Friday, April 30, 2010

Guest Post -- Hazmat for Toxic Comments

Nearly everyone who blogs gets attacked at some point. If you don't blog but read blogs or other social media you have likely been stunned as I have been by the level of vitriol, hatred, meanness and genuine nastiness of a too-large percentage of those who talk about things online. I blogged about this on crisisblogger not long after I started and the issue of "toxic talk" has been a strong interest--even thought about trying to write a book about it once.

Dave Statter is a broadcaster in DC and a prolific and very successful blogger dealing with Fire and EMS issues--I've referred to it several times in the past. When Dave commented recently on a post on crisisblogger on the issue of toxic comments, I asked if he would prepare a guest post on this subject. Here are his excellent comments-- a great guide for anyone who blogs and for those who use or will use social media in a major emergency.

Hazmat for Toxic Comments

You’re a jerk. You hate volunteer firefighters. You hate career firefighters. You’re a racist. You suck. Everyone should boycott your blog.

Those are some of the printable negative comments I received in the first months of The blog features fire and emergency medical services news focusing on the Washington, D.C. area where I am a TV reporter.

As the comments trickled in, after starting the site three-years-ago, it became clear I was not immune to the toxic thoughts that plague every website with an open public forum. This virtual vitriol was usually directed at a fire chief or some other public official mentioned in one of my stories but readers were also taking aim at the messenger.

Nasty comments were not something I had given much thought to as a new blogger. In fact, most of the 16,000 plus comments you’ll now find on the site are not vicious. They’re usually just opinions on a fire department policy, the actions of a fire chief or tactics used to fight a fire.
But on the blog -- like news websites everywhere -- there are people emboldened by anonymity who go a step further. They are on the attack. They target the subject of a news story, the blogger and the people who comment. And they do it in a very personal way.

Some top emergency management officials in the country tell me how much they enjoy but can’t stand the comments about themselves or their colleagues.
There are also firefighters, paramedics & public information officers who constantly complain about a negative tone in the comments section.

I agree with them when it comes to the personal attacks. My lofty goal is a respectful exchange of ideas that doesn’t focus on personalities. I know... I’m dreaming.

My guidelines are simple. Any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words (plus a few he failed to mention) will always prompt me to hit the reject button. I do the same when posters decide to be reporters, presenting new “facts” I can’t verify.

But going beyond these limited rules seems a slippery, subjective slope for a free speech advocate like me.

I always challenge those complaining about the comments section to give me workable guidelines that don’t smack of censorship. No one has met that challenge. Like me, they soon realize one person’s view of “crossing the line” is very different than the next.
I have no magic formula to fairly and successfully weed out those comments. But if toxic words on an Internet forum are directed at you -- and your reputation is on the line -- I may be able to help.

Consider what the readers said about me. How do you respond when you are called a racist jerk who sucks?

First, you need to know I’m fair game on my blog. If comments meet the language test, they’re posted. But the negative comments went beyond My reporting had become a topic of conversation among firefighters on FYI: No language filter on that site!

Friends in the news media and the fire service urged me not to engage the Statter-haters. They believed it would only make things worse. But I had reputation management in mind. My own. I wanted anyone who Googled Dave Statter to get both sides of the story. It became a bit time consuming, but I responded to each attack. Still, watching others go down in flames trying to defend themselves on anonymous forums gave me pause. Like a hazmat team dealing with a toxic substance I knew to proceed with caution.

I needed a set of rules for this on-line reputation management. They're now my personal SOP and I believe they work.

• I never attack the attackers.
• I try to get beyond their emotions and point out the facts behind the
• I explain the why and how of what I do.
• I challenge the writer, in a firm but nice way, to back up their claims with
• I make a maximum effort not to sound defensive.
• I try to infuse a self-deprecating sense a humor into my responses.
• If I find valid points within the emotional rhetoric it’s acknowledged and
• I thank them for reading my blog and taking the time to write.

My goal, then and now, is setting the record straight and telling my story. I’m not looking for love. When I started fighting back three-years-ago the first replies were often worse than the original toxic comments. I stood my ground. I repeatedly asked for the facts behind their emotion. Instead, I got something different.

A small number of these overly passionate writers actually thanked me for the response. They understood my point of view and respectfully disagreed. One or two went further. They began an email dialogue and soon became sources for future stories.

When the toxic writers didn’t change their ways, the community often joined in. Forum readers told the offending poster they should put up (the facts backing their point of view) or shut up.
In the end, the flame throwers couldn’t provide any real facts to support their positions. In virtually every case, whether the rest of the community responded or not, the attacks stopped. A few returned for a second or third round in reaction to a new blog story. After getting the same type of responses from me they disappeared.

