Monday, September 27, 2010

Recovering from disaster--the Galveston way

On September 12, 2008 Galveston and the Houston region were hit with one of the most severe and destructive hurricanes in history--Ike. Many comments have been made, including by me, that reflect high admiration for the people, government leaders and responders who had to deal with this event. They showed remarkable strength and resilience.

But now Galvestonians are leading the way with showing us that resilience includes knowing how to recover. And that means celebrating your survival, endurance, strength and resilience. Here's the official video of the Galveston Flash Mob.

Now this kind of thing doesn't happen without some leadership and leadership is the key to resilience. Kitty Allen, a valued client, provided the spark needed to get this going. Here's what she wrote in an email about how this all came about:

I just thought it might be appropriate for Galvestonians, at least, to stop for about 5 minutes and celebrate how FAR we have actually come in 2 short years! Seems to me folks don't celebrate their successes enough and often choose to dwell on the glass half-empty....which is far from inspiring or motivating. Not being a super-slick, professional dancer routine, we wanted to demonstrate that while we might not all be 'in sync,' we ARE working together, going in the same general direction..and with our own individual style!

So, I emailed the Mayor with a quick "Do you think I'm nutz?" communication, explained the concept and included examples of flash mobs around the world...He "got it" immediately and encouraged me to "go for it" we did.

Congratulations Kitty, Mr. Mayor, and all you brave Galvestonians. You not only taught us how to endure an event like this with great courage and strength, now you are teaching us how to recover!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who should manage a spill like the Gulf Spill?

It's really not so surprising that some elected officials seem to think they could have run the spill better than Unified Area Command. Some actors seem to think they could have done better as well. But what is very sad and surprising is that members of Congress seem to agree with them. At last according to this article from

Here's what Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro told a congressional hearing:

"Louisiana law specifically states and grants emergency powers to the local authorities during times of declared disasters," Taffaro said in testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee. But, he said, "instead of embracing the local authorities' involvement and resource capacity, local authority was met with resistance, exclusion and power struggles."

The Deputy National Incident Commander Peter Neffenger correctly explained how the system works under OPA 90, ICS and NIMS. This was a spill of national significance under the direction of the National Incident Commander, Adm. Thad Allen. Unified Command, from the first hours of the response included BP under the direction of the Federal On-Scene Coordinator. I'm not sure about all the organization and changes in this response, but I am very aware that in all drills and events I have been involved in included a state agency as the State On-Scene Coordinator and a local response agency as the Local On-Scene Coordinator. They all formed Unified Command. Obviously all local agencies cannot participate in the ultimate decisions--it would be a nightmare, But they would coordinate their interests through the LOSC who does sit in Unified Command as a representative of local interests. If local representation was not included, it was not because of the lack of that in the plan, it was a failure in execution.

Kevin Costner testifying to Congress about response leadership is essentially a hoot. Are these Congress members so publicity hungry that they invite him in order to get the press there? No wonder their approval ratings suggests only friends and family would vote for them. I don't know how Mr. Costner's machines that were leased or acquired by BP at considerable cost actually worked. I'd like to see a study. But it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume they didn't work but BP bowed to public and political pressure in spending this money.

So, response community, do you think that Billy Nungesser should have been given control of the response? Do you think, as one Republican representative suggests, that the government should develop all the advanced technologies and expertise that decades of experience that BP brought to this event? And would this produce better results than the current system that provides a collaboration with private industry under the absolute supervision of the federal government?

I'm sounding like a stuck record, but clearly the lack of understanding of NIMS-ICS among our elected officials and press corp is a major national problem. If it is not addressed and soon, we risk losing a system that works in exchange for one that will further complicate and encumber what is already a very great challenge. In my opinion, NIMS is worth fighting for--but we have an uphill climb.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Are the Media Your Partners in Emergency Communication

A couple of years ago I presented at a major conference on crisis and risk communications and several of the highly respected speakers talked about the need to "partner with the media" in communicating with the public about major events. My under the breath reaction was: good luck with that.

