Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Goodbye 2009--Hello 2010. What's Next?

We say goodbye to an interesting year in crisis and emergency management in 2009. I won't create my own list of the biggest stories, but a few that stand out in my mind are the H1N1 (aka swine flu), Flight 1549 in the Hudson, the missing hurricanes of 2009, United Airlines breaks guitars, and of course, Tiger Woods. But by far the biggest story in crisis communication and for that matter government communication was the emergence of social media as a critical element of organizations' communications and specifically the meteoric rise of Twitter.

But what about 2010? Prognostication is dangerous, but I'd like to suggest a few topics that I think will emerge into greater prominence in the coming year:

1) Mobility and Virtualization--lost in much of the hype about social media is the plain fact that most people are moving their communications and computing onto ever smaller and more mobile platforms. As I was playing an amazing dogfighting game on my iphone with my adult sons and son-inlaw over Christmas, I was amazed at the computing power we carry in our pockets. Much if not most web access is now through mobile devices, and those younger than me (an increasing percentage of the population) are ever more accustomed to getting whatever they want, whenever they want by reaching into their pockets or purses (or man bags). This means several important things for crisis communication. One is that more and more people will expect more information faster with more frequent updates than ever before. But more than that, web applications are making it easier and easier for teams to perform vital work together regardless of location. Collaboration tools emerging are truly amazing and the winners will be accessible via smartphones. Emergency managers and PIOs alike need to get serious about planning how to operate outside of the EOCs and JICs. The H1N1 pandemic should teach us that--getting people together to tell people not to get together doesn't make sense. And it certainly doesn't when tools make it possible to operate efficiently without congregating.

2) Warnings. We have seen a tremendous increase in the variety of technologies available to warn people of dangers. Yet, for all that is available, little is in use or usable. I expect in 2010 to see several major events where the big issues coming out of them will be this question of victims: why weren't we warned? Analysts and cable pundits will make it clear the systems are there that make it possible. We will see a Virginia Tech or two in the general public sphere that will have similar impact on emergency management. Related to this is the emerging issue of Special Needs. While much lip service is being paid to the idea that our emergency management and communication procedures need to above all protect the most vulnerable, little that I see has been done to implement comprehensive solutions. I suspect it will also take a major national news story that will prompt legislation and exploitive politicians to really wake up the emergency management community to this concern.

3) Bottom up attention. I've had the opportunity of working with both major federal agencies and a lot of state, local, municipal and regional government agencies on crisis and emergency communications. So much of the media's and the public's attention seems to be top down. We tend to expect all the best thinking and solutions to come from DC. This is a little strange since one of the common understandings of crisis events is that all are local. The truth is from my perspective that real solutions are emerging on a bottom-up basis. There is too little substantive discussion between the top and the bottom. One telling example is ESF15--the plan promulgated by FEMA and DHS which unfortunately is not only completely different but contradictory to the way crisis communication and JIC operations are done in the real world experienced by most of us. The NRT JIC Model is by far the best tool agency communicators have and it is being tested and proven in the real world each and every day. Trying to put the JIC model with ESF15 is like trying to create an efficient vehicle by putting an oxcart and a Ferrari together. It is my fond hope that 2010 sees some substantive communication between the federal and state and local agencies around the issue of fast, efficient and proven communication management and technologies.

4) Public and private partnerships. One of the subcurrents of conversation in 2009 is the importance of the private sector in emergency management and community resilience. It starts with the citizen and preparing and empowering them to be part of the solution. But increasingly I see attention being paid by Departments of Emergency Management on how they can incorporate and leverage the resources and expertise that exists in the private sector. It reminds me of one academic study coming out of Katrina that pointed to two organizations that performed superbly in that event: The US Coast Guard and Walmart. From logistics, to management expertise, to direct communication with employees, private companies need to be pulled into the issue of community resilience. This will become even more urgent as public expectations about preparedness and response effectiveness rise while governments continue to fight enormous budget problems. There is a solution--it is in outsourcing. Everything from the inventories of resources needed to the management expertise needed to come in and fully manage large-scale responses. I expect we will see much more discussion this year about best practices related to government response agencies connecting with and coordinating with private companies. It will be a good thing for all of us.

Hey, I just noticed I'm pretty optimistic! Happy New Year everyone.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas--and a look back

First I would like to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

It seems every year the time for pause, reflection, rest and re-focusing gets more and more limited. At this time of the year in particular when we try to recall the reason for the season, the injection of divinity in a small, dirty town in a trouble-filled part of the world, in a place of over crowded abandonment smelling of and probably covered in animal feces, I have this vague sense that all those things we consider so urgent and important probably aren't.

This year has been one of great challenge for many of you, and for me as well. As we faced 2009, we were in the midst of great uncertainty in our own business, in our nation's economic future and what our world was coming to. I am grateful that while an uncomfortable degree of uncertainty still exists about our world, we have survived it-- so far at least-- and there is more reason for optimism and hope than there was a year ago.

Personally, we have gone through some very significant changes. A little less than ten years ago, I spun PIER Systems out of the marketing and public relations firm I owned. The dream was big--to help major companies and organizations to be able to more effectively meet the public information demands when facing big events. As big as the dream was, the reality turned out to be much bigger than I was able to dream. Now numerous federal agencies, state and local government agencies, emergency management departments, Fortune 100 and 500 companies, gigantic non-profits, major universities, hospitals and a myriad other organizations are using this system to enhance their communications both daily and during crises. Dealing with investors, the IT world, the complexities of selling to giant agencies and institutions has been challenging and stimulating and at times, frustrating to the extreme. The shock of the financial collapse in late 2008 and the budget difficulties of many of our public agency clients as well as private companies had significant impact on us as it did most others. But, the year ended with bright new promise as PIER Systems was purchased in late November by O'Brien's Response Management, one of the most respected names in crisis and emergency management. They purchased PIER because they understand very clearly what we have been saying for a long time--that in crisis management two things are essential to building trust: taking the right action and communicating well. They were and are experts in taking the right actions and preparing clients to taking the right actions. But they recognized in what we had to offer the ability to also communicate well. Two halves of the same coin, now joined as one solution.

I apologize if this comes across as promotion for my company or the buyer. I see in this a reflection of what I sense is going on with many of you in reflecting on this year. A year of challenge and change, of continuing uncertainty but mixed with greater hope and optimism than perhaps we dared dream of even a year ago. While the way ahead in terms of economic conditions, improvements in funding, recovery of lost value and all that may not look wonderful, still there is reason to believe that by continuing to trudge forward improvements will come. The world will never be quite the same--that is what a major crisis does to any organization and that is what this financial crisis has done to us, our nation and the world. But good lessons have been and are being learned. And the resilient pick themselves up, learn from the hard lessons, and put their shoulder to the wheel to move forward again.

I wish for you and yours a blessed time of reflection, pause, and if so oriented, quiet worship. Because as soon as Christmas Day is past, we turn immediately to the new year and the challenges ahead. I'll share some thoughts with you then about what I think 2010 means for emergency management and particularly crisis communication.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Need Help Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Employees?

Creating and managing social media policies is one new unexpected challenge for many organizations. But as the internet and crisis communication blogs fill up with painful examples of how employees using Twitter, or YouTube or Facebook are causing unanticipated crises for many organizations, it is apparent that such policies are necessary. Better now than when prompted by a major reputation problem.

But where do you start to craft such a policy. On my Crisisblogger blog I've provided a number of examples from major organizations as I have become aware of them. No sense reinventing the wheel when good thinking has been done by others in your situation. But I recently became aware of the work that Telstra has done to create not only the policies but some entertaining employee education tools around social media. Telstra is the Australian phone company with 40,000 employees. I'm not sure you can do much better than their "Three R's" incorporated in their policy: Responsibility, respect and representation.

If you do make use of their very good work here, you might want to send them a "G'die and thank you."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why People Make Big PR Blunders--the Top Ten List

This year's list of top ten PR blunders assembled by FinemanPR has just been released. Everyone in PR including PIOs and government communicators should study this list carefully and ask the question--how did this happen and how could it happen to me?

Let's take a few examples and I'll share my thoughts about why it happened:

1) Air Force One flyover of Manhattan.
Approved by Defense Department and White House Military office. How did it happen? Everybody seemed focus on getting a great photo for positive PR purposes. Nobody seemed to stop and think about how it would look to see a big jet, let alone Air Force One flying low over Manhattan. I think this is a collaboration problem as much as a "Geez, I never thought of that problem." In other words, someone whose job it is to think about public reaction either was never included in the discussion or was asleep at the switch. This is precisely what happens in a lot of organizations in a crisis and dealing with managers with technical expertise and lawyers--it's amazing how the potential impact on the public slips the attention.

