Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You're Not the Only One Struggling with Social Media

Either you are watching all the activity and trends in social media or you, well, you are sticking your head in the sand. There is no doubt that social media (really just a way of describing how people are using the internet to connect with each other and get info) is dramatically changing our lives in multiple ways including how we do business with each other, work together, and communicate with the public. But, if you are having a hard time trying to figure it all out and make sense of it, particularly what it means to doing your job tomorrow, you are not the only one.

Here's a great summary on how our government and Members of Congress in particular are struggling with keeping up with the changes. There are many other sources where you can find how government is using technology including social media. One good twitter source I've found is

But there are strong hints all around about what all this means, particularly for those of us in emergency and crisis communications. One is: Go Direct. No need to mess with the middleman--the media. (How appropriate they should be called the media--a medium, like a channeler. Why go through the medium when you can talk direct to the ghost or intended audience?) Here's a blog post about writing press releases, but in the middle of the writer makes this point:

"While there is still value in the press release as a PR or online marketing tactic, there are more effective options for communicating with external audiences. For starters, your blog should be the new place you break news. Look at how organizations like Google or Twitter announce new products or major company announcements – they post to their blogs. Google doesn’t formally issue any press releases. They don’t need to, their audiences subscribe to their blogs.

Blogs are very effective platforms for announcing your news, because they come with built-in analytics and sharing capabilities most traditional news releases don’t (at least not for free). Once you post to your blog, people can easily link to, share, or comment on your post instantly. This is the fastest option for getting your announcement into the hands of people most likely to pass the word along. You’ll also have access to real-time information on your reach through any standard Web analytics package, such as Google analytics."

You don't have to worry about blogging during a crisis event but you do have to have an event-specific website or a Joint Information Center site and you do need to post up to date information very frequently on that which is what blogging is. The point is, why not go direct to your audiences? They want you to and the more you think about the quality of coverage you may have experienced in the past, the more sense it will make to you as well. The good news is social media makes that option not only more viable, but a virtual requirement.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Now Citizen Journalists Have Their Own Channel--YouTube Direct

Last week YouTube announced that it was launching YouTube Direct, a new service that looks to be aimed at making citizen journalism and even greater factor in our lives.

I've also blogged on this on crisisblogger because I think this is a significant milestone in the inexorable march to a post media, as in post mainstream media, world. Certainly the mainstream media (CNN, ABC, NYT website) etc. will be using this to enlist the aid of 300 million plus citizen journalists out there who happen to be carrying cell phones with video cameras. YouTube Direct makes it easier than ever for them to get the big story videos from them but also enables them to request them. Those looking for attention, notoriety, a boost in a new career can look at what stories the media assignment editors are looking for and go get them for them.

But even more significant than this is realizing that channels like YouTube are becoming the mainstream media. What is available to the media is available to you, me and everyone else who has an interest in whatever is being reported. Faster, more direct and conceivably more easily searchable.

The process of instant access to relevant information is already well established. It is completely changing the rules of crisis communication as has been discussed here and is discussed on any blog talking about the new communication realities. But emergency managers have an even more complex and confusing issue to face: how to respond when the public knows more than you do? Think about that for a minute. Those impacted by almost any major event for which you are preparing will increasingly have instantaneous access to an overwhelming amount of reporting. Everyone is a reporter, everyone is an audience and the distinction between them is disappearing. How will your plans and actions as someone responsible for the lives and health and safety of citizens be changed as a result of the high levels of information available to them?

That's the critically important subject I hope we can explore together here in the next little while.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Warning Messages--Risks of Wimpiness and Wolf Cries

The article on this website about Flood Control messages reminded me of a presentation by a FEMA executive about the public warnings issued just prior to Hurricane Ike in Galveston. We were presenting together at a crisis communication conference for federal agencies in Washington DC and he was discussing how emergency managers involved in preparing for the imminent arrival of Ike were trying to warn the public to evacuate.

