Friday, July 31, 2009

How fast is the news?

Just had an interesting discussion about the speed of news today--a continual and favored topic of mine. We were talking about the New York Times News Alert--their email alert system where you can sign up and get quick emails about breaking news stories. But I also signed up for a Twitter news alert called Breaking News On or Since I'm not on Twitter all the time (thank goodness) I also signed up for their email alerts. What I found is that BNO consistently beats NYT by as much as a half hour with their email alerts.

Most of you reading this--if you got through all the junk about email alerts and Twitter and all that--are saying big deal. Most people will go home, pick up their newspapers or watch the evening news and what difference does the half hour make? Well, a lot actually. But the person I was talking to was 32 years old (my son actually) and he said, if they miss it by a half an hour I want to know what else they are missing and if I can really trust them?

The truth is all news organizations today compete on the basis of speed. If they are not covering what is happening right now, they lose their audience. If they lose their audience they lose their advertising revenues and they go out of business. But, if they are not immediate they also lose their credibility. Isn't it amazing that a 19 year (that is who runs BNO) sitting in a dark room with a whole bunch of computer monitors can consistently beat the major news organizations with breaking news. They beat LA Times on the Michael Jackson story by half an hour.

But, pity the New York Times and your local daily. They have to compete not only with a dedicated and nimble 19 year old, but with literally millions of citizens out there with cell cameras and videos and who know how to post to their blog, YouTube or Flickr in an instant. That's where the news is coming from these days. Want to know what that 19 year old is scanning for all that news? Yes, the internet and all the news stories that emerge virtually instantaneously.

The implications for crisis management is immense. When the big event happens, anyone who observes becomes not just a journalist, but the media itself. They are the broadcaster. In literally seconds or minutes at most, what they broadcast is picked up by the likes of BNO and their competitors. Then, about 20 minutes later, the NYT and LAT will be sending an email alert out to the world. If it is big enough, the cable channels, local channels and every news site worth its salt will be sending the news about your big event. And what will you be doing? Trying to assemble your PIOs and trying to form a JIC.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When communication causes more problems

One of the biggest questions facing crisis and response leaders is when communication can cause more harm than good. For example, some companies are aware of a bad situation brewing but it hasn't hit the papers--yet--and may not. If you go out and talk about it, you may bring attention to something that might quietly go away. But, if you don't and it explodes, one of the first questions you will have to answer is why didn't you tell us about this.

I'm generally going to fall on the side of communicating early and often, because I have seen that is one of the most important things in building trust. I'm also going to strongly support the idea that if there is bad news to be told, tell it yourself rather than letting someone else (like the media) tell it for you.

That being said, sometimes organizations speak out when they should just be quiet. One case in point recently is Horizon Realty. When an upset tenant tweeted (that's using Twitter for those who may not know) a complaint, the company sued for $50,000. Problem is the twitterer-complainer only had 22 followers, so at the most a handful of people would have seen her complaint. Now, due to their own stupidity, the rest of the world knows about it and knows her complaint as well. To make things a whole lot worse, their spokesperson said, "we're a sue first, ask questions later sort of organization."

Hmmm, sometimes it's just better to be quiet. For more on this, I've also blogged at crisisblogger.

Monday, July 27, 2009

My Links

Here are a few links that may be of interest:

My Blog:
Here I blog about crises, the media and public information environment, what I'm learning from others, and an occasional more personal note. Been doing this for over three years.

PIER System:
PIER is a web-based communication management system used by lots of agencies and companies for crisis communication, daily public affairs, employee security, business continuity and other purposes. I designed this system and created the company in 2000. Currently serve as Director of Strategic Services focusing on consulting, training, crisis planning, EPIAs, drills and exercises.

My crisis communication book: Now is Too Late2: Survival in an Era of Instant News
I've been told its a valuable guide to the instant news world and how to deal with it. Hoping to complete a brand new version...sometime.

