Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It's all about building trust--an important barometer

I wonder how often communicators and PIOs stop and ask themselves: now what am I doing this for? Beyond the obvious answer (to keep my job), there are many possible answers about why to communicate in a crisis or emergency: public safety, response effectiveness, keep elected officials happy, keep elected officials' electorates happy, help your bosses keep their jobs, and on and on. But I think we can simplify by focusing on the goal of building and maintaining public trust. If trust in those we entrust for our health and safety is lost, no response can be effective. Public trust is both an essential means to the end of restoring the community and/or organization to some form of normalcy, and it is an end itself.

Before you start trying to build trust in a major response, it might be good to ask the question: does the public trust me, my superiors, my agency, my elected leaders now? I hate to tell you this but if you are in government or major corporations, the news is not so good. Edelman, the largest independent PR firm, has been conducting a survey every year for the past ten years and have developed what they call the Trust Barometer. Through the years they can tell if the public trust in leaders and institutions is improving or declining. It's been on a steep decline for the past few years. This year there is some sign of hope with some fairly significant improvements. That is only encouraging until you know just how low the numbers really are. I suggest you take a very good look at the report from Edelman, but here are few highlights (or lowlights):

- trust in business in the US jumped 18 points in 2009, but still is only at 54% compared to Brazil, India and China where trust in business is over 60%.
- trust in government in the US is lower than that of business, at 46% with a 16 point increase in 2009. In Russia trust in government is down 10 points this year to 38%.
- trust in the mainstream media is exceedingly low and declining--for television news it is down to 20% from 43 in 2008.
- Media companies and insurance companies are the least trusted, with banks just above them. Technology companies are most trusted.

This subject of public trust deserves much more study in my mind, including by PIOs, government communicators and those in public relations. Personally, I believe the distrust of everything big and powerful (like big business and government) is a result of our education system dominated by a educators who went to school (like me) during the late 60s and 70s--in other words, long term repercussions of the cultural revolution. I also think our media institutions have a lot to do with it since their audience building methods are largely based on sensational stories of blame, fault, and black hatted corporate and government types. It is ironic I think that those who seem so quick to assign blame and fault to others are suffering the worst of the loss of trust.

Whatever the reasons, I think it very helpful to realize that when we communicate in an emergency we don't necessarily have the media as a trusted partner, and that we begin communicating already in somewhat of a hole when it comes to public trust. The result of this should not be, oh dear, now I really have to spin things. Just the opposite. It is to realize that trust is built on two things: doing the right things, and communicating about them well. Communicating well, above all means, with utmost honesty, transparency and credibility. If everyone did that, and communicated directly rather than through those whose primary objective is to secure eyes to a screen, public trust would once again start to build.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Public Private Partnerships in Disasters

Haiti is just one more mega-disaster that demonstrates the need for public/private partnerships to respond effectively. One study coming out of Katrina identified two organizations that performed exceptionally well in responding to the Katrina disaster: the US Coast Guard and Wal-Mart.

Washington State Emergency Management Department has gained well-deserved recognition for its leadership in working closely with major employers. National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) identified WA EMD's Business Portal as a Best Practice in this article. And FEMA has posted this article about WA EMDs business communication activity relating to major flooding that shut down Interstate 5 as well as potential massive flooding related to Howard Hanson dam.

(Full disclosure--WA EMD uses PIER, the system my company provides, which is why we are quite familiar with the outstanding work of Rob Harper, Mark Clemens and Wendy Freitag at WA EMD.)

Communication is clearly one critical element of building strong public-private partnerships. One of the major problems of managing large events is the ad hoc nature of response team. So you pull together Unified Command with multiple different players representing multiple different agencies. The issue of calling on the resources of private companies to help with logistics, infrastructure, communications, public warnings, etc. does not fall easily into one place. Maybe most of it goes to the Liaison Officer. But that role is typically not prepared with the kind of sophisticated online communication technology that has made WA EMD effective. You simply can't be effective in establishing that kind of effective partnership when things are really hitting the fan. Just like everything else in emergency management, the response will only work well and look effortless if a lot of planning and preparation happened first.