Getting people to evacuate from a major storm like this has long been a challenge. So the discussion was how to motivate people. He showed the messages that were put out to the people along the area most likely to be hit hardest, particularly Galveston. The message essentially said: Evacuate or you will die. The discussion was whether or not this kind of straightforward and very dire message was effective.

There is little doubt that the seriousness of the simplicity of the message helped some people make the decision to evacuate. However, 14,000 people in the Houston area chose to ride out the storm and over 2000 had to be rescued. Approximately 120 lives were lost including about 40 in the Galveston area. So, despite the dire warning, many chose to ignore it and indeed lives were lost.

What troubled me about the message was the impact in the future if such a message were deemed as crying wolf. There is no doubt that the evacuation traffic jams from Hurricane Katrina in the Houston area were very much on people's minds and played a major role in making the decision to evacuate or not. That in itself is a tremendously important lesson for emergency managers. Assuming management of the mass evacuation for Ike was much improved what might have been even more effective is a strong communication effort aimed at letting the public know that evacuation would not be a huge pain to them.

While there was probably justification in some sense of accomplishment that the simple and exceptionally strong warning to the public resulted in lives saved, there should be concern with the fact that many chose to ride out this storm and lived to tell about it. What will be the impact next time when the public sees the warning--heed this or you WILL die?

PIOs and Incident Commanders need to carefully think through the messages distributed to the public in these kinds of events. They need to understand what is going on in people's heads, what reasons they have for taking unwarranted risks and why they will or will not heed the warnings. And one thing they must be careful of is not to damage the credibility of the agencies and the power of future warnings by crying wolf.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Incalculable Debt--thanks Veterans!

Happy Veteran's Day everyone. I'm so grateful for this special day as a way for us as a nation and community to express honor and gratitude to those among us who have secured our freedom.

I want to especially thank those World War II veterans who are still with us. They are getting fewer and fewer and those who remain are precious treasures that link us to some of the darkest and perhaps most glorious days of our history. I've been a history buff all my life and particularly WWII history, in part I am sure because my father lived through Nazi occupation in Holland in his formative years. I'm so proud of my grandparents who harbored escapees in their home under the noses of neighbor collaborators, risking the lives of their children--and of course, me and all their grandchildren. My interest in this history became very personal when I was asked by a friend to write the biography of a WWII fighter pilot who was shot down over France. When I met with this sweet and kindly gentleman, I was shocked to find he was one of 82 Americans and 168 total Allied Flyers who were treated to some of the worst of Hitler's brutality in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Nearly starved to death, they survived a massive bombing raid and the horrors of the camp to be rescued by German Air Force officers just four days before Hitler had scheduled them for execution. Joe Moser, the fighter pilot-hero of this story, was then shipped to Stalag Luft III and was placed in the very barracks that the tunnel of the Great Escape was dug a few months earlier. The 10,000 POWs of this camp were marched in 28 degree below blizzard 65 miles to be put on cattle cars and shipped to other POW camps as the Russians were arriving. Still weak from Buchenwald and weighing less than 120 pounds, Joe collapsed and would have died if his roommates had not carried or dragged him to the nearest town.

Joe Moser, at 88, is still alive and well and enjoying a kind of modest celebrity status after the release of his book, A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald. He's been on CNN, was presented his Distinguished Flying Cross medal 63 years late, and even through out the first pitch at a Yankees Mariners game this August. Unfortunately, one of his squadron mates who was horribly burned in a crash landing of his P-38 and who was also in Stalag Luft III, died within the past few weeks. I was hoping to work with him on telling his story as well. Al Mills, like Joe, was a quiet, humble and God-loving man who contributed so much to all of us not just through their heroics in the war and their gritty courage in surviving their post-crash ordeals, but in helping build America after the war into the great nation we became.

These great men and women who sacrificed so much, who saw so much, who suffered so much are now leaving us. Some say at a rate of 1000 or more a day. Soon they will all be gone. I can tell you that helping bring some measure of honor and respect to Joe Moser at this time of his life has been one of the most meaningful, joyful and emotional experiences of my life. I encourage you, while we still have a very little time, to reach out to every veteran you can, shake their hand, look them in the eye and say thank you. It means more to them than they will ever be able to tell you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Will Liaison Role Take on More Prominence?

