Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Goodbye 2009--Hello 2010. What's Next?

We say goodbye to an interesting year in crisis and emergency management in 2009. I won't create my own list of the biggest stories, but a few that stand out in my mind are the H1N1 (aka swine flu), Flight 1549 in the Hudson, the missing hurricanes of 2009, United Airlines breaks guitars, and of course, Tiger Woods. But by far the biggest story in crisis communication and for that matter government communication was the emergence of social media as a critical element of organizations' communications and specifically the meteoric rise of Twitter.

But what about 2010? Prognostication is dangerous, but I'd like to suggest a few topics that I think will emerge into greater prominence in the coming year:

1) Mobility and Virtualization--lost in much of the hype about social media is the plain fact that most people are moving their communications and computing onto ever smaller and more mobile platforms. As I was playing an amazing dogfighting game on my iphone with my adult sons and son-inlaw over Christmas, I was amazed at the computing power we carry in our pockets. Much if not most web access is now through mobile devices, and those younger than me (an increasing percentage of the population) are ever more accustomed to getting whatever they want, whenever they want by reaching into their pockets or purses (or man bags). This means several important things for crisis communication. One is that more and more people will expect more information faster with more frequent updates than ever before. But more than that, web applications are making it easier and easier for teams to perform vital work together regardless of location. Collaboration tools emerging are truly amazing and the winners will be accessible via smartphones. Emergency managers and PIOs alike need to get serious about planning how to operate outside of the EOCs and JICs. The H1N1 pandemic should teach us that--getting people together to tell people not to get together doesn't make sense. And it certainly doesn't when tools make it possible to operate efficiently without congregating.

2) Warnings. We have seen a tremendous increase in the variety of technologies available to warn people of dangers. Yet, for all that is available, little is in use or usable. I expect in 2010 to see several major events where the big issues coming out of them will be this question of victims: why weren't we warned? Analysts and cable pundits will make it clear the systems are there that make it possible. We will see a Virginia Tech or two in the general public sphere that will have similar impact on emergency management. Related to this is the emerging issue of Special Needs. While much lip service is being paid to the idea that our emergency management and communication procedures need to above all protect the most vulnerable, little that I see has been done to implement comprehensive solutions. I suspect it will also take a major national news story that will prompt legislation and exploitive politicians to really wake up the emergency management community to this concern.

3) Bottom up attention. I've had the opportunity of working with both major federal agencies and a lot of state, local, municipal and regional government agencies on crisis and emergency communications. So much of the media's and the public's attention seems to be top down. We tend to expect all the best thinking and solutions to come from DC. This is a little strange since one of the common understandings of crisis events is that all are local. The truth is from my perspective that real solutions are emerging on a bottom-up basis. There is too little substantive discussion between the top and the bottom. One telling example is ESF15--the plan promulgated by FEMA and DHS which unfortunately is not only completely different but contradictory to the way crisis communication and JIC operations are done in the real world experienced by most of us. The NRT JIC Model is by far the best tool agency communicators have and it is being tested and proven in the real world each and every day. Trying to put the JIC model with ESF15 is like trying to create an efficient vehicle by putting an oxcart and a Ferrari together. It is my fond hope that 2010 sees some substantive communication between the federal and state and local agencies around the issue of fast, efficient and proven communication management and technologies.

4) Public and private partnerships. One of the subcurrents of conversation in 2009 is the importance of the private sector in emergency management and community resilience. It starts with the citizen and preparing and empowering them to be part of the solution. But increasingly I see attention being paid by Departments of Emergency Management on how they can incorporate and leverage the resources and expertise that exists in the private sector. It reminds me of one academic study coming out of Katrina that pointed to two organizations that performed superbly in that event: The US Coast Guard and Walmart. From logistics, to management expertise, to direct communication with employees, private companies need to be pulled into the issue of community resilience. This will become even more urgent as public expectations about preparedness and response effectiveness rise while governments continue to fight enormous budget problems. There is a solution--it is in outsourcing. Everything from the inventories of resources needed to the management expertise needed to come in and fully manage large-scale responses. I expect we will see much more discussion this year about best practices related to government response agencies connecting with and coordinating with private companies. It will be a good thing for all of us.

