Thursday, August 26, 2010

What did you think of the media coverage of the Gulf Spill?

It's fascinating to me to look at how people evaluate media coverage. The evaluation often says more about the person evaluating than the media itself. For example, if someone says they think FOX is fair and balanced, that might give you an indication of their politics, same is true of those who might say that about Keith Olberman.

If you talk to anyone involved in the Gulf spill or the communications operation of that event, mention the media and their eyes will roll and there's a good chance that if they are inclined toward foul and vulgar language they won't be able to hold it in. Universally those involved have seen the coverage as horrific. Biased, inaccurate, nasty, intentionally misleading, etc. That's why it is quite surprising to me to see from the Pew Research Center findings that the public overall feels the media did a pretty good job. My reaction is, what is wrong with those people? But, that again is the difference between an inside and outside perspective.

The Pew study, announced yesterday, is fascinating. I think it is must reading for any PIO or communication leader responsible for crisis and emergency communication. The event was singular, no question, and they make it clear how unusual the spill was in terms of media coverage. But their analysis is undoubtedly the best way to get a grasp on how the media will cover events like this. And, unlike me, they do it without perceptible bias or frustration.

For those not interested in wading through the lengthy report (very worth it, however) here are the eight key points they make (with my own spin on those points)

1) this story was dominant -- by a long ways. Compared to other major disaster stories, none ever came close to the percent of news hole consumed with the incredible longevity.
2) The "blame game" was exceptionally strong --while the leading story line was the containment and recovery operations (47%) and exceptionally high percentage was focused on finding fault or blame (they call it the blame game, not just me) with BP (27%) and the adminisration (17%)
3) The White House had mixed coverage (I wish Pew had better analyzed the changing WH strategies and how that lined up with the media criticism of the WH, but that will be left for others)
4) BP emerged as antagonist -- that is not surprising, what surprises me is that Pew is using the black hat vs. white hat method of analyzing the news, seeing it as cast in entertainment form which it certainly is
5) The spill was mostly a TV story--with surprising differences in how the cable networks dealt with the story vs. major networks (hint--blame game is CNN and cable business)
6) Social media was not nearly as strong as mainstream media in its focus -- again surprising, but if you look at the nature of social media, it is understandable
7) Media outlets websites with interactive features were very important in telling the story
8) Public interest even exceeded the extremely high level of coverage -- the public simply couldn't get enough of this story

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Crisis management and resilience thinking

I came across this post (thanks William) on Homeland Security Watch by Mark Chubb. Chubb is also responding to the article in the New York Times about crisis management, the BP spill, Toyota and Goldman Sachs. I offered my humble opinion about this article and a similar one in Washington Post at crisisblogger.

Unlike my screed about the hypocrisy of the media who play a big part in creating crises and then say, why can't anyone fix these things?, Mr. Chubb's reaction is much more thoughtful. He points out that while Mr. Goodman of the Times seems to think that crisis managers are those people who come and try to clean up after a mess, the real crisis managers are busy far before things go seriously wrong:
Real crisis managers though are closely related to risk managers and emergency managers, both of whom take a comprehensive approach to their fields, which requires them to consider ways of preventing and mitigating harm before things start to become unwound.

He's absolutely right of course. This is why I am enthusiastic as a professional involved in crisis management to the shift in thinking toward the issue of resilience. Crisis response is only one part of the resilience equation. In our way of thinking there are four key elements: preparation, response, communication and recovery.

Preparation is more than coming up with a good crisis plan, although that is important. As Mr. Chubb points out, preparation includes a comprehensive look at all factors that lead to a crisis, including the internal dynamics of an organization, for the purpose of first of all preventing them from happening in the first place.

The lesson to be drawn from the gulf spill for example, is not the PR crisis management is a failure. There is a far more significant lesson. As was said I believe in Apollo 13: what we have here is a failure of imagination. Not just BP, but the entire industry and its regulators clearly did not conceive of an event the size of what has happened in the gulf. It simply was inconceivable. Not it is not. Reality has replaced the necessity for imagination when it comes to preventing and preparing for a major deepwater spill event.

But where is our imagination failing us now? What events could occur in our communities, cities, businesses and organizations that we reject out of hand. Will it require us, like it has the oil industry, to have a disastrous reality teach us because our imagination has failed us.

I know in the drills and exercises that I will be working on in the future, I will not try to make that mistake. It is so easy to rely on the tried and true scenarios. Mr. Chubb has done as big favor by pointing us in directions where we need to look for where the failures are most likely to occur, and that is deep within our own organizations. We should not be afraid to dig deep, ask hard questions, and most of all, let our imaginations fail us again.

Monday, August 23, 2010

At last--Adm Allen Defends ICS

Adm. Allen at the National Press Club on Friday finally definitively defended the Incident Command System, and explained to the American people why it is important. He also completely acknowledged that it was difficult for the American people to understand the notion of cooperative response between a responsible party and the government.