Those versed in ICS know that there are three Command Staff positions: Public Information Officer, Safety Officer and Liaison Officer. Beginning in 2000 when I was just getting into this whole ICS and JIC world I attended a meeting conducted by a Coast Guard PIO and he talked then about the potential confusion between PIO and Liaison Officer roles. Since then, in many situations I have been involved in, it has become ever more confused.

One reason is the increasing reliance on web-based communications. For those using PIER or any similar communication management technology the potential for overlap is quite understandable. A comprehensive communication management system includes all audiences in its contact directories. That includes media, the public who self register for information, response partners, government officials, response agencies, healthcare facilities, elected officials, response organizations leaders who aren't on scene, etc. One of the beauties of these systems is that you can simply select any or all of the audiences to send to and with a single click send your updates, releases, fact sheets, etc. to everyone, usually through multiple means such as email, fax, RSS feeds, social media channels such as Twitter, etc.

So if it is the PIOs responsibility to communicate to the media and the community and the Liaison Officer's responsibility to communicate with the response agency, government officials, etc., what do they do? Not do it in a single click but do the same thing individually? Do they take turns distributing the information so they each get some work in? Do they run separate systems that they each control? The truth is the technology with its high efficiency, makes completely separate tasks unnecessary and indeed burdensome.

The same is true in responding to inquiries. Using a system like PIER all the inquiries come into the same Inquiry Management panel or are logged in via phone calls. In terms of the answers given and sharing of information, it doesn't matter much if the person calling is a staffer from the Governor's Office or a reporter from the New York Times. But it tends to matter a lot to the PIO and Liaison Officer. So, do you run two completely separate Inquiry Management systems and lose the efficiency and control of central and coordinated communication management?

This problem has dogged us a lot as we have worked with organizations on structuring a response using both Liaison and PI Officers. However a recent major incident highlighted some of these problems and also provided some potential solutions. In this case the PIO and those managing the JIC were almost entirely focused on media response including an occasional press release and daily press conference. That left a lot of critical audiences without the very thing they needed and expected which is a virtually continuous flow of fresh updates about the incident and response. The Liaison function stepped in and began communicating aggressively via email, website and other means with numerous agencies, community contacts, etc. They found it not only helped satisfy the hunger for information of these important audiences, but that information soon found its way through various means into the social networks. And most likely through them to the media as well. That's one of the things about today's networked world--no one really cares by what means they get fresh info, as long as they get it--and that includes the media.

The reality was the Liaison function was providing some of the key functions of the JIC because the JIC was so focused on traditional media response. This may seem normal to some, particularly those schooled in ESF 15 which pretty much limits the JIC to answering media questions and disperses the other critical public information functions to other elements of the External Affairs operation. This does not at all leverage the power and efficiency of today's web communication management which can support multiple audiences in a single step. Nevertheless, if this is how the PIO perceives the role of the JIC in your response, it provides an important opportunity and obligation for the Liaison function to step in and fill the void.

One thing that is certain regardless of who picks up the ball, is that it is critical that those key stakeholders including response partners, agency leaders, elected officials, community leaders, etc. are included in the communication operation. And it is critical that all audiences get continuous updates of response information in the variety of ways they are now expecting. Failure to meet these expectations will almost certainly result in complaints about no communication--even if the obligatory press release is going out as planned.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Five Megatrends--and how they are shaping crisis communication

I'm once again stealing brilliance from others, but, hey, isn't that what blogging is all about?
Here's a very insightful article about the Five Megatrends impacting marketing. But these are also impacting crisis communication and the way we think, work, socialize and exist together in community. So here is my crisis communications take on these big ideas:

1) Mass collaboration is empowering the public's ability to get vital information.
I've blogged on this before including how emergency managers will react when the public knows more than they do. It is almost a certainty, because the internet and social networking are making it possible for those interested to learn so much, so quickly from so many. This is dramatically changing public information management and how the JIC operates. That is best summarized in repeating over and over: it's not about control, it's about participation. The messaging and information flow will go on, regardless of official's willingness to be part of it. It is participate or be ignored.