So now is the time for response leaders to get together with major employers and map out a plan as to how their valuable assets will be accessed in an emergency. And how information about the event and the response will flow quickly and easily to the emergency management team in these companies. Only by working this out in advance, as Wendy Freitag did at WA EMD, will it work as smoothly and effectively when the floods hit.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Is Traditional Media or Social Media Most Important in Haiti?

There are certain to be many studies of the Haiti tragedy relating to public information and how the government and those responding provided (or tried to provide) information about the response. No one can doubt that communication in this impoverished country is one of many of the immense challenges facing responders. But, what is more important in getting information to those both inside and outside of the shaken country? Traditional media or new media.

Two stories that came out yesterday carry two different messages, providing evidence for both sides of the debate. CNN World reported yesterday on the lifeline provided by a single Haitian radio station that stayed on the air despite all odds. In an article from the LA Times, we learn that much of the early information about the quake that reached the rest of the world came from social media. Anything having to do with earthquakes, information flow, preparedness of course is of considerable interest in LA. That juxtaposition was noted in this excerpt from the article:

With most of the area's power and phone lines down, a handful of Haitians used cellphones and some working Internet connections to report, in words and pictures, what they saw of the quake's devastation.
California authorities saw the same pattern in the minutes after a quake in Eureka earlier this month.

The role of public information in disasters such as this seems to increasingly discussed and of increasing importance to those in emergency management. On the Emergency Management website Jeanette Sutton posted a very important document on December 11 regarding the role of technologies in emergencies and conflicts. It should be required reading for everyone in emergency management. One simple story stuck out in this paper--about how a school girl had just learned the warning signs of a tsunami and warned her family to get to higher ground saving all their lives. Information saves lives. Information eases pain. Information is critical to effective response and recovery. It's not just about satisfying the curiousity of the TV watcher flipping through news channels while eating a TV dinner. Haiti perhaps better than even the tsunami or Katrina will show just how vital public information is and how much we are all hurt, and particularly those most affected are hurt, when it is not there.

Friday, January 22, 2010

How Haiti will impact fundraising forever

I believe that the earthquake in Haiti will have a profound and lasting impact in the emergency management world--similar to 9/11 and Katrina. One way will be how money is raised to support a major disaster. As of yesterday according to NPR Americans had given $275 million toward Haiti relief. According to this research just released by KRC Research, almost half of Americans, 45%, have contributed financially to Haiti relief. What is remarkable about this is the number who have contributed via text message.

My congratulations and appreciation goes to the American Red Cross. I'm not sure if they are the first to use this method but what they did and their remarkable success with this new method of fund raising I believe will change the landscape of fundraising not just for disaster relief but for any organization who raises funds. The Red Cross provided a simple short code, 90999, and if you simply text that $10 will be added to your phone bill. Simple, painless and remarkably effective. According to this story just out today, 2.6 million people texted the American Red Cross and contributed $26 million toward relief efforts. While the Red Cross has received over $150 million, this new method has brought a great many new contributors, ones who before had never contributed to the Red Cross and probably to any relief organization, into the fold.

There will be many lessons to come out of Haiti. Communication and its failings will no doubt be one of the main lessons, as it always is in any major disaster. As the KRC research shows, we are all paying attention, many very closely. Our hearts are heavy and we want to help. But we need to be told how to help. It is a critically important lesson to be learned by PIOs who may find themselves at the center of such a disaster. But what the Red Cross has done shows the effectiveness of embracing new methods and in doing so has changed fundraising forever.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Too early for Haiti Lessons?

Whatever the number of deaths in Haiti, as was said about 9/11 it will be more than we can bear. The suffering goes on for hundreds of thousands or more. If journalism is considered the first draft of history, what is blogging? The first draft of the first draft?

It seems without question that this horrific event will be studied by scholars and students of disasters for years to come along with the Indian Ocean Tsunami. The scale of both of these just defies comprehension. But as the tsunami led to much soul searching about what could have been done to lessen the impact, no doubt the same questions will be asked of Haiti.

