything like this. And none of us can really predict when it will end, how it will end and where we're going to be when it's over. And all we can do is try and get through this, and use this time in the way that they always say, don't waste a good crisis. Use this time to examine what we've been doing? What can we improve? And how do we come back and rebuild better than we ever were before. And use it not only for digitization and moving more into the online world but for decarbonization. This can also be a time where we start to address climate change, which ties right back into the power because our power grids are so vulnerable to the wild lands, and tree branches, and sparks and things like that. So there's a lot of synergy about the solutions. The problems may not feel that synergistic, but the solutions. If we do the right things, we can solve multiple problems at the same time, and I'm very excited about that.

Scott Adams: I think so too. And I know that, full disclosure, you and I have had a fairly long past working together in different capacities. You've always been a champion of Upstream Investment. And what that means, and when you look at it, it's VUCA. This realization that we just have this highly volatile uncertain environment that we're in, do you think there's going to be more of a call for and willingness to do those Upstream Investments? And can you talk to people, just explain a little bit about Upstream Investments and how that might be something that we focus on more as a society moving forward?


"Upstream investments are to try and prevent the problem from ever occurring. When you invest in early, you save money than trying to solve the problem later." -Cynthia Murray


Cynthia Murray: Well, Upstream Investments are to try and prevent the problem from ever occurring. And that's the easiest way for me to explain it. So what you invest in early, you save money rather than not trying to solve the problem later. So like with children in development they say, for every dollar you put into children to go to preschool, you save $13. On the other end, they don't end up in being coming a criminal and going to jail, and all those kinds of things. So there's all kinds of studies that show that the early investments in prevention are going to just pay off big time. Again, where you go back to the ostrich paradox, because people just don't want to think about it, they want to see quick results. And most of the early investments in prevention, the results don't show up for years, even decades. And that's really something that we've had trouble getting traction on. Because people want to see those quick results, what they invest in and not the long term investments that pay off big time later. And if you look at just the whole pandemic response, they had put money into that, they had been investing in it, they had monitoring situations, they had testing, and the Trump administration decided to di-invest in it and to disband that whole operation. And look at what it would have saved us if we had that early warning system and been able to do the testing we should have been. And the list is long about the trillions of dollars that are being spent now that could have been avoided if we invested just a few million in the beginning.

Scott Adams: Yeah, it's so true. There's one of my favorite political quotes. And I know a tribute to a couple different people is, you can pay it at the front end, or you can pay it at the back end. But either way, you're going to pay it. And usually, the point that you made is $1 spent earlier in prevention, you get way much more return on that. And you do when you're coming after the fact, and just throwing a bunch of money at a problem that you really aren't quite sure. You understand how to fix in the moment.


"Money is the least of it when you think about the cost and human lives and heartache. It's not just the deaths, it's about people permanently being affected." -Cynthia Murray


Cynthia Murray: And the money is the least of it really, when you think about the cost, and human lives, and heartache and all the other things that have occurred because we didn't do it. So it's not just the deaths, it's about people permanently being affected and all the way the economy is people have lost their jobs, they lose their purpose, they lose their sense of why they want to be part of a society. I mean, in so many ways, it's a failure.

Scott Adams: Yeah. Well, in that is gonna it's a really good segue into the next question we have. Because in our paper, we took a look at what the constraints were. And we've talked about those various elements of the ostrich effect, myopia, amnesia, optimism, inertia, simplification and hurting. But ways to overcome that we had surfaced, and then numerous stakeholders have said, leadership from the individual level all the way out to executive level cooperation. And cooperation I think is key based on what you just said. So moving forward, again, being all these different capacities you've served in, what role do you think government, in cooperation, in public service might play in moving into and preparing for the next normal really setting us up in a positive situation?

Cynthia Murray: Well, I think one of the key things is what you just said, there needs to be cooperation, And that really the only way we get anything done anymore is through collective will. It's when we all decide that we have a common purpose, a common find that common ground and we're going to work on this together. We have definitely proven that the government can't do it alone. Business can't do it alone. People can't, and a community can't do it alone. You need to have all those people pulling together collectively to achieve any kind of change or solution. And so what I hope is that we can see a way to build collective will in a stronger way. It's been absolutely heartbreaking to me the ability to get communication out, that people should wear a mask, that it's become political, that there isn't this concern for your fellow man. And like in the fires we had in 2017, 2019, everybody came together as a community to help each other, and to provide refuge, and give money and whatever was needed to help people get back on their feet. But now, we have this thing with a pandemic that is just extraordinary that people don't feel like they have to help each other, they don't feel like they have to take care of each other. And if we were just wearing masks, thousands and thousands of people would not be dead or permanently damaged with the ravages of the virus. So somehow, we have to figure out a way to get beyond that. 


