Monday, August 31, 2009

Live from the Station Fire in Los Angeles

I find myself in a hotel in Pasadena where from the street I can see the flames from the Station Fire leaping into the sky. I'm in LA for a series of meetings with government agencies about emergency communications--so it's pure coincidence to be here at this time. But it does provide a unique opportunity to watch the dynamics of media coverage, PIO and JIC work, and local reaction.

1. Comment from an evacuee: The hotel I am in has opened its doors to evacuees and a little while ago I overheard one talking to someone on his cellphone. He said, I'm not paying any attention to the media because they are always getting it wrong. They don't know what is going on." I'm not saying that's true, just reporting what one observation was.

2. Media sensationalism. Hey, this fire is pretty spectacular, scary, dangerous and deadly (two fire fighters died last night in a vehicle accident). Personally, I'm very afraid for Mount Wilson, not just for the millions in communications equipment, but for the potentially devastasting historical loss. Last year I visited the Mt. Wilson observatory where Einstein once hung out, where Edwin Hubble discovered our expanding universe and where the Big Bang theory became accepted. To lose this historic treasure would be tragic. But, watching the tv and newspaper reports is disheartening to see how substance has been exchanged for anything that will glue eyes to the screen or get someone to pick up a newspaper out of the stand. I emailed a picture of the Pasadena Star-News in the news stand to my crisisblogger blog to make the point. You will see what I mean when you read the headline. TV is no better. I am stunned by the lack of content about the fire and what is being done about it. But the video from helicopters, the reporters standing with flames leaping behind them, that is all impressive.
(Later note: can't really believe the careless of some of the reporting. One onscene reporter consistently reported the fires as having burned 140 acres instead of 140,000 acres as of today (9/2) but was never corrected by any of the anchors.)

3. PIO. There certainly have been examples of stand up interviews by both fire captains and PIOs. Some good things observed, some not so good. Best thing was seeing Capt Tom Brady in full fire fighting gear, obviously dirty from the ash and smoke, giving some reassuring messages about homes being protected. Great job. Worst was a Cal Fire PIO who when asked was going to happen next to fight the fire went into considerable detail about the change in Incident Command team, the new operational period, the return of the previous team to their normal jobs and the transition to a new team. The reporter kept coming back and trying to get an answer as to what this had to do with fighting the fire. Important lesson here: while your job as PIO may be to talk about the response actions, most are not too interested at this stage of an event of getting a behind the scenes look at the operation of the EOC or Command Post. He needed to say who was in danger, if anyone, what was being done now and in the immediate future to protect people's lives and property, and what actions were being taken to get this darn thing under control. He needed to say these things even if the reporter was asking stupid questions. But, the reporter was asking the right questions and was getting the wrong answers. PIOs need to be thinking about what is important to the public, and not what will play well when the interview is played back to Command. Not saying that was the case here. I think it was more a matter of a PIO being too close to the response in thinking and not close enough to the public--a very easy mistake to make.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Three Events that Changed Our World

I've been working on several webinars, keynote addresses and seminar presentations coming up--not surprisingly all are in one way or another dealing with the issue of social media in crisis and emergency communications.

I have found myself focusing on three key events of the last few years that I have think have dramatically changed our world. Like most events that are seen as catalysts in history, in retrospect it is easy to see the factors that contributed to the changes and they seem inevitable. But still, it was those events that brought some invisible changes to the surface and accelerated the adoption of innovations and the underlying factors.

OK--so what are they? What three would you point at as having a dramatic impact on the world of public information management, crisis communication and emergency response communication? Don't cheat--think about your answer first.

Here are mine: Virginia Tech, Flight 1549 and the California fires beginning in May 2007.

Since I need to keep this post brief, I will just introduce these and ask you to comment as to why you think these events were particularly significant. I can tell you in most of these situations, the real reason for the significance may not be immediately obvious. More to come on this.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Twitter and Social Media in Drills

Just working on some planning issues with a colleague on one of the major national-level drills being planned for 2010. There is a debate going on about incorporating social media into the drill or not. Clearly some would rather not for understandable reasons--the sound of worms escaping from cans is clearly audible.

My position is clear: if the purpose of a drill is to create a realistic practice situation, you cannot possibly do a communication or Joint Information Center (JIC) drill these days without social media. Period. For the simple reason that almost any conceivable significant event will not only involve social media, the communication side will largely be driven by social media.