I stood up to the school yard bullies and won. Very different than grade school where they took my lunch money. Still, this technique may not work for everyone. Here's why:
You have to check your ego at the door and need a thick hide. If you’re easily offended and can’t respond without sounding defensive, don’t engage the enemy. You will be dead meat. My experience is they’ll sense your weakness and pounce harder.
It’s important to find someone you trust to monitor your responses. They can let you know if you’re wandering outside the guidelines. My monitor was a fire service friend who gave very good feedback.
I no longer hear from any of the bullies on I searched the site while writing this and found it has been a long time since anyone made me the target of a toxic comment.
On the traffic has more than tripled, but the attacks against me have dramatically decreased.

My experience is telling your own story in this very specific way solves a few problems. It neutralizes even the most toxic comments. It puts the facts on the record. It also sets a tone. Attacks on your reputation won’t go unchallenged. And along the way you may earn a little respect.

Now, if we could just get everyone who writes online to focus on the issues and not demonize those they disagree with. Still dreaming.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's more important--the team or the plan?

I came across this terrific post by James Donnelly about the importance of the team versus the plan in crisis management. I will admit to placing inordinate importance on the plan, but will also defend myself by saying in numerous presentations I have stated that the very most important part of effective response are the people responding. Ultimately, it is character that matters. After reading The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley, I'm more certain than ever that character and personality have a lot to do with effective response.

At the same time, Ripley's book also makes it clear that only by drilling and drilling do you get the basic response actions in people's minds solid enough to overcome their initial reactions to the overwhelming sensory explosion of a major event. The plan, then becomes the guidebook for the training--not the recipe book for the response. Train to the plan, respond to the training--maybe that's the way to put it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How Many Citizen Journalists Can You Spot in This Picture?

The American Statesman of Austin, TX ran this article on how social media is transforming journalism, using the Austin plane crash as an example. A few things I would like to point out.

Look closely at the photo of the burning building with the crowd of onlookers standing in front. Enlarge the photo and look closely at what those people are doing. My colleague at O'Brien's Tim O'Leary pointed this out to me, because we used a similar photo from the same twitterer, Jeff Lake, as part of the City's communication response. What are they doing? They are being citizen journalists! They are snapping photos, shooting videos, talking on their cellphones, tweeting, texting, microblogging, communicating in a multitude of ways with multiple audiences. They are sharing real-time information about the event. Is the fire burning? What are the rescue crews doing? Are they taking any bodies out? Are their people trapped inside screaming from the windows? These people are the frontline of journalism today. This is where the news media gets its news. And this is how most of us get our news now or will soon get it, directly through info sharing channels on the internet, circumventing the media entirely.

More than citizen journalists, these people are now part of the response team. I don't think most response leaders or planners understand this yet. But much of the valuable information needed by Incident Commanders to make intelligent resource and action decisions is available first and foremost from those nearest the scene and in a position to observe and share. I will be making presentations in the near future on how response management must change forever in the information gathering process because of what you see in that picture.

The same is happening in the big disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The richness of information available from social media (use twitscoop and enter Deepwater Horizon or any other related search term) has been far greater than that coming from the JIC. While the pace of info from the JIC has improved significantly in the last few days, initially if anyone wanted to get good updates about the event in real time, social media was the only way. The event JIC site is now at You can also see how BP is incorporating the JIC information in their corporate site.

The primary point of the Statesman article is how social media, Twitter in particular, has changed how news coverage is done. This brief paragraph describes it perfectly:
In the newsroom, we first heard about the incident on Twitter. We marshaled our resources right away to cover what was clearly going to be a big story. As our staff members worked the phones and drove to the scene, I headed to Twitter. I asked the 20,000-plus followers of our main Statesman account whether they had seen anything, and I asked witnesses to call our reporter Tony Plohetski. Several people called Tony, and their accounts made it into the online and print versions of our stories. I also asked for photos, and they came pouring in. Twitter users, armed with camera-equipped mobile phones, were there. They responded by sending me dozens of photos from the scene. We were posting these user photos on our site as fast as I could get them.

