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.

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