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.

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