2) Six year old gets sent to reform school for bringing his Cub Scout "weapon" to school.
Yes, the school officials were following policy. So were the concentration camp guards. You don't get in trouble for following policy, right? Wrong. Somebody just has to think a little about how these things can play out. The question should always occur to organization leaders--how is this going to look if it ends up on local TV or an internet blog? A simple misunderstanding turned into the second biggest PR blunder of the year.

3) Goldman Sachs says its doing God's Work, except it has more money than God.

Double problem for Goldman Sachs--stupid comment by the CEO and $16.7 billion (yes, that's right, billion) in bonuses. We ought to be thanking somebody in financial services for making some money, but clearly Goldman Sachs as an organization and its CEO in particular appear to be operating in a bubble. And we thought that Wall Street bubble burst--apparently it is still there and protecting the likes of Blankfein from reality. What's the real problem here? Clearly a CEO who is out of touch with the mood of the nation and the fact that it too has a public license to operate. But I'm also concerned that this organization hasn't incorporated a strong communications leader into its management structure--or if it has, it needs one with a stronger voice.

4) United Breaks Guitars.
That's the name of the song that garnered over 5 million views on YouTube and turned United Airlines customer service operation (never a strong suit) into one of the biggest jokes on the internet. Paying reasonable compensation for damages done would have saved them millions, maybe hundreds of millions in bad PR. Someone wasn't thinking. Worse, when the problem escalated and went viral via the song, they still didn't respond. Lack of monitoring and noticing early warning signals appears to be one major culprit here. I hope their PR department has woken up and realize they live in a dangerous world where speed and appropriate response are essential.

OK--you can read the rest and come up with your own conclusions as to what happened in each of these organizations that went so very wrong. But let me add an 11th to the Fineman list: Tiger Woods, of course. What went wrong there? In my mind, other than a serious moral failing, the arrogance of thinking that he could actually get by with it. Or that his name in history, his celebrity status, his family, his earnings just didn't matter as much as something else important to him. Unimaginable.

Can we conclude anything? In all cases it seems that someone wasn't thinking and paying attention to the right things. With priorities focused on other areas, no one in the position to do anything about it stopped and said, but, wait, what will the public think of this? In some cases it seems, if the question arose the answer was--what does what the public think really matter? Well folks, it matters a lot.

If there is a lesson to be learned it should be that everyone from CEO to customer service manager and everyone in the organization should be taught to ask that question--what will the public think? More importantly, what will those people who matter to our future think about this? What will this look like to our important supporters if this hits the news or the social networks. If the people in the right places play close attention to that question, PR blunders will diminish. I'm quite confident, sad to say, that 2010 will provide another stellar list of blunders.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Resilience? Does it Resonate?

The term "resilience" has been gaining some currency among emergency management professionals. I have a question for you: does it resonate? Is it a good way of thinking about what crisis and emergency management is all about?

I've been kicking this around ever since having some discussions about it with my friend Dr. Brad Smith, the head of the Resilience Institute at Western Washington University. As Dean of Huxley College, the highly respected college of environmental science at Western Washington University and author of one of the leading textbooks on environmental science, Dr. Smith also heads up the Resilience Institute. I kind of scratched my head when I heard this was the name of the new certificate program in Emergency Management. I wondered, is this just a way for the academic types to communicate that they are on a higher level than the rest of us?

I also read an article on the issue of resilience by Dr. Robert McCreight. In it he tries to address what the term really means and whether it adds anything to our discussion about crisis and emergency management.

The more I think about it the more I think it is significant. Resilience connotes an ability to withstand trauma. As such it includes in that simple connotation a number of key elements of disaster planning and emergency management. Most importantly, it leads one to the ultimate goal of what we do which is to return an organization or community to some form of normalcy. After a major event things will never really be the same, big events always change us and our communities, but what we want when we are in the midst of trauma is to return to normal, even if it is a new normal.

But resiliency above all starts with good planning. To manage an event well and recover quickly with minimal cost, the emphasis needs to be on planning. The Gulf region would have recovered far more quickly if resiliency in the face of a Katrina event had been the goal. You can't stop the hurricane, but you can do a lot of things to make certain that its almost inevitable arrival will disrupt people's lives less. Clear-headed risk assessment, effective infrastructure and resource planning, efficient response management, reasonable mitigation, fast and efficient public communication, well-managed recovery efforts--all lead to an organization or community re-establishing normal life as quickly, efficiently and with as little pain and effort as possible.

Resiliency. I'm starting to like that term. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Social Media Makes a Crisis Last Much Longer

When is a crisis over? When does the communication about an emergency event stop? When should the JIC be deactivated? The common answer is: when media interest goes away. That answer today is very, very wrong.

There are two reasons for this. One, the attention span of today's major media has come to resemble that of a seriously ADHD kindergartener. They arrive almost at the speed of Twitter, and they disappear soon after. That is because today's media lives and dies on one thing alone that is immediacy. If it isn't happening right now, they have no use for it. Tiger's story isn't gone, but he is thanking whatever stars he might be seeing right now that Amanda Knox's story hit when it did. The swine flu story erupted in April and dominated the news--for about a week. Then it disappeared from the media. Did the problem go away? No, while the media was chasing the next thing that happened, the story deepened with accelerating infections. Millions of people were looking eagerly for information but they could not find it on the major media. Sure, it came back late this fall but the story was the failing of those in charge to provide vaccines. That played out and now they are gone again.

The focus of the media on immediacy is one reason. The other reason is that most people are now getting their news and information from the internet, and engaging in conversation in a very public forum called social media. If you think about swine flu as an example, Pew research made it clear that most people were getting their information from the internet. They still are, new ones every day as the infection continues on. But PIOs and communicators tend to think there is no crisis and maybe not even reason to communicate because ABC isn't calling and the news helicopters have gone somewhere else (to Italy right now).

As long as significant numbers of people are hungry for information about the event, common sense suggests that communication activities should go on. If the JIC shuts down, or the communicators say "we're done" it doesn't mean information will not be generated, shared and commented on. It just means that those at the center of it won't be participating.

We had a client who shut down their incident website even though 20,000 visitors were coming to them everyday for information. We asked, Why shut it down? They said, "The news media isn't following this story anymore and they never report what we have to say anyway, so why have a website up?" The logic of that escapes me. If they had 20,000 people showing up at their front door or calling an 800 number seeking information, I doubt they would board up the door or disconnect their phone. If they did, they could hardly be called communicators. But because the news media wasn't tracking any more, they did not see the value of talking to those 20,000 who were asking them to tell them straight what was going on.

A recent environmental event we were involved in demonstrated the difference between social media involvement and mainstream media. It's a story similar to the book The Long Tail. The media coverage in the first hours and few days of the event is strong, then it starts to tail off (depending on what else is happening that is immediate). The social media activity, as measured by the monitoring tools, starts off a little slower in this case. It is just building as the mainstream media starts tailing off. It's peak seems to hit a few days after the mainstream has all but disappeared. Then it slowly tails off.

Even a few weeks after an event is "over," the conversation can still be going strong. This may be the most important time to identify rumors and work on correcting them because those continuing the conversation often have the highest interest and the most long term interest.

This reality of a longer emergency communication cycle creates some real challenges for PIOs who understand it. When do you stop communicating? If you are the PIO of a Joint Information Center, when do you deactivate. The normal rule of deactivating after the ICS structure has stood down doesn't necessarily make sense. The public interest, conversation and debate may go on long after the response efforts have been completed. In my view, there needs to be a plan for deactivation based on public interest and if the response structure is deactivated, there needs to be a way to transition the communication activity to a single lead agency or multiple agencies who still have a reputation stake in the game.

Your thoughts? Email me at gbaron@piersystems.com.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Virginia Tech's Notification Failures and What It Means to You

The Virginia Tech shooting is one of the most significant emergency events in the past decade. Certainly because of the scope of the tragedy, but from a communication standpoint few events have done more to change the public's expectation of emergency communications and public warnings.

Today's announcement of updates to the investigation findings putting further blame on administration officials for failure to properly warn the campus community will only add to the pressure on all emergency management professionals. Certainly, following the event and the focus on the failure to warn, every student on every campus has the expectation that the administration will have the capability of alerting them via multiple means when an event is occurring that may put them at risk. Administrators have rushed to meet this need and mass notification companies have rushed to fill the vacuum.

But, if students have that expectation, what about the person on the street who looks to you to protect them in a bad event? Do they have similar expectations? Many jurisdictions and agencies have also moved to adopt mass notification technologies--particularly text messaging and automated telephone messaging systems. I am concerned that many are missing some key elements of the public warning requirement but that is another subject for another day.

Consider a scenario in your town, city or community: a major crime spree happens in a building or area. The news media on the scene starts talking to citizens as they are certain to do:
"Were you warned by text message or telephone message or email alerts?"
"If you had been do you think it might have saved lives?"
"What do you think should be done about this?" Fire those who didn't protect us.

You may think it a most unrealistic scenario, but so did the administrators at VT. Now they will forever carry with them the stigma of this investigation report. Someone has to be blamed and in this case it came down to failure to warn.