Since I got engaged in this crisis and emergency communication business fulltime over ten years ago one of my strongest beliefs has been that we need to first of all focus on direct communication to those people who are most impacted by an event and those whose opinions about us matter most for our future. One of the reasons for that firm belief was my experience in trying to "partner with the media" and the disastrous results that sometimes, very often occurred. In fact, I would have guess that about half of all efforts were disappointing if not outright infuriating.

Now the highly respected firm of Burson-Marsteller has documented this experience. This, in my mind, is one of the most important studies to come out about media relations in general but crisis communication in particular. I would advise a careful look at this study. I haven't looked at the mechanics of the study so can't comment on the way it was done and how solid it is, but I can tell you that it conforms to my own experiences.

For those who want the headline version, if you send your important messages to the media, at best you can expect 50% consistency with your message and what the media actually does with it. But that is better than what happens with it in the blog world, where the consistency drops down to less than 40%.

The implications are clear and should be part of every PIO and emergency manager's information strategy:
1) Go direct--plan ahead of any event to communicate directly through email, phone, text, website, whatever to the public, impacted citizens, elected officials, investors, customers, fenceline neighbors--anybody who is important to your future.
2) Rumor management -- you now know that when you send it to the media and into the social media world is almost certainly will turn into something different than you intended. That means communication is not about sending it out and letting it takes its course, it is a continuing process of distribution, correction, challenging false reports, and providing continuous updates.

Here's the bottom line: So many think that public information management is about sending out a press release and the job is done. That is hopelessly naive and that approach is guaranteed to cause great disappointment and quite likely loss of trust--and maybe loss of job.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guest Post: San Bruno, a 1999 Event and how the world has changed

[Editor's note: Another guest post from Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd. This one hits close to home as the event he refers to that happened in 1999 is where I met the good chief as we worked together in responding to the pipeline explosion. This event is also what launched the PIER System and my journey in crisis communication resulting in such things as writing this blog.]

Last night I was sitting at my computer compiling research for a project when my TweetDeck Twitter feed started noting a large fire in the San Francisco area. The comments quickly escalated, with a broad range of observers reporting the same thing. Thinking that there was a major airline catastrophe in the works, I picked a couple of common hash tag words and began monitoring. What this revealed was not only a huge emergency event for the San Bruno community, but also my own emotional baggage from a similar event that occurred in my community in 1999.

Within 20-30 minutes of the beginning of the event, I tapped into online live TV news coverage of the rapidly escalating disaster. The news reporters and tweets were speculating that a gas station had blown up and/or a commercial aircraft had crashed into a neighborhood adjacent to San Francisco International Airport. But, the volume, size and heat generated by the clean burning fire indicated to me that this was most likely a high pressure natural gas pipe line fire. I quickly tweeted my observations, which were re-tweeted and confirmed by others much closer to the situation than me.

Over the next two hours I sat riveted to my computer, reading, observing and sharing information and my perspective and opinion. You see, in 1999, my community experienced a similar disaster. A 16 inch underground pipeline carrying unleaded gasoline ruptured in my city, spewing 230,000 gallons of gasoline into an urban creek, where it was unwittingly ignited by two boys. The ensuing flame front traveled a mile and a half in ten seconds, destroying everything in it’s path, along with the sense of community shared by our citizens. The two boys and another young man lost their lives that day, and the City of Bellingham lost it’s innocence and sense of security. Watching the video and reading the real time tweets from San Bruno took me back to 1999. The emergency responder side of me wanted to get on the next airplane and fly down there to help out. The non-emergency side of me became agitated, impatient and angry that something like this happened to another community. “What the hell happened this time?” was all I could think. Soon thereafter, I decided to disengage for self-preservation purposes and went to bed.

This morning the news and various feeds confirmed my fears and suspicions. An underground pipeline carrying high pressure natural gas had catastrophically failed, incinerating the neighborhood. I was awestruck by not only the devastation, but also the lack of widespread damage, given the lack of water available to firefighters and the strong winds. The San Bruno and assisting fire, police and public works departments did a helluva job in containing a conflagration.

