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.

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