My suggestion: 1) start doing some formal or informal research in your community about expectation of public warnings.
2) Investigate and list all the methods currently available to warn the public about imminent threats and build use of those methods into your plans.
3) Identify the gaps in technology and services and work to fill them (grants are likely available to assist with this particularly if you work with the region, for example UASI funds can be used for these purposes.)
4) Drill and test.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

When Political Opportunism and NIMS Collide

Could it be that Rudy Giuliani did emergency management and communications a great disservice? Particularly in a time when NIMS compliance is big and growing issue?

Ever since New York's Mayor became the calming, resolute face of massive emergency response in the hours and days after 9/11, you cannot be a savvy elected official and not see in any major public disaster the opportunity to shine. For sure, the cameras and satellite trucks will be there. The opportunity to show compassion, strength, resolve and command of the situation provides the basis to rescue a failing administration or put some shine on an already stellar political career. Who could resist such an opportunity?

And what is the problem with that? Certainly the public urgently if not desperately needs the reassurance and physical presence that only a strong, calming leader can provide. The problem is NIMS compliance.

A fundamental element of NIMS is Command responsibility for and authority over the public information released during a multi-agency event. The appropriate spokespeople for the event are those who are making the decisions that are saving people's lives or property and restoring the community to some form of normalcy. Mayors and county judges or executives are not normally incident commanders.

It's a critical issue for PIOs, particularly in a JIC environment when they are coming from multiple different jurisdictions and agencies and have clear operating policies from their agency heads. The policy is usually don't say anything without my approval. And that if the TV cameras show up, it is to be the elected head who will stand on the courthouse steps and give the information.

A particularly egregious example of this situation destroying the communications in a major event was the commuter train crash in Washington DC. The mayor of DC took some very serious heat from the media for trying to be a Rudy in this case and from PIOs from the responding agencies because he ordered them to not do their job and communicate with the public. He wanted to be the spokesperson for the entire event--and in doing so considerably botched the communications.

I know this is a contentious subject and one that causes lots of heartburn for PIOs who try to walk the line between NIMS compliance and keeping their jobs. But the message needs to start getting through to elected officials: NIMS compliance means that it is the Incident Command or Unified Command who is responsible for the public information--not the most senior elected official in the area. Certainly there can and should be room for the calming, commanding presence of an elected leader, but to restrict communicators operating in a JIC and expect them to conform to agency policy when they are in a multi-agency response is wrong and asking for trouble.

The federal government has said that failure to follow NIMS could put reimbursement dollars at stake. That's a mighty big club. But like any club, it only becomes useful when it is used once in a while. It would be interesting to see how this situation changed if the feds decided to make their threats real and enforce the requirement to keep public information under control of Command.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tiger Woods's crisis illustrates major challenge of crisis communication

If you've been involved in a crisis or major emergency involving public information, there is a very good chance you were a participant in or witness to a conversation something like this:

PIO: I know it is going to make us look bad, but we have to come out with it.
Response Leader or Executive: Just give them a simple statement saying we are sorry and we are fixing the problem.
PIO: But without providing any details we will just encourage more questions.
Leader: So? We don't have to answer questions.
PIO: If we don't we will look guilty.
Leader: And if we tell them what you suggest we tell them we will be guilty!
PIO: But it still is much better if bad news came from us rather than someone else.
Leader: What if the bad stuff doesn't out at all? These satellite trucks and helicopters can't hang around forever. If we're lucky, some big news will hit and we'll get bumped to the back page.
PIO: Excuse me, there's no back page on the internet.

Well, I could go on. Tiger is not talking. Not to the police, not to his adoring fans, maybe not even to his wife, we don't know. But the longer he doesn't talk, the worse it looks for him. In the meantime, it's a big story and that means lots of people are talking. The more Tiger is silent, the more the professional newsdiggers and now all the unprofessional and amateur newsdiggers are busily doing what they can to get the next scoop--miniscule or major.

One of the comments on Tiger's website after he posted his hopelessly anemic statement said it very well:

Tiger, Not sure of the private nature of your conflict. Pretty sure of the public nature of why people want to hear from you on the issue. They want to believe in you. In a real sense, you've inherited Arnie's Army et al and your supporters WANT to believe in you. My request, as a man who works with ex-addicts and ex-inmates in Idaho, is to come clean. Attorneys are important, honesty more so. It's a heavy burden to carry the PR weight you carry, I am certain. It is a heavier burden to carry, when a person looks like they are shrugging away any other weight that conflicts withwell placed appearances. Be real. The world is looking for realness.

There is an obvious lesson for everyone in crisis management and particularly when you or your organization are responsible for the crisis--environmental spill, industrial accident, health or safety risk to the public. Tell the people what is going on. If you can't say anything because you don't have the information or are prevented by legal restrictions or something is being investigated, then say it. Tiger would be so much better off saying something like: I had that accident because (something stupid he did). I'm terribly sorry for the pain this causing my wife, family and my fans and supporters. I need some time alone with my family and to heal physically and emotionally from this event. I will be fully cooperating with all authorities and answering any questions they have (and then do it for goodness' sake).

I hope for the very best for this incredible young man. It would be so sad to see one of the greatest athletes and talents of all time lose his career and the respect he deserves--particularly if it is mostly because of getting some terrible PR advice.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You're Not the Only One Struggling with Social Media

Either you are watching all the activity and trends in social media or you, well, you are sticking your head in the sand. There is no doubt that social media (really just a way of describing how people are using the internet to connect with each other and get info) is dramatically changing our lives in multiple ways including how we do business with each other, work together, and communicate with the public. But, if you are having a hard time trying to figure it all out and make sense of it, particularly what it means to doing your job tomorrow, you are not the only one.

Here's a great summary on how our government and Members of Congress in particular are struggling with keeping up with the changes. There are many other sources where you can find how government is using technology including social media. One good twitter source I've found is http://twitter.com/Nextgov.

But there are strong hints all around about what all this means, particularly for those of us in emergency and crisis communications. One is: Go Direct. No need to mess with the middleman--the media. (How appropriate they should be called the media--a medium, like a channeler. Why go through the medium when you can talk direct to the ghost or intended audience?) Here's a blog post about writing press releases, but in the middle of the writer makes this point:

"While there is still value in the press release as a PR or online marketing tactic, there are more effective options for communicating with external audiences. For starters, your blog should be the new place you break news. Look at how organizations like Google or Twitter announce new products or major company announcements – they post to their blogs. Google doesn’t formally issue any press releases. They don’t need to, their audiences subscribe to their blogs.

Blogs are very effective platforms for announcing your news, because they come with built-in analytics and sharing capabilities most traditional news releases don’t (at least not for free). Once you post to your blog, people can easily link to, share, or comment on your post instantly. This is the fastest option for getting your announcement into the hands of people most likely to pass the word along. You’ll also have access to real-time information on your reach through any standard Web analytics package, such as Google analytics."

You don't have to worry about blogging during a crisis event but you do have to have an event-specific website or a Joint Information Center site and you do need to post up to date information very frequently on that which is what blogging is. The point is, why not go direct to your audiences? They want you to and the more you think about the quality of coverage you may have experienced in the past, the more sense it will make to you as well. The good news is social media makes that option not only more viable, but a virtual requirement.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Now Citizen Journalists Have Their Own Channel--YouTube Direct

Last week YouTube announced that it was launching YouTube Direct, a new service that looks to be aimed at making citizen journalism and even greater factor in our lives.

I've also blogged on this on crisisblogger because I think this is a significant milestone in the inexorable march to a post media, as in post mainstream media, world. Certainly the mainstream media (CNN, ABC, NYT website) etc. will be using this to enlist the aid of 300 million plus citizen journalists out there who happen to be carrying cell phones with video cameras. YouTube Direct makes it easier than ever for them to get the big story videos from them but also enables them to request them. Those looking for attention, notoriety, a boost in a new career can look at what stories the media assignment editors are looking for and go get them for them.

But even more significant than this is realizing that channels like YouTube are becoming the mainstream media. What is available to the media is available to you, me and everyone else who has an interest in whatever is being reported. Faster, more direct and conceivably more easily searchable.

The process of instant access to relevant information is already well established. It is completely changing the rules of crisis communication as has been discussed here and is discussed on any blog talking about the new communication realities. But emergency managers have an even more complex and confusing issue to face: how to respond when the public knows more than you do? Think about that for a minute. Those impacted by almost any major event for which you are preparing will increasingly have instantaneous access to an overwhelming amount of reporting. Everyone is a reporter, everyone is an audience and the distinction between them is disappearing. How will your plans and actions as someone responsible for the lives and health and safety of citizens be changed as a result of the high levels of information available to them?