Reasons: 1) the media all monitor Twitter and social media for what's happening and no more so than during a major event. They will be reporting mostly what they find online.
2) 300 million or so "citizen journalists" with cell phones and cameras are increasingly the first reporters of major events (witness USA Airways Flight 1549 reported by Twitter user)
3) Social media is a primary component of how communities affected by an event come together, support each other and get the latest info--not from official sources but from each other (check out J. Sutton's papers on this website for proof)
4) Social media including problem tweeters and bloggers will be the source of significant work required of the JIC

Emergency managers have a huge problem in dealing with this. They typically know almost nothing about social media. And they don't like to deal with things they don't know anything about. Especially when their abilities are being publicly tested in a drill. Keep the circumstances controlled.

PIOs and communicators themselves are having a heck of a time trying to get their arms around it. Where do you find the consultants and experts who can help figure out how to deal with this stuff, let alone how to plan a realistic exercise that incorporates these things? It's a lot easier to stick your head in the sand and pretend these issues don't exist. But, then, the real world jumps up to bite you in a real event and everyone looks at each other and says, why didn't we know about this? Why didn't we prepare for this?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Russian Power Plant Disaster

Emergency managers and communicators the world over are likely watching the disaster unfold at the Sayano-Shushenskaya plant in Siberia. As I write this there are 8 confirmed deaths and 54 are missing. It is Russia's largest hydroelectric plant and feeds power to large aluminum plants in Siberia.

Why is this disaster important for emergency managers and PIOs today?

1) A few years ago such a disaster in a remote part of the world like Siberia, with news coming out of Russia, would be relatively unknown. We live in a global village and we can view video of such an event bringing it even closer to home. Lesson: Local events instantly become global events--and that means your disaster will too.

2) Hydroelectric power plants execs and PIOs need to prepare right now for the inevitable question from their local and even national media: Could this happen here? What impacts would be created if it did? Would you also not know where 54 workers were? What environmental damage would occur? What are you doing to protect lives and the environment? Every event of this magnitude brings attention to the risks of all others in the same or similar categories. When Virginia Tech shooting occurred, nearly every president of every college and university was asked if they would be able to alert students and faculty of the danger on their campus. This resulted in text notification business skyrocketing. Lesson: Prepare to answer questions for a Russian event as if it happened to you.

3) Where are the 54 workers? What is astounding to me is that at this hour they do not know how many are dead or missing because they do not know the location of 54 workers. If this happened in the US and I was a reporter, this is where I would focus in. What do you mean you don't know where they are? It instinctively looks like inadequate safety. Whether justified or not, managers of large facilities with many employees are having to account for them all the time in all conditions. I know one facility that has planned on putting RFID devices on plant staff to know their precise location all the time. In the near future, these will be tied to proximity-based notification alert systems so that those in danger will be given immediate instructions. Lesson: Employee security is a huge deal. Lesson: Know how you would answer this question and be prepared to be grilled by the media, families, investors and employees on what you are doing to protect employees and account for them at all times.

4) Environmental and economic damage. While the focus here is on the loss of life, this is one of those dreadful events that involves three significant outcomes together: loss of life, significant environmental damage and significant economic loss. In other words, worst case scenario. This virtually ensures that whoever is responsible will be dealing with the aftermath of this for a long, long time to come. After today, there may be no more international media on it--even as the death toll likely will mount. That's because today's media is completely focused on the immediate. They will be off onto some other global disaster or celebrity death. But the communication job, the repairing of trust, the legal issues, the long term impacts for those involved will go on for years and years. Lesson: the media comes and goes, but the job of recovery goes on and on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's All About Trust

I was asked today to provide some comments about crisis management and crisis communication for an eastern European management magazine. There were some good questions that ultimately came down to a simple question: what works? What strategies do organizations employ that enable them to come out of a crisis in the best shape possible.

Here is my answer to that fundamental question--in about a short of form as I can make it:

First, it is important to understand what "success" in coming out of a crisis looks like. A major crisis affects an organization similar to how a major personal crisis affects an individual. It changes us sometimes in very profound ways. CEOs and executive leaders of businesses tend to think about the impact of a crisis on the value of their brand and their share value. If this is the focus, then the goal is to emerge from a crisis with the brand enhanced, the reputation of the company improved as a result of the crisis and the share value stable or increasing after the crisis.

What does that take? An important study from Oxford University in the 1990s demonstrated the impact of crises on share value. They looked at why some company's share value went down and never recovered and the share value of others was not affected long term by the crisis. The key difference was the perception of the character of the company as seen through the actions of its leaders. This is very important. Essentially the question in shareholder's minds is: do I trust these people to make the right decisions? Right decisions about protecting the safety and well-being of people, the environment and other things I hold important? And do I trust them to protect my interest as a shareholder? For government agencies the issue is similar except their "customers" are the ones who make funding decisions. After Katrina, some agencies lost funding. Others, like the US Coast Guard, received substantial additional funding because of the perception of competence coming out of the event.