Hey, I just noticed I'm pretty optimistic! Happy New Year everyone.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas--and a look back

First I would like to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

It seems every year the time for pause, reflection, rest and re-focusing gets more and more limited. At this time of the year in particular when we try to recall the reason for the season, the injection of divinity in a small, dirty town in a trouble-filled part of the world, in a place of over crowded abandonment smelling of and probably covered in animal feces, I have this vague sense that all those things we consider so urgent and important probably aren't.

This year has been one of great challenge for many of you, and for me as well. As we faced 2009, we were in the midst of great uncertainty in our own business, in our nation's economic future and what our world was coming to. I am grateful that while an uncomfortable degree of uncertainty still exists about our world, we have survived it-- so far at least-- and there is more reason for optimism and hope than there was a year ago.

Personally, we have gone through some very significant changes. A little less than ten years ago, I spun PIER Systems out of the marketing and public relations firm I owned. The dream was big--to help major companies and organizations to be able to more effectively meet the public information demands when facing big events. As big as the dream was, the reality turned out to be much bigger than I was able to dream. Now numerous federal agencies, state and local government agencies, emergency management departments, Fortune 100 and 500 companies, gigantic non-profits, major universities, hospitals and a myriad other organizations are using this system to enhance their communications both daily and during crises. Dealing with investors, the IT world, the complexities of selling to giant agencies and institutions has been challenging and stimulating and at times, frustrating to the extreme. The shock of the financial collapse in late 2008 and the budget difficulties of many of our public agency clients as well as private companies had significant impact on us as it did most others. But, the year ended with bright new promise as PIER Systems was purchased in late November by O'Brien's Response Management, one of the most respected names in crisis and emergency management. They purchased PIER because they understand very clearly what we have been saying for a long time--that in crisis management two things are essential to building trust: taking the right action and communicating well. They were and are experts in taking the right actions and preparing clients to taking the right actions. But they recognized in what we had to offer the ability to also communicate well. Two halves of the same coin, now joined as one solution.

I apologize if this comes across as promotion for my company or the buyer. I see in this a reflection of what I sense is going on with many of you in reflecting on this year. A year of challenge and change, of continuing uncertainty but mixed with greater hope and optimism than perhaps we dared dream of even a year ago. While the way ahead in terms of economic conditions, improvements in funding, recovery of lost value and all that may not look wonderful, still there is reason to believe that by continuing to trudge forward improvements will come. The world will never be quite the same--that is what a major crisis does to any organization and that is what this financial crisis has done to us, our nation and the world. But good lessons have been and are being learned. And the resilient pick themselves up, learn from the hard lessons, and put their shoulder to the wheel to move forward again.

I wish for you and yours a blessed time of reflection, pause, and if so oriented, quiet worship. Because as soon as Christmas Day is past, we turn immediately to the new year and the challenges ahead. I'll share some thoughts with you then about what I think 2010 means for emergency management and particularly crisis communication.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Need Help Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Employees?

Creating and managing social media policies is one new unexpected challenge for many organizations. But as the internet and crisis communication blogs fill up with painful examples of how employees using Twitter, or YouTube or Facebook are causing unanticipated crises for many organizations, it is apparent that such policies are necessary. Better now than when prompted by a major reputation problem.

But where do you start to craft such a policy. On my Crisisblogger blog I've provided a number of examples from major organizations as I have become aware of them. No sense reinventing the wheel when good thinking has been done by others in your situation. But I recently became aware of the work that Telstra has done to create not only the policies but some entertaining employee education tools around social media. Telstra is the Australian phone company with 40,000 employees. I'm not sure you can do much better than their "Three R's" incorporated in their policy: Responsibility, respect and representation.