That's the critically important subject I hope we can explore together here in the next little while.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Warning Messages--Risks of Wimpiness and Wolf Cries

The article on this website about Flood Control messages reminded me of a presentation by a FEMA executive about the public warnings issued just prior to Hurricane Ike in Galveston. We were presenting together at a crisis communication conference for federal agencies in Washington DC and he was discussing how emergency managers involved in preparing for the imminent arrival of Ike were trying to warn the public to evacuate.

Getting people to evacuate from a major storm like this has long been a challenge. So the discussion was how to motivate people. He showed the messages that were put out to the people along the area most likely to be hit hardest, particularly Galveston. The message essentially said: Evacuate or you will die. The discussion was whether or not this kind of straightforward and very dire message was effective.

There is little doubt that the seriousness of the simplicity of the message helped some people make the decision to evacuate. However, 14,000 people in the Houston area chose to ride out the storm and over 2000 had to be rescued. Approximately 120 lives were lost including about 40 in the Galveston area. So, despite the dire warning, many chose to ignore it and indeed lives were lost.

What troubled me about the message was the impact in the future if such a message were deemed as crying wolf. There is no doubt that the evacuation traffic jams from Hurricane Katrina in the Houston area were very much on people's minds and played a major role in making the decision to evacuate or not. That in itself is a tremendously important lesson for emergency managers. Assuming management of the mass evacuation for Ike was much improved what might have been even more effective is a strong communication effort aimed at letting the public know that evacuation would not be a huge pain to them.

While there was probably justification in some sense of accomplishment that the simple and exceptionally strong warning to the public resulted in lives saved, there should be concern with the fact that many chose to ride out this storm and lived to tell about it. What will be the impact next time when the public sees the warning--heed this or you WILL die?

PIOs and Incident Commanders need to carefully think through the messages distributed to the public in these kinds of events. They need to understand what is going on in people's heads, what reasons they have for taking unwarranted risks and why they will or will not heed the warnings. And one thing they must be careful of is not to damage the credibility of the agencies and the power of future warnings by crying wolf.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Incalculable Debt--thanks Veterans!

Happy Veteran's Day everyone. I'm so grateful for this special day as a way for us as a nation and community to express honor and gratitude to those among us who have secured our freedom.

I want to especially thank those World War II veterans who are still with us. They are getting fewer and fewer and those who remain are precious treasures that link us to some of the darkest and perhaps most glorious days of our history. I've been a history buff all my life and particularly WWII history, in part I am sure because my father lived through Nazi occupation in Holland in his formative years. I'm so proud of my grandparents who harbored escapees in their home under the noses of neighbor collaborators, risking the lives of their children--and of course, me and all their grandchildren. My interest in this history became very personal when I was asked by a friend to write the biography of a WWII fighter pilot who was shot down over France. When I met with this sweet and kindly gentleman, I was shocked to find he was one of 82 Americans and 168 total Allied Flyers who were treated to some of the worst of Hitler's brutality in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Nearly starved to death, they survived a massive bombing raid and the horrors of the camp to be rescued by German Air Force officers just four days before Hitler had scheduled them for execution. Joe Moser, the fighter pilot-hero of this story, was then shipped to Stalag Luft III and was placed in the very barracks that the tunnel of the Great Escape was dug a few months earlier. The 10,000 POWs of this camp were marched in 28 degree below blizzard 65 miles to be put on cattle cars and shipped to other POW camps as the Russians were arriving. Still weak from Buchenwald and weighing less than 120 pounds, Joe collapsed and would have died if his roommates had not carried or dragged him to the nearest town.

Joe Moser, at 88, is still alive and well and enjoying a kind of modest celebrity status after the release of his book, A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald. He's been on CNN, was presented his Distinguished Flying Cross medal 63 years late, and even through out the first pitch at a Yankees Mariners game this August. Unfortunately, one of his squadron mates who was horribly burned in a crash landing of his P-38 and who was also in Stalag Luft III, died within the past few weeks. I was hoping to work with him on telling his story as well. Al Mills, like Joe, was a quiet, humble and God-loving man who contributed so much to all of us not just through their heroics in the war and their gritty courage in surviving their post-crash ordeals, but in helping build America after the war into the great nation we became.

These great men and women who sacrificed so much, who saw so much, who suffered so much are now leaving us. Some say at a rate of 1000 or more a day. Soon they will all be gone. I can tell you that helping bring some measure of honor and respect to Joe Moser at this time of his life has been one of the most meaningful, joyful and emotional experiences of my life. I encourage you, while we still have a very little time, to reach out to every veteran you can, shake their hand, look them in the eye and say thank you. It means more to them than they will ever be able to tell you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Will Liaison Role Take on More Prominence?

Those versed in ICS know that there are three Command Staff positions: Public Information Officer, Safety Officer and Liaison Officer. Beginning in 2000 when I was just getting into this whole ICS and JIC world I attended a meeting conducted by a Coast Guard PIO and he talked then about the potential confusion between PIO and Liaison Officer roles. Since then, in many situations I have been involved in, it has become ever more confused.

One reason is the increasing reliance on web-based communications. For those using PIER or any similar communication management technology the potential for overlap is quite understandable. A comprehensive communication management system includes all audiences in its contact directories. That includes media, the public who self register for information, response partners, government officials, response agencies, healthcare facilities, elected officials, response organizations leaders who aren't on scene, etc. One of the beauties of these systems is that you can simply select any or all of the audiences to send to and with a single click send your updates, releases, fact sheets, etc. to everyone, usually through multiple means such as email, fax, RSS feeds, social media channels such as Twitter, etc.

So if it is the PIOs responsibility to communicate to the media and the community and the Liaison Officer's responsibility to communicate with the response agency, government officials, etc., what do they do? Not do it in a single click but do the same thing individually? Do they take turns distributing the information so they each get some work in? Do they run separate systems that they each control? The truth is the technology with its high efficiency, makes completely separate tasks unnecessary and indeed burdensome.

The same is true in responding to inquiries. Using a system like PIER all the inquiries come into the same Inquiry Management panel or are logged in via phone calls. In terms of the answers given and sharing of information, it doesn't matter much if the person calling is a staffer from the Governor's Office or a reporter from the New York Times. But it tends to matter a lot to the PIO and Liaison Officer. So, do you run two completely separate Inquiry Management systems and lose the efficiency and control of central and coordinated communication management?

This problem has dogged us a lot as we have worked with organizations on structuring a response using both Liaison and PI Officers. However a recent major incident highlighted some of these problems and also provided some potential solutions. In this case the PIO and those managing the JIC were almost entirely focused on media response including an occasional press release and daily press conference. That left a lot of critical audiences without the very thing they needed and expected which is a virtually continuous flow of fresh updates about the incident and response. The Liaison function stepped in and began communicating aggressively via email, website and other means with numerous agencies, community contacts, etc. They found it not only helped satisfy the hunger for information of these important audiences, but that information soon found its way through various means into the social networks. And most likely through them to the media as well. That's one of the things about today's networked world--no one really cares by what means they get fresh info, as long as they get it--and that includes the media.

The reality was the Liaison function was providing some of the key functions of the JIC because the JIC was so focused on traditional media response. This may seem normal to some, particularly those schooled in ESF 15 which pretty much limits the JIC to answering media questions and disperses the other critical public information functions to other elements of the External Affairs operation. This does not at all leverage the power and efficiency of today's web communication management which can support multiple audiences in a single step. Nevertheless, if this is how the PIO perceives the role of the JIC in your response, it provides an important opportunity and obligation for the Liaison function to step in and fill the void.

One thing that is certain regardless of who picks up the ball, is that it is critical that those key stakeholders including response partners, agency leaders, elected officials, community leaders, etc. are included in the communication operation. And it is critical that all audiences get continuous updates of response information in the variety of ways they are now expecting. Failure to meet these expectations will almost certainly result in complaints about no communication--even if the obligatory press release is going out as planned.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Five Megatrends--and how they are shaping crisis communication

I'm once again stealing brilliance from others, but, hey, isn't that what blogging is all about?
Here's a very insightful article about the Five Megatrends impacting marketing. But these are also impacting crisis communication and the way we think, work, socialize and exist together in community. So here is my crisis communications take on these big ideas:

1) Mass collaboration is empowering the public's ability to get vital information.
I've blogged on this before including how emergency managers will react when the public knows more than they do. It is almost a certainty, because the internet and social networking are making it possible for those interested to learn so much, so quickly from so many. This is dramatically changing public information management and how the JIC operates. That is best summarized in repeating over and over: it's not about control, it's about participation. The messaging and information flow will go on, regardless of official's willingness to be part of it. It is participate or be ignored.

2) Constant connectivity in an on-demand world. People want information important to them right now, they want it in the way most convenient and useful for them, and they want it presented so they can quickly get to what is most relevant. That's always been true, but now there are so many choices and options--from traditional media, to social media and everything in between. Mobile devices, particularly those computers you carry in your pockets that you still think of as phones, are making us connected all the time. These are critical now but will become even more so. That means the demand for instant information, presented in the formats accessible by these devices, pushed via text and other alert methods when they want them, are all demands that will only increase.