This is why I believe that trust is the most important thing to focus on in preparing to respond to a crisis, in managing the response, and in the recovery phase. Trust is dependent on two things: right action and effective communication.

What is right action and who will decide what is right? It is not management who will decide whether what was done in the crisis was right or not. Employees and the families will decide. Major shareholders will decide. Government regulators will decide. Reporters and journalists will decide. Customers will decide. Congress members our Council members will decide.

These are key stakeholders and one of the most important things in preparing for a crisis is to ask the question: who are the people whose opinion of us matters most for our future? These people should be the whole focus of thinking and preparation. What will these people consider right action? There is no better, simpler way of answering this than the age old wisdom: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, right action is determined by their values, by their ideas of right and wrong, and their view of management's concern for others.

Right action alone does not result in trust. Because if no one knows about it, it is the same as if it never happened. Again, focusing on those key stakeholders, it is critical that in a crisis they be kept closely informed of the events and the leadership's response to those events. Leadership must be visible, and they must be seen making the right decisions. In today's instant news world where more and more get their people through the Internet in very direct ways, it is absolute essential that organizations establish a direct line of communication with their key stakeholders. They must be very, very fast. If they are not, the story will be told by others and it may not be true. They must communicate directly--not like the old days when it was assumed that communication goes through the media. And they must be transparent. In this day of so much access to information, it is difficult if not impossible to hide bad news. And to do so, or even to look like you may be hiding bad news, is to lose all credibility and trust.

The lessons of crisis management are really obvious--through the good stories and bad stories. We all want those in responsible positions to be open, honest and truthful. We want them to make good decisions. We want to be able to trust them and know that when we depend on them, we are in good hands.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Are you in government? Do you tweet?

I'll be presenting a national webinar on Twitter in Government Communications for Government Educator on Sept 1. (More info if interested). I work with quite a few government communicators--some who tweet, some who don't and some who say, "Huhn?"

I'd like to go beyond telling about these communicators whom I am already familiar with and try to get a better reading on how government communicators are using Twitter, what their experience is and what they are thinking about it. This was made more urgent by the announcement yesterday of the Dept of Defense having big concerns about all social media and the Marines outright banning it (see my previous post here).

So, if you are a government communicator I need your help. Please complete this very brief survey. If you are not a gov communicator but know of one or two or more, please forward this link on. Any who participate and request the results will get copies of the report.

If you'd rather not do the survey but want to let me know your thoughts on this, you can reach me at

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Social Media in Government

Government communications has been changed forever. That's true of emergency response and crisis communication as it daily media, public and stakeholder communication. Everyone I know involved in government communications is struggling with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and all the other social media channels. Today, that struggle hit major media including this story on Wired's site. And late today (Tuesday) news from CNN that the Marines have banned Twitter.

Of course, security is a huge issue. The government is spending tremendous money in trying to protect against cyber attacks. Recently we saw North Korea launch a ham-handed attack against Federal websites. But to attempt to ban social media channels for security reasons is tantamount to requiring all broadcast channels to shut down because of concern that an enemy will find a way to assume control and take over our world through propaganda. OK, maybe the analogy isn't appropriate, but the point is that the security wonks have been spending too much time in their cubicles and haven't gotten out into the real world lately.

The White House, as an example, has as many or more secrets as our Department of Defense. In fact, when you think about it, all the big secrets are going to end up there. But the Obama administration has led the charge in adopting new channels including all the ones I mentioned. Truth is, a couple of weeks ago, the talk on Twitter was that the White House announced a press conference on Twitter at least a half hour before they got around to letting the media know through normal channels. Maybe the security people in the Pentagon ought to get out of their offices and have a chat with their counterparts at the White House.

The world is changing. Those security folks need to understand that in the recent H1N1 flu outbreak, the public used the internet to get information more than most traditional channels, and they found information coming via the internet the most complete and most helpful. The CDC won kudos among the public and communication experts for its excellent use of numerous social media channels to distribute vital information. Similarly, the US Coast Guard, FEMA and other government agencies have adopted social media as key elements of their communication processes. DOD will as well. The directive of Secretary Gates to the security team: keep us secure without throwing us back into the dark ages. It's your job to find out how.

By the way, thanks to Tim O'Leary of O'Brien's Response Management for alerting me to this issue.