This is the first important step to helping elected officials, government responders, the media and the public understand what is at stake if ICS and NIMS are thrown out the window as a result of the administration's role in the Deepwater Horizon event.

Adm Allen, the National Incident Commander, went so far as to call it "trust," something that existed in the response early on, but was severely damaged or destroyed by the political necessity of blame avoidance. He explained that because of OPA 90, the government and the industry have been cooperating in response management for the past 20 years: "It is very hard for the public to understand that a responsible party that is clearly responsible for the event itself could somehow be cooperative in the response to the spill. But as a matter of fact, since 1990, that's exactly the way we've conducted oil spill response in this country."

He also points out that the challenge of cooperation is public perception: It's been challenging at times to create that unity of effort given sometimes what appears to be the rejection of the notion [by] the general public," Allen said.

He is absolutely right. Unfortunately, the public perception of the value and necessity of cooperation was severely impacted negatively by political messaging involved in this spill, the ignorance of the media of OPA 90, ICS and NIMS, and the underlying mistrust in the public of government and particularly big oil companies.

You might ask what this "throwing under the bus" of BP has to do with a national disaster response per NIMS? If politics is allowed to play such a role in the communication about any event, Responsible Party-involved or not, every response partner has to worry. Everyone looks behind their back. No government agency is immune from being thrown under the bus to focus and avoid blame. Look what happened to MMS in this event. Gone. What elected official in a major city is going to trust that when it comes to the blame game being played that they will not find themselves in the crosshairs of the White House or the highest office holding the keys to the response? And, as Adm. Allen suggests, trust is at the heart of effective collaborative response.

The response community who understands NIMS and the concept of Unified Command and collaborative emergency public information needs to fight against the kind of political overlordship that we have seen in this response. We don't need a new national response system as David Gergen suggested. We have a great one. We need to make certain it works by preventing it from being co-opted.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An Incident Commander's Incident Commander--Admiral Allen

As the tide of battle, public opinion and politics begins to turn in the Gulf Spill (see story in this morning about the great job done), it is time to give recognition to a true national hero, Admiral Thad Allen.

If you ask any Incident Commander around the nation to describe what an ideal Incident Commander looks like, I would guess most would pretty much describe the Admiral. For good reason. He not only served as National Incident Commander in this event but also came in to Hurricane Katrina after the cataclysmic failure of local and state government response, took charge and achieved remarkable results. It is no doubt in part due to his leadership there that the Coast Guard stood out among all government agencies with its reputation (and funding) significantly enhanced after Katrina.

In the Gulf Spill, he got involved as National Incident Commander as things were starting to go seriously sideways. BP was failing on multiple tries to stem the flow. Media reports were scathing of the response. The administration, doing its best to avoid the "Obama's Katrina" meta-narrative was doing their best to heap outrage on the Responsible Party, key administration leaders were speaking for the response indiscrimately, and the Admiral clearly understood the vital role that BP needed to play to stop the spill.

I wasn't there to observe the operational side, but I had a pretty good ringside seat on the communications. While I have been highly critical here and in other observations about the abandonment of the NIMS JIC model and of the failures of BP, I have been amazed at Adm. Allen's performance as a spokesperson for the administration and response.

He provided the regular briefings with clearly a very deep knowledge of the complicated technology and engineering challenges the response team faced. He made it clear through both policies and repeated statements that Unified Command was committed to full transparency with only the limits of safety and security interfering. His common question to a reporter after providing a response was "was that responsive?" making it clear he was intent on not ducking anything, not equivocating, not spinning, but providing the unvarnished facts as he saw and understood them.

He was not shy about getting reporters on the right track when he saw them veering onto a rabbit trail or agenda. He challenged them but only by coming back to the facts. He was also not shy about contradicting major administration officials; specifically when Sec. Salazar suggested that BP would be thrown out of the response and Sec. Napolitano adamantly denied that BP was a "partner." The Admiral calmly communicated that BP's technology, expertise and commitment were essential. He was even willing to be so honest, in a political and media atmosphere that wishes only to heap scorn on BP, of commenting that their operational response was very good if not excellent, while also criticizing their reserve and ineffectiveness in meeting the American public's need for effective communication.

President Obama's decision to clear the public stage of all the Secretaries and department heads who wanted to speak about this and rely on the Admiral as the single voice of the response is one of the best decisions he made during this event. The Admiral more than lived up to the president's high expectations for him. I still regret that the Unified Command message was lost and that BP was also thrown off the stage, but our nation could not have had a better, more commanding, more reassuring and completely honest and transparent spokesperson for this event. It appears that President Obama has avoided the "Katrina" label and this event will neither define his presidency nor harm his political future. For that, I think he has no one to thank more than Admiral Allen.

The Web is Dead. Apps Rule.