3) Globalization is making the world a smaller place. McLuhan's global village has become an everyday reality. Anyone who has experienced a major incident in the last while and who has effectively monitored will agree that interested audiences are found all over. No more true than on issues of environmental disasters, health issues, food safety issues, etc. We not only are connected globally through trade, but through public policy interests. That means networks of those with strong interests are deeply in place and new ones can be created instantaneously. Communicators need to think not just about the local media, they need to think about how angry people across the globe may impact their world. It's not a tomorrow thing, it's definitely here right now.

4) Pervasive distrust in big corporations.
This is increasingly true by any measure including surveys and even casual observations of popular culture. Michael Moore's outsized rants only reflect a less extreme but very much ubiquitous attitude. But, if you are on the public side of the equation don't breathe too easy. This distrust, exhibited so stridently in the online world, extends to almost any organization seen to have too much power--and too much means almost any organization more powerful than the individual expressing that opinion. It means that if your organization is seen as responsible for bad things happening, it starts not on neutral ground with much of the populace, but already in a deep hole. Building trust when it is hitting the fan is hard enough, but when you start from a negative position before it even hits the fan, it gets a lot harder. But, that is the reality of the level of trust in our public and private institutions today.

5) A global sense of urgency to fix the problems of our world.
Well, what Adam Kleinberg is really referring to here is the global green movement. Yet his wording is right because there is a huge shift in values underway. Anyone spending time reading blog comments and observing the online conversation can see it. It is related to item 4 above, the green movement, healthier foods, simpler living, more relaxed (I would say grungy but I'm an old guy) fashion styles, and government doing more and more for us. Yes, it is political--ultimately everything is, but the political views need to be seen in light of the values that lay beneath them--that's why I like the way Kleinberg expressed this. The critical point for emergency management is that we must always remember that it is those people out there, in the hinterland, the amorphous crowd, who will ultimately decide the success or failure of your response. Perception is reality. And they will judge by their values, not yours. It's an important role that communicators need to play is helping evaluate all response plans and activities from a perception and values standpoint. The future and reputation of the response leaders as well as the response agencies is at stake.

Monday, November 2, 2009

EPA Includes ICS Training as part of punishment in San Francisco

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency is being fined by the EPA for spilling 940 barrels of diesel oil into a stream that flowed into San Francisco Bay. That's 40,000 gallons. What is interesting is that in addition to the $250,000 fine (seems like might be a different level of fines for government agencies spilling fuel than private companies) is that the EPA is requiring SF Muni to get ICS training. This will "improve coordination and communication during future incidents of this nature."

In talking with some hospitals recently I am quite surprised that NIMS and ICS are not more widely adopted in this sector. In fact, outside of a some major response agencies such as Emergency Management agencies, the US Coast Guard, etc., widespread understanding, training and adoption are very mixed. I'm also finding that there are continuing problems in a variety of agencies with understanding some of the core concepts of NIMS--a primary one being Command authority and responsibility. Things just don't go very well when there is a lot of freelancing or when members of the JIC or response pick and choose when to respect the Command role and when not to.

Overall I would say that establishing the National Incident Management System and accomplishing the training levels, adoption and use that we now have vs. five years ago is a major accomplishment for DHS. But, there is still is a long ways to go and I would encourage communicators and emergency managers alike to strongly encourage private organizations, non-profits, and all government agencies such as SF Muni, to get on board as soon as possible.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Does your agency have written social media policies?

On my other blog, crisisblogger, I've been tracking social media policies from various organizations as I see references to them develop. I recently found a great list of organization's social media policies and a number of useful templates. You can find that list here.

But a commenter on that blog asked a question as to whether I had seen emergency management agencies social media policies. Truthfully, I haven't. I've seen a number of EPIP's and EPIA's from large jurisdictions but none that I have seen really reference social media policies. As I recall there are some references to it in the brand new National Response Team JIC Model. I am also working on developing some of those policies as part of NIMS compliant EPIA and crisis communication plans for a couple of major metropolitan regions and large government agencies.

But, if any of you Emergency Management readers out there have any social media policies you have developed for your agencies are willing to share them, I'd be happy to use this forum to help spread the best practices.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What do you do when the public knows more than you?

A comment by Garry Briese of the Center for New Media and Resiliency at the All Hazards All Stakeholders Summit in Los Angeles raises a question I've been discussing with emergency managers and PIOs. What changes when the public or the people you need to deal with know more than you do--and you're supposed to be in charge?

Briese said in an article on this Emergency Management website: "by the time first responders have arrived at the scene of a crisis, thousands of e-mails and photos about the event have been shared by citizens but the first responders are, for the most part, in the dark until they get there."

It reminded me of a discussion I had with an emergency manager after a keynote presentation I gave at the KEMA conference. I was speaking about the instant news world fed by social media, emails, blogs, Twitter and all that and it's impact on emergency communication. The responder told me that just the other night he had responded to a multiple fatality accident involving teen drivers. By the time he got to the hospital, the parents of the victims were already at the hospital.

As Flight 1549 showed, a single person with a Twitter account and a cell camera can tell the world the story well before the news media gets around to it and well before the news media has a chance to even call the responders or the company. Those impacted by an event can get alerted in seconds or minutes, and thousands can know details before the responders get the information through traditional channels and before they can get their response operation going.

This has very significant implications for emergency managers and communicators alike. I'll be exploring this important topic more in upcoming posts, but here are a couple of implications to take seriously now:
1) communication starts immediately--it's not something you can put off until you get the response organization going. Like it or not, communication with the public, key stakeholders, the media, higher ups in government, elected officials--all will start virtually instantaneously with the event. With that in mind, now is a very good time to get with any and all PIOs who may work with you and simply ask the question--how are we going to deal with it when it hits the fan and everyone is wanting to talk to us and get info from us right now?
2) Rumor management is job 1. The new realities of social networking and sharing of information about an incident means that a lot of things are going to be communicated about an event that are not true. Nothing new here--people have always got things wrong initially about almost any big event. It's just now the errors are magnified so much because of how far and how fast they go. It's tough to stuff the bad information back in the box once it takes wings on the internet. And since so many people are going to be sharing info about an event, the biggest job isn't necessarily getting new info out (it will be old in a lot of cases by the time you get it out) but making certain what is out there is accurate. That means your PIOs have to be equipped to monitor the media and online conversations. There are lots of tools for doing that--if there is interest among this blog's readers, I'll prepare a list and share them. But it is essential to monitor and monitor almost immediately, then essential to respond very quickly with the correct information.

Monday, October 26, 2009

H1N1 Swine Flu--the First Web 2.0 Health Crisis

We can learn alot about the state of emergency management communication by observing closely the public information around the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak.

Along with Stephen Davidow, I wrote an article on pandemic flu communication for the leading public relations industry publication, the PR Strategist. I'm also conducting two webinars this week, one on pandemic communications for PRSA and the other for Progressive Healthcare Conferences on Twitter, Social Media and Healthcare Crisis Communication.

Here are a few quick observations about public information and the current outbreak:
1) What did the media do? First, in April, they scared the bejesus out of everyone, then they dropped the subject like a hot rock, and now the story is all about not enough vaccine. OK, that's an over simplification but not entirely wrong. The point is to help you understand that their job is not to provide vital public information about an important topic like this, but to get eyes on the screen or on their website, or sell papers. Only what is immediate has any real media interest. And if it is scary or creates FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) it is going to get some play. But if a balloon boy story shows up, the flu story will go away quickly. The point is the media will come and go and do what they need to do to create audiences. In the meantime, they may help or hurt the effort of agencies to get key messages across to the media.

2) People are getting their best information from the internet. Yes, people heard about it from local news, particularly local TV news, but a Pew research study showed that audiences indicated the best information they got about this situation is from the internet. They are getting it from all kinds of sources. When my wife got quite sick from H1N1 I found Microsoft's "H1N1 Swine Flu Response Center" very helpful. Much more so than the CDC which I and many others have been praising for their outstanding information flow and use of social media. I found on YouTube helpful instructions on how to cough without spreading germs. As commented here before, people are increasingly using the internet's unofficial sources to get info, not necessarily relying on your agency or the official voices. This is really nothing new in that people have always talked to each other about things important to them. But now rather than just in the coffee shop or in the hallways outside your office, they are talking to each other online. Word of mouth gone crazy.