If we look at this question from the standpoint of resilience, does any light shine? Resilience includes the concept of "resistance" or what is done to protect, prevent or direct whatever forces that may cause harm away from potential victims. Levees and sandbags are examples of resistance. Earthquakes are very difficult to deal with because so little is currently available to help predict. Resistance then comes down to how we build buildings, cities and infrastructure to resist the damage. A lesson here then is the poorest nation in the hemisphere is likely to be least resistant to this type of event. Which leads to the next issue: response.

Resilience related to response is the ability to quickly respond to save lives, property and move quickly to mitigation and recovery. Again, the poverty of the country fights against it in so many ways. Heavy equipment needed to rescue the trapped, clear the rubble. Limited emergency shelters, pre-stocked supplies. Just limited resources for any effective management to call in. This will be a big issue because if the US assumes the level of response-ability as it is--and must in a moral sense--we must recognize the need to better prepare when the disaster is not on our own shores. It is one thing to plan to respond better for the next Katrina. But will the lesson here be that we must prepare better to assist any poverty-stricken nation so battered by disaster? I think it must be so.

There is of course much to say about the communications as well. Clearly social media is playing a critical role. But it is becoming increasingly clear that response organizations are simply not prepared to effectively establish inter-agency and public communication in a situation of this magnitude with these kinds of challenges in resources. I suspect there will be some soul searching on this front as well.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Will Haiti be the event where responders discover the value of social media?

First, my heart and prayers go out to those hundreds of thousands suffering unspeakable agony in this disaster. My gratitude also, to those who have already responded and to the people of this great nation who are so eager to help those in need.

It if far too early to draw lessons learned, but one of the major stories emerging from this event so far is the role of social media. As a result, this event may more dramatically bring social media and its role in our society to the attention of emergency managers more than any other event to date. One major reason for this is the use of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, as a means of calling for rescue and identifying locations. If you wonder how this is working right now, go to (or any other Twitter search tool) and put this hashtag #rescuemehaiti in the search box. Hashtags are quick ways that Twitter users set up to help filter through all the traffic. You will note that the Twitter users are pleading that this hashtag and a few others that have been set up only be used by families searching for loved ones or those people needing to be rescued.

There are many other ways social media is being used around this event right now. It is being used by family members to find each other. Stories are being told about how family members of missionaries found out their loved ones were OK through their Facebook page.

Here's one UK newspaper report about social media use in this disaster. It highlights organizations such as the Red Cross who have set up a means of contributing to the relief through text messages. Send a text message to 90999 and $10 will be added to your phone bill. Last I heard over $1m had been raised already and I suspect that number will go way up.

Why use social media? For one thing, it may be the only way left for many victims to communicate. Phone, power, everything gone. But if you have a smartphone with a little battery power left, you can get on the internet or send text or email. The internet has proven in numerous incidences like large hurricanes to be the most resilient channel and more and more people rely on their smartphones for internet activity.

I do believe that this event will be studied by emergency management professionals for many years to come. So many lessons to be learned. For example, if we as a nation are going to assume responsibility for response, should we not considered preparing the resources we need in advance such as heavy equipment needed for urban search and rescue, so we can deploy immediately? I suspect some of that has been done already but every news report decries the lack of equipment and resources so desperately needed now in the early hours.

But I believe one outcome of this will be incorporating social media listening in the command center. A critical role of Command is to know what is going on. Now those needing help can tell you directly--even if they don't have the phone number to the Command Post and the phones are down. To hear them, all you have to do is listen.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Google Pulling Out of China--A Clash of Cultures Relevant to Emergency Management

Google announced today on its blog that it is reviewing its business operations in China and may pull out of service to the country entirely including shutting down its offices. It's been interesting to watch the clash of cultures in this battle and it seemed inevitable to lead to this kind of high noon. Now we will see if anyone blinks.

The clash of culture I am referring to is the transparency and freedom that is inherent in the web culture and the paranoid secrecy of the Chinese government. The impetus for Google's decision is the realization that someone (hmmm, could it be the Chinese government?) has been hacking into the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, both those inside and outside of China. Google, whose slogan from the beginning has been "Do no evil" does not want to be a party in any fashion to the invasion of privacy and the harm that may come to these activists as a result of them signing up to have email accounts with Google.