Everything is moving onto the web. The web is where it is at. How long have you heard that? Including from me talking about crisis and emergency communications. Now, we hear the web is dead.

In this intriguing article from Wired magazine, Chris Anderson (author of the Long Tail) and Michael Wolf, the rise and decline of the web is documented. The graphic is particularly telling. Let's make it clear, we are not talking about the decline of the Internet as a more or less universal way of transmitting data. That continues to grow. But as the authors point out, the web is not the internet. The web is one of many, many ways to share information on the internet. As critics of this post have pointed out, the web may not be declining so much as other uses of the internet are expanding so rapidly that the web's share of traffic is declining.

What does this mean for emergency managers and PIOs? It means we all need to be thinking more of delivering information to mobile devices and facilitating interaction on mobile devices. Apps rule as the rapidly emerging preferred front end to data sharing on the internet. During Hurricane Ike we discovered that a very significant percentage of the population of Houston-Galveston were relying on their smartphones--charging batteries with car chargers--to get information about the storm and assistance. The Red Cross study which I've commented on here and other bloggers on as well has made it clear that social media is already and will be a critical means of communicating with an increasing segment of the population. And social media is largely about mobility and access through mobile devices--particularly now as the popularity of the iPad will accelerate the introduction of a million knock-offs. Portable internet devices from smartphones to pad computers to embedded devices in almost everything you use will be ubiquitous.

As has always been true in emergency communication, we can't think that the mountain will come to us. We must find our audience where they are and make sure they are getting the information they need where and how they want it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

David Gergen's Call for National Solutions to Emergency Response

David Gergen is my favorite pundit. I always sit up and take notice when I see him on CNN. I think it is because he admirably served both Democratic and Republican presidents plus the fact that his views are usually wise, insightful and somehow above the din of noise just below him.

Now the Harvard professor and CNN political pundit is calling for an overhaul of the nation's laws regarding emergency response. But his solutions, I hate to say this, are based on a very inadequate understanding of the emergency response procedures already in place--most specifically the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

Gergen says:

- the American people believe the Gulf response was inadequate--agree, but not because we don't have good methods for dealing with this

- he says responders are frustrated -- agree, very frustrated, but primarily because overseers who did not know NIMS/ICS/JIC prevented them from using it

- he says we need a command structure modeled after the military -- exactly right, except we have one called Incident Command System that became NIMS in 2004

- he says: Laws and regulations patched together over the years have given large, often vague and confusing responsibilities to too many players, starting with the feds but also state and local officials and, in some cases, corporations like BP. The result is a chain of command clogged with uncertainty and delays. -- here is where he is very wrong. We have a clear, effective system (NIMS/ICS). The Unified Command structure has been effectively implemented in numerous responses. Oil Pollution Act of 1990 specifically includes the Responsible Party (such as BP) in Unified Command because 1) they have expertise and technology that the feds don't have and 2) they are paying for everything so they should have a say--yet the lead Fed agency always has the most say.

- he says: But if a crisis mushrooms—as the oil spill did—the federal government must take decisive command. Never again should the country’s fate rest with a corporation. He's right--it never should and never did. That was the point of OPA 90--created from lessons learned from ExxonValdez which was a company response. From the first moments of the spill Unified Command was formed, Coast Guard was the Federal On-Scene Coordinator and then a National Incident Commander was named all in accordance with OPA 90. Gergen has bought into the media and political mis-info that said BP was in charge. BP was under Unified Command directives from the very beginning. It's just the administration, attempting initially to avoid the media blame game, convinced everyone that this was BP's spill and the fed's job was to put "their boot on BP's neck", until May 27 when the president said, "actually, we were in charge all along." Right, they were.

- Gergen says: Once we have good plans in place, we must invest far more in leadership training for first-responders. Good news-- the government has spent hundreds of millions, if not billions in training on NIMS (Mr Gergen, please Google NIMS and find out about FEMA's extensive on-line training and the NIMS Five Year Training plan.) The sad thing is, DHS never informed the media, the public, CNN pundits, nor apparently the Secretary and her boss about this.

I join the esteemed Mr. Gergen in calling for a national solution to the problems exhibited by the gulf spill. But the problem is not that we don't have an effective plan in place and training to support it. The problem is that the system and plan we have is not adequately protected against political meddling, and it is not well known by the public, the media and elected officials. It is a problem I deal with in every major urban area in preparing plans for coordinating emergency communications. The biggest issue by far is the very real concern that the mayor, or county judge, or governor will circumvent the Unified Command process and the Joint Information Center which operates under authority of the Unified Command. My answer has always been--sure your mayor can pre-empt Unified Command and its authority under the law, but you run the risk of not getting federal reimbursement under a presidential declaration. That certainly helps to secure compliance with NIMS. But what happens when the highest office of the land, that has no equivalent downside, circumvents NIMS, takes control from Unified Command of the communication function or any function they choose, and turns the response into a politically-driven operation? There is apparently no law that prevents this. This, Mr. Gergen, is where the focus needs to be. We have a great system, a great tool. We need to make certain that it will not again fall victim to political agendas.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Future of Incident Specific and Joint Information Center websites

The Deepwater Horizon event has presented the world with the largest, most fully functioning and information-rich incident and JIC website ever. (Full disclosure--my company PIER provides the site). But, what will the future of such websites be? As envisioned by the National Incident Management System and ICS, there would be one voice for the response, one PIO, one JIC, one authoritative source for the response reflecting the combined information and messaging of all response participants including the Responsible Party (under OPA 90).