3) Is there too much information? One thing I discovered in this incident is how much your perspective changes depending on your personal involvement. As an observer of agency communication and media communication, I thought overall there was a lot of good information out there. Maybe too much even. After all, it was affecting people in other states, countries, communities. My wife was with me on a business trip when she got sick and got quite sick in a hurry. Suddenly I found I just couldn't find the urgent information I needed. Simple questions like: how do I know it is the swine flu? When should I call the doctor? Is there anything I can do on my own? Why did I not get it and several others in my family did? The point is that my perspective changed, my questions changed, my urgency changed. I found what worked for me and what didn't. What that means is that communicators need to either be awfully good at putting themselves in a victim's shoes to understand the urgency and content of the questions that will need to be answered. Or, they need to be victims themselves or talk to those who are.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Five Ways Social Media is Changing Emergency Management

I just read a great post on 5 Ways Social Media is Changing our Daily Lives by Soren Gordhamer. I encourage you to read the post but here are the five changes he identifies:
1) How we get our news
2) How we start and do business
3) How we meet and stay in touch with people
4) What we reveal
5) What we can influence

While Gordhamer applies his analysis to our daily business and social lives, these same points have profound implications for emergency management. It is clear that with the internet in general and the wide-spread adoption of social media, the world of emergency management and public information management will never be the same. Looking at these points from an emergency management and communication perspective, it becomes clear just how much our world has changed.

1) How we get our news.
US Airways Flight 1549 made it clear that social media, internet talk and particularly Twitter, are used by the media as their first indication of events to cover—Twitter became the new global police scanner and news coverage has never been the same. 23 million people are signed on to receive Twitter feeds from government entities according to govtwit.com. So while it is true that the media is relying more and more on social media to get their content to grab audiences, those audiences are more and more going direct to the internet. How did those desperate to know who the shooting victims were in the Virginia Tech get their information? If they were part of the Facebook community, they got the names of all 32 shooting victims—without error—well before the authorities announced it according to Jeannette Sutton of the University of Colorado.

Emergency management leaders and Public Information Officers need to understand that these changes are irreversible and profound. With 350 million people walking around with sophisticated electronic news gathering equipment in their pockets tied directly to major news outlets, it is virtually impossible to be the original source of what is going on. At the same time, those people communicating about their knowledge and reactions to the event can create instant news networks bigger than almost any national broadcaster—and do it in minutes. How the public gets its news is changed forever and the old ways of providing public information via a press release a couple of times a day and a press conference are rapidly disappearing.

2) How we start and do business.
Emergency managers may not be concerned about starting a business, but this points to profound changes in how emergency management business is done. Mobility and virtual operations is the key. Something like 60% of web access these days is through smart phones. The incredible capability of new generation smart phones, led by Apple’s iPhone, means that the power of the computer and full access to the internet with all its tools will ride in your pocket. I have visited numerous EOCs across the country the last few years and marvel at the millions poured into many of these. In part because while in the LA area for example they have spent millions making them earthquake proof, how will the staff get there when the infrastructure is destroyed? The power of the internet with increasingly sophisticated applications means we can work collaboratively to get the necessary work done. At PIER we’ve been credited with creating the concept of the Virtual JIC and operating virtually as a team is now being built into the most advanced regional communication plans. In a pandemic it will be essential. However, too little emergency management operational planning yet focuses on virtual operations—it will come and come faster than many think.

3) How we meet and stay in touch with people.
While this is about our personal and social lives, does it apply to emergency management? We can learn from each other much more easily, we can build and maintain networks of those who can help us when we need it most, with virtual operations (see above point) we can make use of the experience and talent when it is most needed. Even more importantly, during an event we can maintain close contact with those people who matter most for our future. It’s what I encourage every PIO and emergency manager to think about in advance. Who are those people whose opinion of you or your organization matters most for its future? Key customers? Major donors? Or Senators sitting on the Appropriations Committee? The mayor or county executive? The local EPA contact? It doesn’t take too much to identify those who if you get seriously sideways with will cause you endless problems. Internet technology provides unprecedented opportunity to communicate interactively with these key people. Those who miss that opportunity and rely on the media to tell their story to these people for them will most likely deeply regret it.

4) What we reveal.
Transparency is part about the values of our culture today—particularly the social media set, but also about technology. There are few secrets in this age of everybody connecting to everybody. It means emergency managers and PIOs have to take a whole new view of public information. You don’t control it, no matter how much wishful thinking you apply. Any body and everybody will be talking about your event and communicating what they know. If there is bad news, it will likely come out. The questions are not if, but when, and not about releasing but participating. Those viewed to be hiding or sitting on relevant information are instantly branded as anti-social. Transparency, starting with a clear understanding of what the public has a right to know, starts at the policy level and needs to be carried out through the whole organization.

5) What we can influence.
The internet and social media technology provide emergency managers and PIOs with unprecedented opportunities to interact quickly and directly with millions. The ability to circumvent the traditional media channels and to participate in the widespread discussion about the event is simply astounding and new. But few are prepared to embrace this opportunity, sticking instead to an outmoded understanding of how the public gets its information. For those, I point them to the opposite and downside of this issue of who can influence what. Are there individuals out there who want your response to fail? Are their political opponents of your elected leaders who would gladly seize on any opportunity to make you and your leaders look bad? If so, they too have unprecedented opportunity to wield influence. With the right content, almost anyone can create an audience of hundreds of thousands or even millions in mere minutes. (Example Dave Carroll who wrote the United Breaks Guitar song with 5 million views.)So even if you opt not to take advantage to be a major influencer, you still have to be prepared to counter those who are not as squeamish about this as you. You have no choice in that—unless you want to the world to go by without you.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Complete NIMS Guide--now appearing on your iphone

Just found out about this new NIMS Guide available as an iPhone app. It is a Field Guide to the Incident Command System published by Informed. The cost is $9.99. It provides 125 pages of NIMS definitions, job descriptions, etc. Very handy for those addicted to iPhones like I am and who find more and more of my life located on this little flat computer in my pocket.

I just got it and gave it a quick run through and my initial impression is that it is useful if you need a Field Guide handy. But, it definitely needs work. The pages kept wanting to go back page by page to the starting point all by themselves and the only way I could stop them was by keeping a finger on the screen. It didn't flip to more readable horizontal, and expanding the pages for easier reading was clunky. I kept touching on the outline at the front expecting it to open up to the section I was identifying--a perfectly normal and expected way to navigate on these apps, but it didn't go anywhere. The only way to get through the document was to scroll through page by page--not the handiest way when you are in the middle of an event.

So, while I'd rather have this on my iPhone than not, you might consider waiting for an upgraded version which I hope will come soon. In the meantime, this is a nice start.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

H1N1 Communications--the impact of personal experience

It's funny how things change when you get personally involved. Like H1N1 communications. I've been talking to clients, building websites and making national presentations on H1N1 communications. Then my family got hit. Two of my adult children, three of my seven grandchildren and now my wife, who was hit hardest of all. She was accompanying me on a trip to several speaking engagements when she got hit hard. Spending three days in a hotel when you have a fever and terrible sore throat is not a lot of fun.

What it showed me however that as much communication and miscommunication there has been around this outbreak, there are significant gaps in public information. One of the keys to effective crisis communication is anticipating the questions and having the answers readily available in ways that people want to get them. But I discovered a number of questions for which answers were not so readily available:
- how do I know it is H1N1 and not seasonal flu?
- how do I know when to call the doctor?
-how will the doctor know that it is H1N1?
-I know that people are dying from this but how do I tell how serious it is?
- If it is not much different than the regular or seasonal flu, why is there so much hype and concern about it?
- If I don't need to go to the doctor, what can I do at home to treat it?
- Why should we go to the doctor and sit in the waiting room infecting others when what they told us could have been told over the phone?
- Why are they insisting on social distancing except when it comes to going into the doctor's office?
- Why did the little kids get over it so quick and my wife have it for over a week?

I could keep going on. One thing is clear, in an environment of fear the hunger for information becomes intense. And the patience with anything other than what is sought and needed right now is very limited. It makes all of Dr. Vince Covello's teachings about risk and crisis communication very relevant.

Now with personal experience I went back and looked at how some were dealing with the much needed information. As mentioned by many, the CDC continues to do a great job with communicating about this. But they are struggling with a common problem and that is there is so much information, how do I quickly find what I am looking for. My most urgent need was to find out the answer to my first question which is how do I know if this is swine flu? (By the way, I find myself and everyone referring to it in normal conversation as swine flu while when talking more officially I try to do the politically correct thing and refer to it as H1N1--fact is, in real life, this is swine flu--much apologies to the pig industry.) Going to the CDC website specific to this outbreak, I have to search for a bit to find my answer to that question.

Much better in terms of my most urgent questions is the new Microsoft website called H1N1 Response Center. It should be carefully studied as a model for providing important information for urgent communication. All over it, including from the very beginning is a big orange button that says "Take flu self assessment." I did, and very quickly came to the answer I was looking for.

This site was launched just a few days ago and you might ask why is Microsoft positioning itself as an expert in this outbreak. It may very well have to do with the announcement they made a few months ago about a new product relating to notification and crisis communication. I found out about the new site watching a news story on Fox News where they had a doctor discussing this new site. She absolutely ripped it one side and down the other. Her point was that you shouldn't rely on a website for health advice--you should call your doctor.