If you do make use of their very good work here, you might want to send them a "G'die and thank you."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why People Make Big PR Blunders--the Top Ten List

This year's list of top ten PR blunders assembled by FinemanPR has just been released. Everyone in PR including PIOs and government communicators should study this list carefully and ask the question--how did this happen and how could it happen to me?

Let's take a few examples and I'll share my thoughts about why it happened:

1) Air Force One flyover of Manhattan.
Approved by Defense Department and White House Military office. How did it happen? Everybody seemed focus on getting a great photo for positive PR purposes. Nobody seemed to stop and think about how it would look to see a big jet, let alone Air Force One flying low over Manhattan. I think this is a collaboration problem as much as a "Geez, I never thought of that problem." In other words, someone whose job it is to think about public reaction either was never included in the discussion or was asleep at the switch. This is precisely what happens in a lot of organizations in a crisis and dealing with managers with technical expertise and lawyers--it's amazing how the potential impact on the public slips the attention.

2) Six year old gets sent to reform school for bringing his Cub Scout "weapon" to school.
Yes, the school officials were following policy. So were the concentration camp guards. You don't get in trouble for following policy, right? Wrong. Somebody just has to think a little about how these things can play out. The question should always occur to organization leaders--how is this going to look if it ends up on local TV or an internet blog? A simple misunderstanding turned into the second biggest PR blunder of the year.

3) Goldman Sachs says its doing God's Work, except it has more money than God.

Double problem for Goldman Sachs--stupid comment by the CEO and $16.7 billion (yes, that's right, billion) in bonuses. We ought to be thanking somebody in financial services for making some money, but clearly Goldman Sachs as an organization and its CEO in particular appear to be operating in a bubble. And we thought that Wall Street bubble burst--apparently it is still there and protecting the likes of Blankfein from reality. What's the real problem here? Clearly a CEO who is out of touch with the mood of the nation and the fact that it too has a public license to operate. But I'm also concerned that this organization hasn't incorporated a strong communications leader into its management structure--or if it has, it needs one with a stronger voice.

4) United Breaks Guitars.
That's the name of the song that garnered over 5 million views on YouTube and turned United Airlines customer service operation (never a strong suit) into one of the biggest jokes on the internet. Paying reasonable compensation for damages done would have saved them millions, maybe hundreds of millions in bad PR. Someone wasn't thinking. Worse, when the problem escalated and went viral via the song, they still didn't respond. Lack of monitoring and noticing early warning signals appears to be one major culprit here. I hope their PR department has woken up and realize they live in a dangerous world where speed and appropriate response are essential.

OK--you can read the rest and come up with your own conclusions as to what happened in each of these organizations that went so very wrong. But let me add an 11th to the Fineman list: Tiger Woods, of course. What went wrong there? In my mind, other than a serious moral failing, the arrogance of thinking that he could actually get by with it. Or that his name in history, his celebrity status, his family, his earnings just didn't matter as much as something else important to him. Unimaginable.

Can we conclude anything? In all cases it seems that someone wasn't thinking and paying attention to the right things. With priorities focused on other areas, no one in the position to do anything about it stopped and said, but, wait, what will the public think of this? In some cases it seems, if the question arose the answer was--what does what the public think really matter? Well folks, it matters a lot.

If there is a lesson to be learned it should be that everyone from CEO to customer service manager and everyone in the organization should be taught to ask that question--what will the public think? More importantly, what will those people who matter to our future think about this? What will this look like to our important supporters if this hits the news or the social networks. If the people in the right places play close attention to that question, PR blunders will diminish. I'm quite confident, sad to say, that 2010 will provide another stellar list of blunders.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Resilience? Does it Resonate?

The term "resilience" has been gaining some currency among emergency management professionals. I have a question for you: does it resonate? Is it a good way of thinking about what crisis and emergency management is all about?