If every Incident Command and PIO read this and read it and read it, it might sink in that their world has changed. The PIO cannot control the information--because there is relatively little private to the response that won't be known outside the response and shared with the world well before a press release gets issued or a press conference is called. Old news is of no interest to the media or its readers/viewers. One PIO told me that the questions the media were posing in a major event were not what was going on--because they had all that well before the interview--they just wanted to know what role the agency played in the response. A minor issue in the bigger story. No control, only participation. And the participation is relevant only if it is timely. Be slow and you might as well go away. And slow is defined in Twitter terms, not in the the old way of thinking of news cycles.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Oil Rig Disaster--Why Rumor Management is Critical

One of the big stories going on right now is the explosion of Transocean's Deep Water Horizon oil rig platform in the Gulf of Mexico. With a virtual front row seat to this event (PIER is being used by both US Coast Guard and BP--peripherally involved in the incident), one element of the story shows how important authoritative sources are in quashing social media driven rumors.

From the very first reports, it was communicated that 11 workers were missing. Then the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that all 11 workers had been found safe. They reported this apparently from a Facebook comment by Parish president Billy Nungesser who said they were safe based on several reports. But, importantly, he also said it had not been confirmed by the Coast Guard.

Here is the story from the Times-Picayune business section as it stands as I write this. Unfortunately, the incorrect story was removed so I can't show you that story. It was replaced by this clarification.

However, you can see the reaction of the readers of the original story still on page with the revised story, and through them you can see the damage caused by a false hope rumor. One begs the Parish President to get his information correct-- "No room for false hope--no room for error here these are lives!" Another says "The Coast Guard doesn't deal in rumors. Where is the prez getting his info? Sounds like he is trying to get on the Today Show."

A few quick takeways from this sad episode:

- A critical, if not the MOST critical, role of the JIC and the incident PIO is rumor management. that means they must always be the authoritative source of the information. It also means they need to monitor social media continually and step on rumors as fast and hard as possible.

- The media will go with any information they have because they compete on immediacy and can't afford to be late. They think they can afford to be wrong (hey, just take the story off the website and replace it with a corrected one), but can't afford to be late. It means that the JIC must expect the republication of rumors from social media by mainstream media as a matter of course.

- False hope rumors are among the worst and most damaging. When lives are at stake, raising hopes is sure to get headlines and even more sure to break hearts. Be very very very sure when reporting good news. The rule really should be if it is bad news make double sure and communicate quick. When it is good news make quadruple sure and then check it again.

- Rumors are most likely to emerge first in the social media. This one apparently came from a Facebook post--could have been direct contact with the reporters by the Parish President, not sure. However, social media enables the virtually instant spread of these rumors whether or not the media picks them up. So, social media monitoring on a constant basis is essential. If your JIC plan does not include a specialist to do nothing but monitor social media, you will, I repeat will, get caught flat-footed and be unable to respond quickly to rumors.

Friday, April 16, 2010

News is Pocket Sized, and why Incident Commanders should care

Imagine an Incident Commander yelling out today: "I need a steam shovel, a team of mules, and a case of genuine Chinese snake oil."

All of these might be reasonable requests of a different day in responding to a public disaster. Tools change, technologies change, the way work is done changes. But if today's IC doesn't keep up on the current technologies and changes, he or she will not only be ineffective, they will be in the way of those on their team who know better.

This is precisely the situation in many command posts and EOCs today when it comes to public information. The change that has occurred in the past two years is revolutionary, the past 10 years is beyond revolutionary. Yet, most 50 year old plus white guys who run the responses (hey, I'm one so I can say that) still think of the news and public information business in Walter Cronkite terms.

The new study about the news from Pew Internet research is very important in understanding today's news environment. Please read the entire report and pass it on to those in your organization who will be involved in making critical decisions during an event on public information. But I will focus on a few key points and what they mean for how communication is done:

The internet is rapidly becoming the PRIMARY news source for the public.
It already is the primary way that news organizations get their news to re-publish or re-broadcast. But the public is getting their news increasingly directly from the internet. Ask an IC where the public will learn details about the crash, flood, hurricane, or train wreck and they will likely say from newspapers, radio and TV. It is unlikely that they will say: "Internet." But recognizing that the internet has already surpassed radio and newspapers changes everything for public information management. One example: As the PIO, you are pressed for time. You can do the interview with the radio reporter screaming at you for a live on-air, or you can update your website and push an update to your social media sites. What is most important?

News is Participatory--not Push.
Hold the phone. Participatory? Walter Cronkite never invited his audience to share his microphone. That was one way. Right. We turned on the TV at the time the network dictated and listened to the golden voice who determined what was important and in what order. Now all of news is about participation. The millions with cellphone cameras participate in gathering and sharing. News media gathers from everyone and is largely about re-pushing. The internet itself is highly interactive with tons of back and forth interaction. But what do you think an IC is going to say when the PIO comes and says, we are not just going to send out an occasional official press release, but we are going to participate in the discussion about this event. JIC procedures, Command and Control style incident command is not very amendable to participation. Do you see a rub here? Big one.