"The only way we get anything done anymore is through a collective will… if we do that, we'll be able to work much better and get the government we deserve." -Cynthia Murray


And I feel very much that we're not as divided as a nation. There's so many things we agree on. We've got groups trying to make us be more divided, but we've got to find that collective will. And if we do that, then we'll be able to work much better in getting the government we deserve. Because right now, we have a lot of people who are in government for different reasons and not necessarily to be there as problem solvers. And trying to see how can we make things better, but they're more to be regulators and to say no, and say you can't do this and all that instead of saying, here's how we could do it, or trying to figure out how do we figure that out? There's a lot of ways that the government has worked that don't work in the 21st century that we need to see if we can figure out cooperatively. How do we bring some of the problem solving and critical thinking skills that business uses to solve problems into government? How do we build more of a community investment in the future that we all matter, and we all count, we all are going to have a role to play. And one of my big things I've always talked about having been elected official is we hear way too much about people's rights and not about their responsibilities. That whole idea of what being a citizen means, and that we all have responsibilities to do things to make our government work and to make our communities stronger.


"That whole idea of what being a citizen means is that we all have responsibilities to make our government work and to make our communities stronger." -Cynthia Murray


Scott Adams: I think that's such a great point. I mean, so really, from an organizational standpoint at the highest level, we've got to break down the silos and rethink culture within government and other larger entities. But also, you bring up a really great point that the role and the opportunity for personal responsibility and leadership at the very basic level as we bring it back to resilience and emergency response, there's only so much that can be done when you have these fast moving fires, or these PSPS, or this COVID. So there has to be that collective will, but that also individual responsibility to prepare oneself for that. I know that we are coming up on time here, but I wanted to ask you a final question. And that's really, as someone who represents the largest employer group, employer roundtable in the NorthBay, as someone who is a professor who has worked in government as an emergency services director, as a public official, what lessons do you hope that people learn from not just this moment in time, but the last four or five years where we've just seen disaster after disaster, and what words of wisdom you want to leave people with?


"We have to start looking at things as ecosystems. You can't fix one thing and think you're done because that will hinge on another." -Cynthia Murray


Cynthia Murray: I don't know how much wisdom I have to share. I certainly aspire to have that. But one of the key things for me, when I look at what's happened is that we have to start looking at things as ecosystems. That you can't fix one thing and think you're done, because that will hinge on another. So for example, we're not going to fix the housing situation if we don't also look at jobs, if we don't also look at transportation, if we don't look at climate change, if we don't look at education, they all hinge together. Everything is integrated now. So what's also one of the problems with government is they have different departments and silos and they don't talk to each other, and they all need to talk to each other. They all need to figure out how to work together. And so that's something that I think we have to continue to try and demand and just use it. When we're looking at and analyzing a problem and coming up with a solution, how does it integrate? How do we make sure we're pulling all the levers? And not just one lever because pulling one lever is not going to do it. 


"We need to rebuild trust in government. If you don't have a big government working on solving a problem on a national scale, you will not solve it." -Cynthia Murray


The other is that we really need to rebuild trust in government. I think one of the biggest takeaways for me in this event, in looking at the response to COVID was understanding there really is a need for big government sometimes. We've talked a lot about, we don't need the government so much or the government's invasive. But if you don't have a big government working on solving a problem like a pandemic on a national scale, you will not solve it. And we already have proof that it has not been attacked on a national scale. So how do we make big government work? How do we make sure that the right balance is there, that they have the assets that they need, that they have the resources but they're not overpowering it and becoming too authoritarian. So that tension is really something I think we have to pay attention to. But we definitely, I think, for a long time didn't understand the need for a big government. And that really has been driven home to me.

Scott Adams: Yeah, that's great. So if I'm hearing that interdicted, she acknowledges how interdependent so many of these issues are. How interconnected we are. The importance, for so long our governments configuration with the multiple tiers, from the federal to the state, to the county to the local has been great, but we found that it does have some potential flaws. When you look at emergency response most often starts from the bottom and then goes up. And that the higher levels of government with the most resources really lack a whole lot of ability to impact. They can advise and they can recommend, but they can't mandate and dictate because of the genetic makeup of how our country is made. So really, really great observations. Cynthia, we just thank you so much again for your contribution to our research and our paper. And thank you for your time today.

Cynthia Murray: Well, thank you for all your hard work too Scott, and appreciate you giving us more insights on how we can do better.

Scott Adams: Thank you so much.