Many lessons will be learned and shared from this event. My initial observations from the “cheap seats”;

  1. San Bruno and assisting public safety/public works/medical care folks performed at the highest level. I am in humbled by their work, and proud to call them peers.
  2. The same goes for the community at large. With the exception of a couple of reports of looting (which is often a rumor in disasters), the altruism of San Bruno citizens warms the heart.
  3. The power of Social Media - especially Twitter - in this event was almost overwhelming. As someone who experienced a similar event just over a decade ago, I not only could understand and predict what was going on, I had a visceral response.
  4. Highly visible events like this generate a lot of SM “noise”. It takes a practiced eye and patience to delineate fact from fiction - and you still may be wrong.
  5. Most folks tweeting from the incident were not directly involved from what I can tell. I am guessing that those immediately affected had much bigger things to worry about.
  6. Twitter postings were coming in faster than I could track. I also suspect that the tweet trend application I use could not keep up with the volume of traffic. I am sure this will discussed at length in the coming days/weeks.
  7. The pipeline company and other responding organizations quickly used SM to get their message out. Whether it was effective or not remains to be seen.

Looking back to 1999, I wish I would have had all of the tools now available. Google Earth, Bing Maps, aerial maps, satellite images, real time weather reports, Twitter, Facebook, and more. The citizens of San Bruno quickly and effectively mobilized to help their emergency responders and neighbors in large part due to the ability to rapidly communicate and rally help in the heat of the moment. I remain humbled.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Gulf Spill's Biggest Lesson According to our National Incident Commander

Admiral Allen would qualify for the nation's Incident Commander-in-residence is such a position existed. Having assumed Incident Command responsibility in the disastrous Katrina response and cleaned the situation up there dramatically, then named National Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon spill, no one can speak with more authority about major incidences and what we need to learn from them. So what does the Admiral think is the major lesson learned from the Gulf Spill?

This is what was reported from his interview on NPR yesterday: "The biggest lesson he's learned from this and other disasters, Allen said, is that it's important to make sure all of the different branches and levels of government are working together — something that is harder than it might sound."

Obviously, we would have to dive a little deeper to understand what problem he is referring to and what "working together" really means. But here is my speculation: We have a system called the National Incident Management System built on the Incident Command System. It clearly defines the way in which a coordinated response is supposed to run including how coordinated communication among all participating agencies and partners is supposed to be handled. Many elements of this system were implemented during the event and contributed to what will be seen overall, despite the inordinate time it took to kill the well, as an effective response. However, because of lack of understanding or commitment by senior leaders in a number of different key agencies to this system, there were divergent elements introduced that proved to impact effectiveness. I would not presume to put those words in the Admiral's mouth and it is only my understanding and perception.

But if that is true, the major lesson coming out of this tragic and disastrous event is to not abandon NIMS, but protect its use against potential obstacles to its effective use. I am very much hoping that this becomes an important regulatory and even legislative issue in the future as I think it is critically important to our nation's ability to respond effectively to major events. The response community--meaning you, dear reader--needs to get involved in this issue. If we don't understand it and become involved in looking at how to make national response more effective, do we expect the citizen on the street to do it? I hope the Admiral will become increasingly clear in his analysis of what went wrong and propose some specific solutions and ways to ensure compliance. There is much at stake.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What did you think of the media coverage of the Gulf Spill?

It's fascinating to me to look at how people evaluate media coverage. The evaluation often says more about the person evaluating than the media itself. For example, if someone says they think FOX is fair and balanced, that might give you an indication of their politics, same is true of those who might say that about Keith Olberman.

If you talk to anyone involved in the Gulf spill or the communications operation of that event, mention the media and their eyes will roll and there's a good chance that if they are inclined toward foul and vulgar language they won't be able to hold it in. Universally those involved have seen the coverage as horrific. Biased, inaccurate, nasty, intentionally misleading, etc. That's why it is quite surprising to me to see from the Pew Research Center findings that the public overall feels the media did a pretty good job. My reaction is, what is wrong with those people? But, that again is the difference between an inside and outside perspective.