You will note if you take the flu self-assessment that if the answer is yes, the response is to call your doctor. But I couldn't disagree more with that doctor on Fox. The web is one of the most important tools for people educating themselves and also helping themselves. Whether the profession likes it or not, it will be an increasingly important way for people to get access to much needed health information. This should be welcomed by the profession, not fought. In this case, and now with personal experience, I think I would disagree with Microsoft's direction to call the doctor. There should be more conditions put on it that regarding how high the fever, length of time with fever, etc. When we called the doctor over the weekend, he told us the necessary basics, lots of rest, lots of fluids, Ibuprofen for fever and an antihistamine for the congestion. And, he said, if breathing becomes an issue, come in right away. Turns out the biggest problem in healthy people is pneumonia. That was a very important piece of information that is not so readily available.

There are lots of lessons learned here but I'll focus on the main one: personal experience helps you plan the communication response. We can't all have nor do we want to have personal experience in being a victim of earthquake, hurricane, terrorist attack or swine flu. But we can think through very carefully, use our imagination, and talk very intentionally and intently with those who are or who have been victims. In doing so we will prepare much more effectively.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What PIOs and Commanders Can Learn from David Letterman

For those who may not know, David Letterman on his Thursday night show revealed to his studio and national audience that he had numerous affairs with the women employed by him in his office. He was forced into this embarrassing confession by an extortion plot. A CBS news producer, deep in debt, had requested $2 million from the tv host for him to keep silent.

PR pundits have declared David's confession a text-book case of crisis communication and public relations management. Some have even suggested that the whole story will have big benefits for CBS, especially as they fight a ratings war with Jay Leno's new show.

There are certainly some positive lessons to be learned from this event useful for those in crisis communication. The most obvious one is if there is bad news to tell, tell it yourself. Don't wait, don't let it leak out slowly, control the message, the timing and everything about it. That can be hard to do and you can see from the confession itself that it was hard for Letterman to do.

But, frankly, I'm disgusted with the PR professionals who are swooning over David's wonderful confession, and also a little disgusted with the idea that a salacious story like that involving celebrities always creates good news for those concerned about ratings. After all, it was while employed as a host for a CBS show that David carried on his numerous activities with staff. Is this the image that CBS wishes to communicate, that it is good news to have one of their celebrities caught publicly in this kind of behavior?

Let's not forget that we are talking about a man, now married, who it appears might have been carrying sexual harassment to entirely new levels. I suspect the story on this might not be done. All it will take is for one of those women to ever so gently suggest that the sex was less than consensual or that she felt any sort of pressure related to her job. We seem to have dual standards about moral behavior. This is painfully evident in Hollywood right now as the luminaries flock around one of their own, despite his conviction for sex with a 13 year old. If you are a famous funny man, the rules for sexual harassment, let alone rampant promiscuity, don't seem to apply.

While noting the positive of what Letterman did in confessing his "creepy" behavior to an adoring audience, let's note that he violated the first rule of building trust. The two rules are: do the right thing, and communicate well. He communicated well, but he clearly did not do the right thing as it relates to his personal behavior. He acted like a creep. Fact is, his behavior shows he is a creep. At least in the moral judgment of most of the world outside of Hollywood and network executives who seem to think that ratings cover a multitude of sins.

Lessons learned--if you've done creepy things, do as Letterman did and come out with them fast. But if you want to be trusted, don't do creepy things.

Monday, September 28, 2009

EPIAs and Regional Communication Plans

I am nearly wrapping up draft one of one of the biggest projects I've had in a long while--an EPIA or Emergency Public Information Annex for one of the nation's largest metro areas. It sets out in excruciating detail how the nearly 200 independent jurisdictions and agencies in this region will come together in a NIMS compliant Joint Information Center to communicate with the community and the world when things go really really wrong.

While I've written quite a few crisis communication plans they have tended to be for individual agencies. Certainly some, such as in the oil industry, anticipate coordinating closely with other response agencies and organizations. But it is a different matter when you have a number of very independent agencies in the region need to come together to speak with one voice.

A few quick learnings as I have gone through this process:

1) NIMS--I am more respectful than ever of the underlying wisdom of the NIMS requirements. Particularly the decision that was made early on to adopt the ICS system and its well established and practiced methods. Yes, it has gotten big, bureaucratic, and complex in many ways, but the core underlying principles are exactly what is needed to prepare and to respond effectively. It is most troublesome to me when some of the leading agencies who are responsible for NIMS are the most cavalier about the wisdom in it and prescriptions it offers. That is their worry, not mine. For me, making the plan as thoroughly NIMS compliant as I can means that it has the best chance of success.

2) Cooperation, collaboration and coordination are not in the nature of human beings--at least not government agencies. The natural flow of things is for agencies to operate independently and so they have for many many years. Yet, the problems of this kind of independent operation have been demonstrated far too often. There are two essentials to overcoming the inherent resistance to cooperate. One is to have a clear plan that has the force of federal reimbursement behind it. The second thing is the next point.

3) Plans are one thing, actions another.
This plan will be scrutinized, evaluated, tested, drilled and communicated. But all that without the certainty that it will be followed when it really hits the fan. Only time and. God forbid, a major disaster will determine that.

4) Change comes faster than my fingers can type.
I've been amazed at the pace of change in the world of public information management in the months that I have been working on this draft. Sometimes my fingers can't keep up. So, what happens now that the draft begins the process of evaluation, review, editing, testing and communicating? It reminds me of one of the big dilemmas of a PIO in a major incident: by the time they get a draft of a release written, edited, and approved by all members of Command, the info is very much out of date. What do you do? Stop that one and get a more up-to-date release? NO, because if you do that, you will never get a release out. Sending out outdated information when the situation changes as fast as it does is the only choice you have. The same for drafting a plan in this environment. So I'll work on draft two while draft one gets batted about.

5) The Four Ps really do work.
A few years ago, when I started seriously working at crisis communication planning, I developed the 4 Ps of crisis communication preparation: Policies, Plans, People and Platform. I could remember 4 ps and they seemed to encapsulate all the essential elements and mostly in the right order. I found this very useful. For example, by putting all the critical policy statements right up front it should (we'll see) take away much of the argument and nit picking about each individual tactical element of the plan. Because each of those should related to accomplishing a policy statement. If there is argument about "why would you want to send a release out that often" for example, all that is needed is to point back to the policy statement that underlies it. Then the question is: do you agree with the policy statement and if so, do you have a better suggestion as to how to accomplish it? The 4 Ps also make it clear that it really is all about the people who are going to do the work and whether or not they have the training, background and skills needed. But they can't operate without the "platform" which includes the physical facilities and equipment and the increasingly important technology platforms needed to manage the communication function.

Since there are no doubt a number of others in this business tasked with this kind of challenge I am interested in forming a kind of work group or special interest group around this. Or maybe doing a series of webinars where we could dive into the details of this kind of planning. If you have interest in this, please let me know by shooting me an email at gbaron@piersystems.com

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Augmented Reality--Emerging Technology for Emergency Management

The focus of this blog is emergency management and crisis communication. You don't have to read too many posts to realize that technology changes are driving this bus. Emergency management professionals and communicators alike face the challenge of keeping up with emerging technology. All we have to do is look at how email, instant messaging, search engines, social media, cellphones, cell cameras, etc. have all dramatically changed how crisis communication and emergency management itself is done. Twitter is just the latest of many innovations to turn urgent public communication on its head.

But, what's next? There are a great many innovations that look to further change the rules of the game. Telephony blended with internet communication management is one of them--virtual call centers are about to erupt. The use of video is not new, but will become even more significant with the common and easy use made possible through the new generation of smart phones powered by 3G data networks. But, now I want to introduce you to a new innovation that I think may have real significance for public warnings and emergency communication in the future: Augmented reality.

You will be hearing more and more about augmented reality (AR) in the future. The concept is relatively simple. Video equipped smartphones can capture video images of whatever you are seeing--your surroundings in the typical applications. So, say you are standing on a street corner in New York City and you use your iphone's camera to look around. Augmented reality takes a layer of data and overlays that on the image, corresponding it to GIS information it has from your location and where you are pointing your camera. What data? Well, one version has you playing 3D Pacman on the streets of NYC. A brand new one just out is called Bionic Eye and it overlays more helpful information such as where the nearest subway stop is located and how far and which direction is the nearest Starbucks. Have a look at this video demo yourself. If you want, just go to YouTube and enter "bionic eye."

OK, nifty, cool and all that stuff. What does this have to do with emergency communications? Plenty. One rule of innovation is: what becomes possible becomes expected or demanded. Once FedEx showed you could get a package around the country in a day, it quickly became demanded and expected. Once Virginia Tech students realized that technology was there to alert them to a shooting in a classroom building, not only that campus but every campus in the country got the technology to do instant text and phone alerts. Once members of the public realize the technology is available to help them find the nearest tube station or coffee shop, how will you answer the question of where they can find a shelter in a storm, the fastest way to evacuate, location for clean water, nearest medical facilities with empty beds, closest location to get flu shot, etc, etc, etc.