My marketing and public relations firm:
Twenty seven years old and still going strong. Now under the capable leadership of Jason Glover and Chris Bothell.

Key Messages--Let's Just Lay Them Out There

Crisis and emergency response communicators are taught early on to focus on key messages. There are lots of good reasons for this. Risk communication research shows that when stressed our ability to take in a remember information is limited. So keep it simple! Media training always demonstrates that a good editor can make you say almost anything they want--so keep it short and simple and only say what you want them to use.

As this is my first blog post for Crisis Comm I want to share my key messages. I'm taking the risk of you thinking it's all I have to say. Never fear, there always seems to be more to explore around these three key ideas. So here they are:
1) Speed
2) Direct communication
3) Transparency

Actually, I can get it down to even two things: tell it fast, tell it straight.

It would be my fondest hope that every Incident Commander, every crisis manager,
Every PIO and every head of public affairs would adopt that as their crisis communication mantra. Most of what you read in this blog (and I hope you do and also comment) is going to be about those three elements.

Here is my greatest concern about the current practice of crisis communication in both the public and private sectors: those making decisions don't get it. They don't get the rapid changes in the media world and public information management. They don't really understand the revolutionary changes in how people get information. They don't understand how information demands and expectations are totally and completely different than they were just a few short years ago. Even if their communication folks, PIOs or Directors of Public Affairs, are on top of things, it doesn't mean the right strategies will be used or right decisions will be made. That's because in the heat of the battle, things move fast and there isn't time for education or even a lot of strategy discussion. So the leaders, the Commanders or CEOs or heads of Crisis Response Teams will make the decisions that they are most comfortable with. They will base those on their understanding of the world. They'll be shipping packages via Pony Express in a FedEx world--and then be amazed afterwards at the disappointment.

I'm hoping this blog will make a difference in helping prepare decision makers for their critical moments. If you are a PIO or Public Affairs director and you "get it" then I'm here to help you help your execs. If you are an exec or Incident Commander, then please hang in there with me on this because the difference may very well be how you and your organization emerge from the big one.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Your Crisis Comm Blogger

Welcome to Emergency Management's new website and my new blog Crisis Comm.

I doubt there are very many young people who say I really want a career in crisis communication. I certainly didn't start that way and like most of the incredible professionals I've gotten to know in this field got to be crisis or emergency communication professionals by accident. Often, by a real accident.

The critical moment for me was just ten years ago, June 10, 1999. That's when a large gasoline pipeline from the four refineries in our area blew up, killing two boys and a young man. I was immediately called into action because I was a public relations contractor for the company managing the line--having been called into help with them after an industrial accident a year earlier with six fatalities.

It was almost literally trial by fire. I learned about ICS (now NIMS) and JICs and all the jargon and acronyms emergency response is famous for. Mostly I learned what the instant news environment was like. It was not a pretty picture. How in the world can organizations keep pace with the way news--in particular bad news--travels today? And if it was instant ten years ago, it has gotten to be nano-instant now. Out of this I created a web-based crisis communication system that has become the industry standard for emergency response communications and still the only Virtual JIC solution. I wrote a book that has been very well received in crisis communications circles called "Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News." And I started a blog called "Crisisblogger."

Being invited to blog for Emergency Management is an honor and a privilege. In the past ten years I have been extremely fortunate to work directly with some of the very best in this business of public affairs, crisis communication and emergency response communications. Communicators and executives from large federal agencies like the US Coast Guard to major oil companies, universities, Departments of Emergency Management, non-profits like the American Red Cross and many others. One thing I know for certain--I don't have the answers, but the experts I work with probably do. It will be my job here as I understand to take the best of their thinking, their strategies and approaches, their use of the best technologies and apply them to the rapidly changing world of crisis and emergency response communications. As such, I'm a conduit and a conduit is only as good as the juice flowing through it. So I hope to hear from you, learn from you and share what I have learned with others.

Let's get acquainted.