The Pew study, announced yesterday, is fascinating. I think it is must reading for any PIO or communication leader responsible for crisis and emergency communication. The event was singular, no question, and they make it clear how unusual the spill was in terms of media coverage. But their analysis is undoubtedly the best way to get a grasp on how the media will cover events like this. And, unlike me, they do it without perceptible bias or frustration.

For those not interested in wading through the lengthy report (very worth it, however) here are the eight key points they make (with my own spin on those points)

1) this story was dominant -- by a long ways. Compared to other major disaster stories, none ever came close to the percent of news hole consumed with the incredible longevity.
2) The "blame game" was exceptionally strong --while the leading story line was the containment and recovery operations (47%) and exceptionally high percentage was focused on finding fault or blame (they call it the blame game, not just me) with BP (27%) and the adminisration (17%)
3) The White House had mixed coverage (I wish Pew had better analyzed the changing WH strategies and how that lined up with the media criticism of the WH, but that will be left for others)
4) BP emerged as antagonist -- that is not surprising, what surprises me is that Pew is using the black hat vs. white hat method of analyzing the news, seeing it as cast in entertainment form which it certainly is
5) The spill was mostly a TV story--with surprising differences in how the cable networks dealt with the story vs. major networks (hint--blame game is CNN and cable business)
6) Social media was not nearly as strong as mainstream media in its focus -- again surprising, but if you look at the nature of social media, it is understandable
7) Media outlets websites with interactive features were very important in telling the story
8) Public interest even exceeded the extremely high level of coverage -- the public simply couldn't get enough of this story

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Crisis management and resilience thinking

I came across this post (thanks William) on Homeland Security Watch by Mark Chubb. Chubb is also responding to the article in the New York Times about crisis management, the BP spill, Toyota and Goldman Sachs. I offered my humble opinion about this article and a similar one in Washington Post at crisisblogger.

Unlike my screed about the hypocrisy of the media who play a big part in creating crises and then say, why can't anyone fix these things?, Mr. Chubb's reaction is much more thoughtful. He points out that while Mr. Goodman of the Times seems to think that crisis managers are those people who come and try to clean up after a mess, the real crisis managers are busy far before things go seriously wrong:
Real crisis managers though are closely related to risk managers and emergency managers, both of whom take a comprehensive approach to their fields, which requires them to consider ways of preventing and mitigating harm before things start to become unwound.

He's absolutely right of course. This is why I am enthusiastic as a professional involved in crisis management to the shift in thinking toward the issue of resilience. Crisis response is only one part of the resilience equation. In our way of thinking there are four key elements: preparation, response, communication and recovery.

Preparation is more than coming up with a good crisis plan, although that is important. As Mr. Chubb points out, preparation includes a comprehensive look at all factors that lead to a crisis, including the internal dynamics of an organization, for the purpose of first of all preventing them from happening in the first place.

The lesson to be drawn from the gulf spill for example, is not the PR crisis management is a failure. There is a far more significant lesson. As was said I believe in Apollo 13: what we have here is a failure of imagination. Not just BP, but the entire industry and its regulators clearly did not conceive of an event the size of what has happened in the gulf. It simply was inconceivable. Not it is not. Reality has replaced the necessity for imagination when it comes to preventing and preparing for a major deepwater spill event.

But where is our imagination failing us now? What events could occur in our communities, cities, businesses and organizations that we reject out of hand. Will it require us, like it has the oil industry, to have a disastrous reality teach us because our imagination has failed us.

I know in the drills and exercises that I will be working on in the future, I will not try to make that mistake. It is so easy to rely on the tried and true scenarios. Mr. Chubb has done as big favor by pointing us in directions where we need to look for where the failures are most likely to occur, and that is deep within our own organizations. We should not be afraid to dig deep, ask hard questions, and most of all, let our imaginations fail us again.