I've been kicking this around ever since having some discussions about it with my friend Dr. Brad Smith, the head of the Resilience Institute at Western Washington University. As Dean of Huxley College, the highly respected college of environmental science at Western Washington University and author of one of the leading textbooks on environmental science, Dr. Smith also heads up the Resilience Institute. I kind of scratched my head when I heard this was the name of the new certificate program in Emergency Management. I wondered, is this just a way for the academic types to communicate that they are on a higher level than the rest of us?

I also read an article on the issue of resilience by Dr. Robert McCreight. In it he tries to address what the term really means and whether it adds anything to our discussion about crisis and emergency management.

The more I think about it the more I think it is significant. Resilience connotes an ability to withstand trauma. As such it includes in that simple connotation a number of key elements of disaster planning and emergency management. Most importantly, it leads one to the ultimate goal of what we do which is to return an organization or community to some form of normalcy. After a major event things will never really be the same, big events always change us and our communities, but what we want when we are in the midst of trauma is to return to normal, even if it is a new normal.

But resiliency above all starts with good planning. To manage an event well and recover quickly with minimal cost, the emphasis needs to be on planning. The Gulf region would have recovered far more quickly if resiliency in the face of a Katrina event had been the goal. You can't stop the hurricane, but you can do a lot of things to make certain that its almost inevitable arrival will disrupt people's lives less. Clear-headed risk assessment, effective infrastructure and resource planning, efficient response management, reasonable mitigation, fast and efficient public communication, well-managed recovery efforts--all lead to an organization or community re-establishing normal life as quickly, efficiently and with as little pain and effort as possible.

Resiliency. I'm starting to like that term. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Social Media Makes a Crisis Last Much Longer

When is a crisis over? When does the communication about an emergency event stop? When should the JIC be deactivated? The common answer is: when media interest goes away. That answer today is very, very wrong.

There are two reasons for this. One, the attention span of today's major media has come to resemble that of a seriously ADHD kindergartener. They arrive almost at the speed of Twitter, and they disappear soon after. That is because today's media lives and dies on one thing alone that is immediacy. If it isn't happening right now, they have no use for it. Tiger's story isn't gone, but he is thanking whatever stars he might be seeing right now that Amanda Knox's story hit when it did. The swine flu story erupted in April and dominated the news--for about a week. Then it disappeared from the media. Did the problem go away? No, while the media was chasing the next thing that happened, the story deepened with accelerating infections. Millions of people were looking eagerly for information but they could not find it on the major media. Sure, it came back late this fall but the story was the failing of those in charge to provide vaccines. That played out and now they are gone again.

The focus of the media on immediacy is one reason. The other reason is that most people are now getting their news and information from the internet, and engaging in conversation in a very public forum called social media. If you think about swine flu as an example, Pew research made it clear that most people were getting their information from the internet. They still are, new ones every day as the infection continues on. But PIOs and communicators tend to think there is no crisis and maybe not even reason to communicate because ABC isn't calling and the news helicopters have gone somewhere else (to Italy right now).

As long as significant numbers of people are hungry for information about the event, common sense suggests that communication activities should go on. If the JIC shuts down, or the communicators say "we're done" it doesn't mean information will not be generated, shared and commented on. It just means that those at the center of it won't be participating.

We had a client who shut down their incident website even though 20,000 visitors were coming to them everyday for information. We asked, Why shut it down? They said, "The news media isn't following this story anymore and they never report what we have to say anyway, so why have a website up?" The logic of that escapes me. If they had 20,000 people showing up at their front door or calling an 800 number seeking information, I doubt they would board up the door or disconnect their phone. If they did, they could hardly be called communicators. But because the news media wasn't tracking any more, they did not see the value of talking to those 20,000 who were asking them to tell them straight what was going on.