2) Constant connectivity in an on-demand world. People want information important to them right now, they want it in the way most convenient and useful for them, and they want it presented so they can quickly get to what is most relevant. That's always been true, but now there are so many choices and options--from traditional media, to social media and everything in between. Mobile devices, particularly those computers you carry in your pockets that you still think of as phones, are making us connected all the time. These are critical now but will become even more so. That means the demand for instant information, presented in the formats accessible by these devices, pushed via text and other alert methods when they want them, are all demands that will only increase.

3) Globalization is making the world a smaller place. McLuhan's global village has become an everyday reality. Anyone who has experienced a major incident in the last while and who has effectively monitored will agree that interested audiences are found all over. No more true than on issues of environmental disasters, health issues, food safety issues, etc. We not only are connected globally through trade, but through public policy interests. That means networks of those with strong interests are deeply in place and new ones can be created instantaneously. Communicators need to think not just about the local media, they need to think about how angry people across the globe may impact their world. It's not a tomorrow thing, it's definitely here right now.

4) Pervasive distrust in big corporations.
This is increasingly true by any measure including surveys and even casual observations of popular culture. Michael Moore's outsized rants only reflect a less extreme but very much ubiquitous attitude. But, if you are on the public side of the equation don't breathe too easy. This distrust, exhibited so stridently in the online world, extends to almost any organization seen to have too much power--and too much means almost any organization more powerful than the individual expressing that opinion. It means that if your organization is seen as responsible for bad things happening, it starts not on neutral ground with much of the populace, but already in a deep hole. Building trust when it is hitting the fan is hard enough, but when you start from a negative position before it even hits the fan, it gets a lot harder. But, that is the reality of the level of trust in our public and private institutions today.

5) A global sense of urgency to fix the problems of our world.
Well, what Adam Kleinberg is really referring to here is the global green movement. Yet his wording is right because there is a huge shift in values underway. Anyone spending time reading blog comments and observing the online conversation can see it. It is related to item 4 above, the green movement, healthier foods, simpler living, more relaxed (I would say grungy but I'm an old guy) fashion styles, and government doing more and more for us. Yes, it is political--ultimately everything is, but the political views need to be seen in light of the values that lay beneath them--that's why I like the way Kleinberg expressed this. The critical point for emergency management is that we must always remember that it is those people out there, in the hinterland, the amorphous crowd, who will ultimately decide the success or failure of your response. Perception is reality. And they will judge by their values, not yours. It's an important role that communicators need to play is helping evaluate all response plans and activities from a perception and values standpoint. The future and reputation of the response leaders as well as the response agencies is at stake.

Monday, November 2, 2009

EPA Includes ICS Training as part of punishment in San Francisco

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency is being fined by the EPA for spilling 940 barrels of diesel oil into a stream that flowed into San Francisco Bay. That's 40,000 gallons. What is interesting is that in addition to the $250,000 fine (seems like might be a different level of fines for government agencies spilling fuel than private companies) is that the EPA is requiring SF Muni to get ICS training. This will "improve coordination and communication during future incidents of this nature."

In talking with some hospitals recently I am quite surprised that NIMS and ICS are not more widely adopted in this sector. In fact, outside of a some major response agencies such as Emergency Management agencies, the US Coast Guard, etc., widespread understanding, training and adoption are very mixed. I'm also finding that there are continuing problems in a variety of agencies with understanding some of the core concepts of NIMS--a primary one being Command authority and responsibility. Things just don't go very well when there is a lot of freelancing or when members of the JIC or response pick and choose when to respect the Command role and when not to.

Overall I would say that establishing the National Incident Management System and accomplishing the training levels, adoption and use that we now have vs. five years ago is a major accomplishment for DHS. But, there is still is a long ways to go and I would encourage communicators and emergency managers alike to strongly encourage private organizations, non-profits, and all government agencies such as SF Muni, to get on board as soon as possible.