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.

1 comment:

  1. A great post Gerald. That issue is one that is really being brought to the fore with new technology, the growing role social media and changing environment in the traditional media world.

    It highlights the need for good solid crisis communications prep work with as much scenario-based messaging(from a sound HIRA) as possible. Focused key messages and a few supporting facts. And the ability to keep feeding the beast(s).

    Also brings to attention the need (or even the necessity/usefulness) of bringing communications professionals together (and waste precious time as they travel to it) in a JIC ...

    We have all the technology necessary for a virtual JIC or a PIO to coordinate what needs to be done remotely.

    Seems more efficient to me ... now, hopefully, you won't be dealing with a critical infrastructure issue impacting the Internet and telecoms !!!