A recent environmental event we were involved in demonstrated the difference between social media involvement and mainstream media. It's a story similar to the book The Long Tail. The media coverage in the first hours and few days of the event is strong, then it starts to tail off (depending on what else is happening that is immediate). The social media activity, as measured by the monitoring tools, starts off a little slower in this case. It is just building as the mainstream media starts tailing off. It's peak seems to hit a few days after the mainstream has all but disappeared. Then it slowly tails off.

Even a few weeks after an event is "over," the conversation can still be going strong. This may be the most important time to identify rumors and work on correcting them because those continuing the conversation often have the highest interest and the most long term interest.

This reality of a longer emergency communication cycle creates some real challenges for PIOs who understand it. When do you stop communicating? If you are the PIO of a Joint Information Center, when do you deactivate. The normal rule of deactivating after the ICS structure has stood down doesn't necessarily make sense. The public interest, conversation and debate may go on long after the response efforts have been completed. In my view, there needs to be a plan for deactivation based on public interest and if the response structure is deactivated, there needs to be a way to transition the communication activity to a single lead agency or multiple agencies who still have a reputation stake in the game.

Your thoughts? Email me at gbaron@piersystems.com.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Virginia Tech's Notification Failures and What It Means to You

The Virginia Tech shooting is one of the most significant emergency events in the past decade. Certainly because of the scope of the tragedy, but from a communication standpoint few events have done more to change the public's expectation of emergency communications and public warnings.

Today's announcement of updates to the investigation findings putting further blame on administration officials for failure to properly warn the campus community will only add to the pressure on all emergency management professionals. Certainly, following the event and the focus on the failure to warn, every student on every campus has the expectation that the administration will have the capability of alerting them via multiple means when an event is occurring that may put them at risk. Administrators have rushed to meet this need and mass notification companies have rushed to fill the vacuum.

But, if students have that expectation, what about the person on the street who looks to you to protect them in a bad event? Do they have similar expectations? Many jurisdictions and agencies have also moved to adopt mass notification technologies--particularly text messaging and automated telephone messaging systems. I am concerned that many are missing some key elements of the public warning requirement but that is another subject for another day.

Consider a scenario in your town, city or community: a major crime spree happens in a building or area. The news media on the scene starts talking to citizens as they are certain to do:
"Were you warned by text message or telephone message or email alerts?"
"If you had been do you think it might have saved lives?"
"What do you think should be done about this?" Fire those who didn't protect us.

You may think it a most unrealistic scenario, but so did the administrators at VT. Now they will forever carry with them the stigma of this investigation report. Someone has to be blamed and in this case it came down to failure to warn.

My suggestion: 1) start doing some formal or informal research in your community about expectation of public warnings.
2) Investigate and list all the methods currently available to warn the public about imminent threats and build use of those methods into your plans.
3) Identify the gaps in technology and services and work to fill them (grants are likely available to assist with this particularly if you work with the region, for example UASI funds can be used for these purposes.)
4) Drill and test.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

When Political Opportunism and NIMS Collide

Could it be that Rudy Giuliani did emergency management and communications a great disservice? Particularly in a time when NIMS compliance is big and growing issue?

Ever since New York's Mayor became the calming, resolute face of massive emergency response in the hours and days after 9/11, you cannot be a savvy elected official and not see in any major public disaster the opportunity to shine. For sure, the cameras and satellite trucks will be there. The opportunity to show compassion, strength, resolve and command of the situation provides the basis to rescue a failing administration or put some shine on an already stellar political career. Who could resist such an opportunity?

And what is the problem with that? Certainly the public urgently if not desperately needs the reassurance and physical presence that only a strong, calming leader can provide. The problem is NIMS compliance.

A fundamental element of NIMS is Command responsibility for and authority over the public information released during a multi-agency event. The appropriate spokespeople for the event are those who are making the decisions that are saving people's lives or property and restoring the community to some form of normalcy. Mayors and county judges or executives are not normally incident commanders.