This is hugely significant in my mind on many levels. Here's where a technology giant may end up putting pressure on a government that wants to continue to govern behind closed doors and without the democratic processes adopted by most of the world. I continue to believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was fed to a large degree by the openness ("perestroika") that was forced on the Soviet leadership with the advances in communication technology and the increasing difficulty of keeping their citizens in the dark. Transparency and the related demand for freedom may force some world-shaking political changes.

But this clash of cultures can be seen as a reflection of the same clash I see in many organizations as it relates to public information management. Is there a tendency in your organization to want to hide bad news and hope that it never comes out? Is there a temptation to "craft a message" instead of telling the facts straight out about uncomfortable situations? Is there an institutional fear (paranoia?) about looking good and never admitting that mistakes might be made? Is there a sense that as long as it doesn't hit the media everything is OK? These are danger signs and indications of a head in the sand mentality. The truth is almost everything of significance to the public comes out in the era of online chatter and transparency. In presentations I've used the example of Prince Harry in Afghanistan. The entire British press corps was in on the secret that the royal prince was in the danger zone as part of his military duty but understandably for security reasons they agreed not to release the info. It came out anyway--on an Australian blog as I understand it. If you can keep a secret with the full support of the media, how do you expect to keep one when they don't and certainly won't agree?

There is a basic policy that most in crisis communication subscribe to: if you have bad news, be the one to tell it and be first with it. However bad the news might be, you have less loss of credibility in fessing up to it than allowing others less supportive of your position to do it for you. In this action, David Letterman was right, Tiger was wrong.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Incident Command Approval--what has to change

Ask any PIO whose been through a big event, or even a big drill, what the biggest challenge he or she faces and likely they will say: command approval of information to be released. A good PIO these days understands that they have to be fast with getting information out or they might as well go home. The reason is simple--with all the cellphones, direct contacts to media through things like ireport, twitter, facebook and every other social media tool, it is mere minutes before any information of substance will get widely distributed. When the US Airways flight hit the Hudson, the world found out through a Twitter feed and an interview by the major media with the tweeter. In the Virginia Tech shooting, those on the Facebook community of students, identified without error the names of all 32 shooting victims well before the authorities announced them publicly.

The JIC or PIO today not only needs to be fast, but needs to provide a fairly constant flow of information about the event. This is because the news media has changed. All have their websites which provide continuous updates--and they compete on the basis of how fast they are. Plus, stakeholders such as elected officials, other agency heads, community leaders and the interested public have come to expect an almost continuous flow of up-to-date information. If they don't get it from the JIC or PIO, they will, just like the media, get it from someone else.

Given this need for speed and frequent updates, the issue of Command approval becomes acute. It simply doesn't work for members of Unified Command to sit on a release for an hour or even fifteen minutes when everyone else outside of the response is continuing to communicate both accurate and inaccurate information.

Since I am in the communication technology business, I am continually looking for technology solutions to this very big challenge. But the fundamental issue is a lack of understanding by the response leaders of this requirement. That means PIOs need to as much as possible work with their Commanders before a major event to help gain an understanding of why speed and frequency are now critically important. Secondly, PIOs need to gain approval not for press releases, but for bulletized facts. Press releases are simply not the form of information preferred by the media in this day of Twitter-style information. Information releases or incident updates appropriate for stakeholders, agencies, and the media that use bullets of updated facts is much preferred. That means that Command should be asked to approve for release any short, bulletized facts--such as number of confirmed injuries or fatalities, numbers of agencies or people responding. It's much easier for several members of Unified Command to approve a simple statement of fact than to wordsmith a wordy press release. The PIO needs to have flexibility in fashioning the fact into appropriate answers for media responders, applying it to fact sheets, providing it as short information updates ala tweets, or incorporating them into talking points for press conferences, etc.

Ultimately the solution will be making it extremely easy for Command to approve the information for release as soon as verified, then making a very simple, streamlined process to publish it and distribute it to multiple audiences in multiple modes. But, without Command understanding of the importance of this, the PIO and the JIC will be sitting around, pacing the floor, while everyone outside of the response communicates their hearts out. Be fast, be frequent or you might as well go home.