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.

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