It's a critical issue for PIOs, particularly in a JIC environment when they are coming from multiple different jurisdictions and agencies and have clear operating policies from their agency heads. The policy is usually don't say anything without my approval. And that if the TV cameras show up, it is to be the elected head who will stand on the courthouse steps and give the information.

A particularly egregious example of this situation destroying the communications in a major event was the commuter train crash in Washington DC. The mayor of DC took some very serious heat from the media for trying to be a Rudy in this case and from PIOs from the responding agencies because he ordered them to not do their job and communicate with the public. He wanted to be the spokesperson for the entire event--and in doing so considerably botched the communications.

I know this is a contentious subject and one that causes lots of heartburn for PIOs who try to walk the line between NIMS compliance and keeping their jobs. But the message needs to start getting through to elected officials: NIMS compliance means that it is the Incident Command or Unified Command who is responsible for the public information--not the most senior elected official in the area. Certainly there can and should be room for the calming, commanding presence of an elected leader, but to restrict communicators operating in a JIC and expect them to conform to agency policy when they are in a multi-agency response is wrong and asking for trouble.

The federal government has said that failure to follow NIMS could put reimbursement dollars at stake. That's a mighty big club. But like any club, it only becomes useful when it is used once in a while. It would be interesting to see how this situation changed if the feds decided to make their threats real and enforce the requirement to keep public information under control of Command.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tiger Woods's crisis illustrates major challenge of crisis communication

If you've been involved in a crisis or major emergency involving public information, there is a very good chance you were a participant in or witness to a conversation something like this:

PIO: I know it is going to make us look bad, but we have to come out with it.
Response Leader or Executive: Just give them a simple statement saying we are sorry and we are fixing the problem.
PIO: But without providing any details we will just encourage more questions.
Leader: So? We don't have to answer questions.
PIO: If we don't we will look guilty.
Leader: And if we tell them what you suggest we tell them we will be guilty!
PIO: But it still is much better if bad news came from us rather than someone else.
Leader: What if the bad stuff doesn't out at all? These satellite trucks and helicopters can't hang around forever. If we're lucky, some big news will hit and we'll get bumped to the back page.
PIO: Excuse me, there's no back page on the internet.

Well, I could go on. Tiger is not talking. Not to the police, not to his adoring fans, maybe not even to his wife, we don't know. But the longer he doesn't talk, the worse it looks for him. In the meantime, it's a big story and that means lots of people are talking. The more Tiger is silent, the more the professional newsdiggers and now all the unprofessional and amateur newsdiggers are busily doing what they can to get the next scoop--miniscule or major.

One of the comments on Tiger's website after he posted his hopelessly anemic statement said it very well:

Tiger, Not sure of the private nature of your conflict. Pretty sure of the public nature of why people want to hear from you on the issue. They want to believe in you. In a real sense, you've inherited Arnie's Army et al and your supporters WANT to believe in you. My request, as a man who works with ex-addicts and ex-inmates in Idaho, is to come clean. Attorneys are important, honesty more so. It's a heavy burden to carry the PR weight you carry, I am certain. It is a heavier burden to carry, when a person looks like they are shrugging away any other weight that conflicts withwell placed appearances. Be real. The world is looking for realness.

There is an obvious lesson for everyone in crisis management and particularly when you or your organization are responsible for the crisis--environmental spill, industrial accident, health or safety risk to the public. Tell the people what is going on. If you can't say anything because you don't have the information or are prevented by legal restrictions or something is being investigated, then say it. Tiger would be so much better off saying something like: I had that accident because (something stupid he did). I'm terribly sorry for the pain this causing my wife, family and my fans and supporters. I need some time alone with my family and to heal physically and emotionally from this event. I will be fully cooperating with all authorities and answering any questions they have (and then do it for goodness' sake).

I hope for the very best for this incredible young man. It would be so sad to see one of the greatest athletes and talents of all time lose his career and the respect he deserves--particularly if it is mostly because of getting some terrible PR advice.