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 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.