I have written before here about the role of the Department of Homeland Security and the White House in managing the information flow on the Deepwater Horizon event and the potential implications for NIMS/ICS/ICS. If I and others thought our concerns were overwrought all we had to do was look at the Enbridge oil spill in the Kalamazoo river in Michigan to have our worst fears realized. In this event EPA launched an incident specific site reflecting its activities and Enbridge launched a site detailing its actions. You will note that each calls the event a different name--one of the no nos in ICS/NIMS. You will also note that EPA explains that Unified Command has been established but specifically does not mention that Enbridge is a participant in Unified Command. I don't know, but I suspect they are. But public perception is clearly being molded to believe that EPA, along with state and local agencies, are the ones solely responding to and managing this event. Can't quite see how that squares with OPA 90 and ICS.

The single, authoritative voice for the response is gone, non-existent. The media no doubt are going to each individual agency and player and getting different information and messages about the response.

As this threat to NIMS and its effectiveness in communicating with the public isn't problem enough, there is another emerging threat. Google launched an incredibly impressive "mash-up" of information related to the Deepwater Horizon event. I have to hand it to them (and thanks Phil for showing this to me!) the company that promised to "organize the world's information" has done a masterful job of organizing relevant information about the spill. It should be studied by all of us who need to plan what the response websites of the future will look like.

So why is it a concern? In my ideal world of crisis and emergency response communication the incident website will be the primary, authoritative, fastest and most efficient provider of relevant information about the event to all stakeholders, all audiences. The decision of Unified Command or its superiors in the Deepwater incident to eliminate BP from the official communication and to focus on the administration's role and activities rather than pure response information forced many to turn to BP for the best response information. received considerably more traffic than the incident website. That is not something BP wanted or intended, but it was a consequence of Command decisions about information. In the Enbridge case, there is no one authoritative voice--each participant telling the story apparently without coordination or an attempt to create that single voice. Now, if other players such as Google decide to take on the task of assembling and presenting information in such a compelling way it will be even more difficult for the Unified Command to establish that unified voice.

What does it matter? In a national emergency clear, authoritative, simple, non-contradictory information will be vital for the public. Without that unnecessary panic, fear, over-reactions may all result. Some may simply choose not to respond due to confusion. The book "The Unthinkable" by Amanda Ripley, plus the work of Dr. Vince Covello, make it very clear that simple, authoritative messages are essential for appropriate public reaction and participation in real emergencies. With Deepwater Horizon and the emergence of this kind of unofficial "mash-up" the ability to provide that kind of authoritative voice may be seriously compromised.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Red Cross Survey Shows Absolute Necessity of Social Media in a Disaster

Yes, there are still holdouts in the emergency communications business. Still PIOs who think their job is to put out a press release or two and send to the media to communicate about a disaster response. Still some who doubt the importance of an incident website, interactive engagement with stakeholders and the public. And some who still say, "Twitter what?" "Facebook, hunh?"

Research just conducted by the American Red Cross should put any debate about this issue to rest. The essential message is that as more and more Americans turn to the Internet as a source of information, they use the Internet to gain the vital information they need. And this is especially true in serious emergencies or disasters. The sample of 1058 survey participants was drawn from people who volunteered for online surveys, so it cannot be said to represent the entire population. However, it clearly shows the high use of social media (75%) and the high expectation of direct engagement with the response organization through email, text, social media applications, etc.

This information is fully supported by our experience in helping manage communications during the Gulf Spill. 50,000 people added themselves to the mailing list to receive updates, and additional several thousand added themselves to individual state websites managed by BP. About 8000 signed up for text alerts, 40,000 as Facebook fans, 8500 as Twitter friends in addition to the over 2.5 million who viewed spill videos on YouTube and 250,000 who viewed the almost 1000 spill photos posted by Unified Command on Flickr.

Emergency communications is simply not the same game it was just a few short years ago. Today it is about engagement rather than pushing information. It is more about correcting all the wrong or twisted information that gets shared by others, than it is even about being the first source. It is about conversation, not proclaiming. The sooner PIOs and communication managers understand that, the faster response managers and Incident Commanders will understand that.