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

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 and register for 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.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A 9/11 Legacy--Coast Guard exercise and lessons for those planning drills

Today marks the somber anniversary of eight years ago. And many were greeted this morning with breaking news about shots fired near President Obama's motorcade as it crossed the Potomac. Flights at nearby Reagan National were put on ground halt status, FBI and Secret Service put on high alert.

There, were of course, no shots fired and the scare was caused by a routine Coast Guard exercise that happened to coincide with the president's travel plans. The scare was in fact caused by CNN scanning a Coast Guard radio channel used for training purposes where they heard reports of ten shots fired. Now the Coast Guard is on the defensive trying to explain why an exercise was conducted there at that time was actually routine, why it was not communicated to other authorities, and how the training exercise got picked up by the news media and misinterpreted. They are saying the only thing they really can say at this point which is that the incident is being reviewed.

We're all a little bit jumpy, aren't we? CNN certain seems to me to be jumpy and unwilling apparently to accept any culpability in this scare. What happened to verifying before you report? It is no longer part of the reporting game and can't be when you compete against everybody with a smart phone, cell camera and Twitter account. They will almost certainly continue to take the position that if they were fooled by overhearing training radio talk it was someone else's fault for allowing them to be fooled. I may not be happy with their lack of acceptance of their responsibility in it, but that is the reality that emergency managers and particularly drill planners have to face today.

So the message is, in this jumpy environment, be careful with your drills and exercises. Be aware of how creating a realistic scenario can be interpreted. The military needs to be careful when the exercise their forces in mock attacks that they don't scare the bejesus out of the population. I was in a cross-border drill one day that involved a scenario of an anthrax release at the international border crossing. All drill participants were in a hotel near the border without any use of internet or phones or any contact with the outside world. But a couple of drill participants went to the restroom during a break and were discussing the scenario. They were overheard by someone in the restroom who was not part of the drill and soon there was minor panic in the hotel. The lesson: even while you are in the restroom preface everything with: THIS IS A DRILL.

It's tough to simulate distribution of public and media information while keeping the information tight--but it is essential. Again, clearly label everything and all info, including that intended to stay behind closed doors as a drill. There are some good and effective ways of simulating mass distributions including through Twitter and other social media. The key is to plan it well to be as realistic in interaction with the outside world as you can without making the big mistake of getting caught on CNN and making national news.

The most important lesson is to understand that in today's hyper news environment the rule is report now, blame others later. So, be careful out there.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

LA Fires and Honda show risks of social media use

As mentioned earlier, last week I had a front row seat to the LA fires while working in the area and staying in Pasadena. It was interesting to see first hand the work of some of the agencies involved, the local media coverage and the criticism of some prominent elected officials and others of the public information management and the media coverage.

But what intrigued me most was some comments sent by a respected associate and PIO concerning the Forest Service's use of social media as part of their public information efforts. A Facebook page was launched and from what I can see effectively used as part of the communication effort for the Station Fire. But I was asked specifically about the nature of some of the comments on a site like this and given that some of the comments are in the nature of what I have called "toxic talk" the question is using sites like this appropriate.

While it is a little old now, it reminded me of something else going on in social media along with the fires and that was the announcement of a new model of Honda cars. Honda, like everyone else these day, is employing social media to communicate about anything and everything including this new model called the Accord Crosstour. Problem was, apparently at least some commenting on their Facebook page decided it was a very ugly vehicle.

I've commented frequently on crisisblogger on "toxic talk," and this phenomenon is certainly one of the risks of using social media. The question is since there is this percentage of the population who seem to be exceptionally angry, rude, full of negative opinions and no compunction about using disgusting language, why should we give them a platform to use to poison others. I'm sure Honda folks were thinking twice about social media as a result of the trash talk.

This kind of experience will no doubt cause some to steer away from using social media. In my mind, that misses the point and represents head in the sand. The conversation goes on and the question is whether or not to participate. And the conversation will go on whether or not it is your Facebook page or Twitter page or any other opportunity you allow for comment. If it is not in your backyard, it will be somewhere else and that itself raises an important question.

At the same time, if it is your backyard in my mind you have a right to control what happens there. I have deleted inappropriate and disrespectful comments from my blog site and have no problem explaining to those who visit that this is my house and I want them to respect my rules. Saying that, it is important to understand that the value system of many who use social media is different than mine in some respects. They are not easily offended with bad language, they seem to revel in "lively" discourse and above all the respect complete freedom and openness of expression.

I don't think the risks of social media as seen in these examples will or should keep emergency management operations from using them. I do believe it is right and appropriate to moderate comments and state the basis for the moderation. Tell the rules but try and understand the values that your audience holds and not just your own. Give a little, but also hold the line.