I know many would just as soon the technology bus slow down a little. It's not, and that means we all have to keep moving.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Risk and Response to Fake Twitter Accounts

It is very clear that more and more emergency management professionals and PIOs are adopting Twitter as one of an increasing array of options to communicate during a major event. There are very good reasons for this, but there are also dangers. The risks include liability if/when used for calls for help (see previous post), unreliability (Twitter is frequently down), spammers, fake Twitter accounts, and information discipline (reviews, approvals and NIMS compliance).

The issue of fake Twitter accounts is potentially significant one and it affects everyone in emergency management and communication regardless of whether or not you have a Twitter account. In fact, having a Twitter account is one of the best ways of combating this risk. In presentations I've pointed to organizations such as ExxonMobil and Los Angeles County Fire Department who have been victims of fake Twitter accounts. Now there is this story about the Washington Capitals hockey players victimized by fake accounts.

For those not familiar with Twitter or how this can happen, Twitter is a web site where anyone can sign up to own an account. For example, you can go to Twitter.com and register for twitter.com/yourname and as long as no one else has "yourname" you got it. Then you can post messages via text, email or website to that website and others can get your messages automatically sent to them when they register to "follow you." It was designed primarily for friends and family to keep up with each other and in fact about 50% of Twitter posts, called "tweets" are about what sandwich the tweeter is eating or how much she is enjoying her triple grande caramel machiatto.

Following high profile use of Twitter by government agencies such as Los Angeles Fire Department, it has now become very common for government agencies to use Twitter and to prepare to use it in major emergencies. But, whether you intend to use it or are using it or never heard of it, the fake Twitter accounts could impact you directly. At a drill not long ago with a metro area, as a member of the simulation cell (or "truth") for the JIC, I threw in an inject where a fake Twitter account was set up with the name of the response agency and started posting false information about the number of fatalities in the plane crash scenario. The JIC in this case did not even plan a website, particularly in the early hours of the response, and this inject caused some real consternation. The question was, how do we combat this false information when those receiving the tweets have no way of knowing it is not coming from us?

One answer might be: "Ignore because no one uses Twitter and everyone knows that what happens on the internet isn't true." The reality is that the media use Twitter alot, in fact Twitter for the media has become the new police scanner that is fed by millions rather than a few police dispatchers. Numerous news stories have begun (US Airways Flight 1549 for example) have been started with a tweet and have been fed by multiple tweets. It is simply not something that can be ignored. In the case of a fake Twitter account posing as a voice of the response, in this hurry-up world of instant news coverage, the media will go with the information and ask questions later.

So, what can you do?
1) Understand that this is real, and a potentially serious threat to your response and the communication about it.
2) Get a Twitter account now and start using it--because as the above story indicates, the best defense is your own account with the real information and where you can inform those following that the other is false
3) Use your website--your website should be the final authoritative source of info and your tweets and all else should feed back to it. This only works if you keep it fully updated to the minute.
4) Monitor and respond--rumor management is becoming one of the most important jobs of PIOs and that means instant monitoring and super fast response to false information. That's why you need a Twitter account you control plus a website that you fully control and can continually update. Plus, you need the monitoring tools, both free and subscription, that are essential today.
5) Watch for and press for Verified Accounts--Twitter seems ridiculously slow in responding to this challenge. I think it may be seen as violating the openness and freedom that the internet crowd so highly values. But there are signs they are working toward a Verified Account approach--the LAFD site states that it is verified but not sure what that means yet. When/if this is available, jump on it so you can reserve your right to represent your agency directly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Learning from emergency managers and what happens when Facebook replaces 9-1-1?

Just returned from spending time with 200 emergency managers at the Kansas Emergency Management Association conference where I was honored to be the keynote speaker. Thanks to Chuck Magaha, in-coming president and Andy Bailey of the National Weather Service for the invite. Since I usually deal mostly with PIOs and communicators, it was a wonderful opportunity to hang out with emergency managers and try to see information management from their perspective a little more. I was very pleased with the response and their openness and interest in the dramatic changes taking place in public information management.

One of my key messages was in this instant news world and world of social networking, it is critical to be fast but you cannot really be fast enough to beat the way information is spread today. Several came up to me after the presentation with real life examples of this. One told me that the night before the conference he had responded to a double fatality accident of teenagers driving out in the country. Before the authorities were able to gather the information needed to notify the parents, they found that the parents were already at the hospital. The information networks just work too fast for authorities to keep up with them.

Another issue we briefly touched on was the emerging issue of liability and public expectation around use of social media such as Twitter to call for help. I raised this issue on Crisisblogger a while back when the Coast Guard blogged about the issue, asking the question: are we expected to respond if someone Twitters that they are in need of rescue? Then, this morning the story about what just happened in Australia came to my attention. Two young girls, ages 10 and 12, got caught in a drain. Instead of dialing Triple Zero (Australia's 9-1-1) on the cellphone they had with them, they texted to their Facebook page. Some friends saw it, called the authorities and the girls were rescued. I explored this issue a little further on today's Crisisblogger, but I suspect this issue of liability to respond and more importantly, public expectations about using these new forms of communication for cries for help will not go away soon. I don't think we will be able to shrug it off easily. I'll be watching for the media outcry that may come when someone complains "well, I asked for help but they wouldn't respond." More to come on this issue, for sure.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Is Building Public Trust a Battle?

I'm preparing for my presentation to 200 emergency managers at the Kansas Emergency Management Association conference. This is a great opportunity to address Incident Commanders and response leaders who bear the ultimate responsibility in an event, including over all communication. I'm focusing on the tremendous changes in technology--most around the internet and social media--and how these changes have completely changed the rules of the game of public information management and the operation of a Joint Information Center.

My title is "Winning the Trust War," and frankly I'm a little apprehensive to describe the challenges of public information management in such dramatic terms, but I'm finding it difficult to avoid this analogy. I wanted to draw attention to how technology changes have brought dramatic changes to how battles are warfare is conducted--using the examples of Agincourt in 1415, the Civil War in 1865 and of course, the atomic bomb in 1945. Too many great leaders learned too late the meaning of these profound technology changes.

But warfare or a battle implies a clearly defined enemy and on this basis can the analogy be applied to communicating during a crisis or major disaster? Public trust during and after an event is dependent on two things: an effective response and effective communication about that response. Have either one without the other and trust will be lost. Looking at it this way failure of trust is either a failure to respond adquately or a failure to communicate adequately about the response. Not exactly a battle. But, communicating about a response can begin to resemble a battle when their are "enemies" who are opposing your efforts to build trust. And this is frequently the case--to frequently.

I've been to many emergency management conferences where they talk about making the media your partner in public information. Great idea, however, it should be very clearly remembered that it is not the media's role to support your efforts and to have the public trust you. In fact, frequently their real job interferes with your goal and then they can and do become an opponent. All news media (including serious bloggers) have to work very hard to get an audience. When you depend on ad revenue, it is a life or death matter--and the mainstream media have been losing this battle making them all the more intent and desperate. The way they compete is on the basis of speed and attention-getting stories and headlines. Too slow, and you lose the audience. Too boring, you lose the audience. Is it any wonder then that CNN on Sept 11, 2009 would report globally that shots were being fired by the Coast Guard when all they knew about was a private radio channel going "bang! bang!" The need for speed is too great, the need to build audiences more important in a case like this than their own credibility.

The other way to build is to make certain what you report is news worthy. Tell me, what is more "news worthy" in the sense of getting audience attention--a headline that says "Government responders doing an outstanding job" or "Public needs being ignored"? I know if my job and cable channel were on the line, which story I would opt for.

I'm not saying that the news media are irresponsible or that they don't provide a valuable service and that they cannot be great partners in emergency communications. But I am saying that one needs to be careful and clearly, very clearly understand, that their job is not your job and your job is not their job. Yours is to build trust, theirs is to build an audience--and those two goals sometimes conflict.

There is one other way in which response communication can resemble a battle and that is when there are active and aggressive opponents to your effort to build trust. Let me ask a simple question. Are there people in your community or around the world who could stand to gain by embarrassing or damaging the trust of your agency or any high profile individual publicly associated with it? I'mn guessing there might be, even if it might be rival politicians. I know of one excellent response whose public perception has been forever tainted by very high level attacks of elected officials who used this incident to try and embarrass their political opponents. And what would the media do in such a situation? Well, this is the kind of "controversy" that can help sell papers---oops, I mean get traffic to the news website.

No, not every JIC faces a battle, or every emergency involve active opposition. But to pretend these situations don't and can't exist is naive. Understanding that building trust can be like a battle, it becomes critically important to understand how technology has upset the rules of the game. And that's what I hope to communicate in Topeka on Wednesday.