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This Too Shall Pass: Crisis Lessons from the Great Pager Outage of 1998

Published: April 30, 2020       Updated: April 21, 2024

5 min read

(This article originally appeared in the Dallas Business Journal.)

Let me take you back to a day long, long ago, when 50 million Americans carried around a funny little device in their pockets or purses or attached them to their belts.

The device didn’t do much, really. It would beep or buzz to alert you that someone was trying to reach you; you’d see their phone number on an LCD display. A small percentage of these devices were larger and offered the additional feature of texting, which in those days was called “alphanumeric messaging.” 

Cellphones were around back then, but they were expensive, and usage charges were high. They also weren’t digital, so you couldn’t use them for texting or going online. It would be nearly a decade before the invention of the iPhone.

As a result, this peculiar little device — the pager — had a real heyday in the 1990s when it became a must-have for close to 20% of the U.S. population. That included widespread use in healthcare and law enforcement, where doctors and first responders had come to depend on pagers for vital parts of their jobs.

Which made it a true crisis when a satellite malfunction on May 19, 1998, caused almost all the pagers in the country to go dark all at once, for about 24 hours.

Boom — no more beeps or buzzes.

As the spokesman for the largest paging company in the world at the time, Dallas-based PageNet, I was the face of the crisis for the first two days, as satellite and paging companies tried to figure out what happened and then solve the problem.

The crisis passed and is mostly a footnote in technology history today. But it taught me a few things that might be valuable to your own organization as we deal with the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis.

Lesson One: Preparing Is Good, But Caring Is Better

I’ve been doing crisis communications for a long time. I’ve managed responses to workplace shootings, salacious lawsuits and everything in between. So I’m going to let you in on a little secret: That crisis plan that every consultant says you should have? It’s OK, but it’s not enough to get you through a crisis.

In fact, too often it’s used as a crutch and an excuse by those fearful of taking bold, decisive action.

I’m sure all the paging companies and that huge satellite provider all had crisis plans. But they still didn’t pick up the phones when they were blowing up that Tuesday afternoon with calls from reporters seeking answers.

They huddled. They conferred. But for the most part, they didn’t help.

We had a crisis plan, too, but to be honest I can’t recall if I looked at it. I was too busy quickly gathering the latest information I had and then, every hour on the hour, doing stand-up interviews for local and national TV. My team made sure to give the trades the more technical information they were seeking, too.

We put ourselves, vulnerable and imperfect, front and center. And that was enough.

Lesson Two: Take on Necessary Risk

Corporate attorneys are trained to protect against risk. Which is fine, except for the fact that in business, it’s difficult to succeed without taking on risk. In my experience, if lawyers have too much influence on a company’s decision-making during times of crisis, mistakes can follow.

For example, some lawyers may suggest responding to a crisis with “No comment.” That may be the safest option legally, but it’s the ultimate PR mistake.

When Exxon committed one of the worst PR mistakes in history by not sending its CEO immediately to the scene of the infamous Valdez oil spill, it appeared that lawyers — not PR people — were behind the decision.

Lesson Three: It's Not About You; It's About Everybody But You

From the time we are children, we instinctively prioritize ourselves and our own interests. That’s just human nature.

Most of us ultimately learn the benefits of putting others first. But when we are under stress, as during a crisis, we tend to revert to a “me” orientation.

In the case of the Great Pager Outage, some paging companies thought it was very important to tell their customers that the outage was not their fault, but the fault of the satellite provider. Their customers didn’t care; they just wanted their service back and to know their paging company was sorry about what happened.

How many COVID-19 emails did you receive in the first few weeks of the current crisis? How many were actually helpful to you? Too many businesses felt the need to say something to their customers, but could only manage to find words like, “Our business will come out of this better than ever.” If the message isn’t centered on what the recipient cares about, it’s not worth sending.

Lesson Four: This Too Shall Pass

After the nation’s pagers came back into service, the federal government was under pressure to do something to prevent an outage like this from happening again.

President Clinton warned, “If we fail to take strong action, then terrorists, criminals and hostile regimes could invade and paralyze these vital systems, disrupting commerce, threatening health, weakening our capacity to function in a crisis.”

But that ended up being the pager’s last hurrah. Within two years, digital cellular phones with texting and cheaper usage plans emerged, and the once-mighty paging industry collapsed in a spectacular heap.

It’s a good lesson for any crisis, including our current one. This too shall pass.

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