News is now pocket-sized.
80% of Americans have cell phones, 33% use them to go online, 25% of Americans get news via their cellphones daily. That's about 75 million. As we saw in Hurricane Ike when the Houston region suffered long term power outages, the internet became THE most important way to communicate. How can that be with all that power outage and all those home computers dead? Cellphones tied to the internet, kept alive through car battery chargers. One response I often hear is that, well, it is only the young people who use social media, the internet and smartphones. Not true, of course. But even if it was, all it would do would increase the importance of these young people in the distribution of immediate information. It's what I call the "village phone" effect. If there is one phone in the African village, does that mean only one person gets the information? No, everyone else gets it from the person who answers the phone. If there is only one person in the restaurant who is on Twitter when the big event hits, does this mean everyone else waits for it show up in the newspaper? No, they get it from the person who has the latest information. Those who have news in their pockets have news distribution power--sort of like the media used to have.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rhode Island DOT--Social Media Comms Case Study

For those one or two who may still be doubting the validity of using social media (plus, a very active agency website continually updated), here's another good case study courtesy Ragan Communications.

For those who don't want to bother with the link, the gist is this:
- Rhode Island had worst floods in 200 years
- nearly 100 roads closed including I-95
- used Twitter and Facebook plus their website
- Twitter followers increased 3X to 1000 followers
- traffic to website from social media sites jumped (2k hits per day to 83k hpd)
- staff was able to work from home or office 24/7

This is the way it is done folks. Good job RIDOT.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Time to Reflect--What's Important Now

I'm just getting back from three weeks out of the office--two weeks on vacation and one week doing training and crisis exercises. It certainly has given me time to sit back, smell the roses and think about the big issues of crisis response and communications.

Nothing new or earth-shattering here, but just some thoughts about what is important.

1) Crisis and character. I believe this is one of the most untapped topics in emergency management and crisis response. My thinking was really spurred by Amanda Ripley's book The Unthinkable and now by Jared Diamond's book "Collapse." The role of personality, personal strengths and weaknesses, training, values, priorities all play into how we respond personally when something is really threatening us as well as how the response team works as well as the combined character and values of an organization or community. As I look closer at the issues of community and organization resilience, I find that digging deep into how people, think, react and behave has to be taken into consideration. We need to know this to improve training, drills and exercises. We certainly need to know this in developing public messages and warnings and how they are delivered (Dr. Covello is looking smarter all the time). And we need to be able to communicate some of these critical findings to people in our organizations and communities who by their nature plus position will have everything to do with how we recover.

2) The new nervous system. A discussion today with a group of managers of large country fairs in the region brought home once again some of the importance of what is happening in the information world. It's not enough that we talk about "social media" and how it changes the game for communications. Social media (I prefer to talk about the internet because it encompasses a wider field where the real change occurs) is rewriting rules about response management, common operating picture, situation analysis, warnings, media coverage, resource management, search and rescue and so much more. Every element of response management is being transformed by the internet in all its forms. The best analogy I have is that our organizations, communities, nations and world are gaining a nervous system. It's like an evolutionary step--a giant evolutionary step. Our bodies could not function without a nervous system--a way of detecting the world around us, sensing everything on the outside. Now our organizations, communities and world are getting sensing capabilities that otherwise were unimaginable. But, what would a nervous system with its nerve endings, ears, eyes, nose and sense of touch do without a brain to sort through all the inputs? It would crash with an overload of information. That is the really big challenge ahead as social media (the internet) makes it possible for us to learn more, quicker and more complete than ever before. Response managers will get their best info about the response from outside. But they will get far too much info, and determining what is right, helpful, valid and useful will be a tremendous challenge.

3) Response management is a most exciting challenge. Because of changes in my organization I've been thinking more about the issues of response management in addition to crisis communication. My conclusions: it is about resilience. About the ability to absorb the blows, recover and get back to normal, whatever the new normal is. Organizations and communities that can do that are strong. Those that can't are inherently weak. That means, and this is new to me, that perhaps the most significant way to measure the strength of a team, a person, a company, an agency or a community, is its ability to bounce back. It's resilience. And since emergency management professionals are all about resilience at bottom, it means that they are incredibly important in building real strength--the strength that counts. Makes me feel that this is important business--because, it is.