I have said often that today rumor management is job #1 for crisis and emergency communicators. Why? Because you can't be first. No way, no how are you going to beat the passerby with a smartphone in telling your story. And the media will report the passersby stories a million times before you get around to getting approval and telling yours. But, what if the passersby get it wrong? What if the story the media tells isn't quite accurate? What if social media goes crazy with agenda-driven misinformation? You may not worry about it because those things never happen, right? Right!
So, rumor management is job one. You have the facts, you are the official voice, you speak with authority. But, if you have no idea what is being said, if you only get notice that something has gone terribly wrong when your phone starts ringing off the hook or your email account starts smoking from the traffic, you are far too late. Which means, monitor, monitor, monitor.
OK, all that to introduce an outstanding example of rumor management, in this case the rumor is understandable but potentially devastating confusion of identity. Cheryl Bledsoe writes the excellent SM 4 Emergency Management blog and tells how one local (Vancouver, WA--suburb of Portland, OR) responded when mistaken for a very different person.
This blog post is must reading for anyone serious about crisis and emergency communication. But, if you don't have the time right now (please read it later), here is Cheryl's excellent summary:
Expect rumors & misinformation,
You cannot respond too quickly with factual information,
Presence on social media gives you the ability to be involved in the conversation,
Avoiding social media means that you’ll be left only with phone/email options to dispel rumors which is far more tedious to work with,
Your profile picture can provide visual cues to readers as well, if simple and clear, and
Don’t fear the negative campaigns, but rather figure out what messages will turn those flames down.
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Take a step back in time and ask: how has technology changed emergency management? From equipment used, to coordinating activities, to gathering information, to managing costs, to communicating with the public--technology has changed just about every aspect of emergency management and crisis communication.
And it continues. New innovations pop up constantly, and some of them, such as mobile internet devices and wearable connectivity (Google Glasses, Samsung Galaxy Gear) promise to further revolutionize what we do.
Let's look a little closer at two emerging technologies that I think you will be dealing with the near future: drones (or radio controlled aircraft with live cameras) and social media lie detectors.
I have a strong personal interest in drones as I picked up the hobby of flying radio control aircraft a couple of years ago. My son who is a professional film and video producer is now getting set up with a sophisticated aerial photography capability. This technology is big news in real estate sales as the ability to capture aerial views of homes and surrounding area is now very feasible without he expense of a helicopter or airplane. However, the FAA is being extremely slow in updating seriously outdated regulations that restrict commercial use of this technology.
I attended the AMA (American Modelers Association--not Medical) convention in Ontario a few weeks ago. On the agenda was a presentation by the guys from the "Roswell Flight Test" channel who talked about how drones are being used in fire, police and emergency management operations. If you have any questions, watch the video. As one simple example, using a FLIR camera on a drone allows fire fighters to identify hot spots in a fire and rescuers to find trapped victims under rubble.
I just purchased a "drone"-- a small quad helicopter with built in HD camera with the SAFE easy-flying technology for $150. It is simply amazing. It's the Blade 180QX from Horizon Hobby. For $180 (you'll need the special transmitter for this SAFE system as well) you can learn for yourself the capabilities of this important new emergency management tool.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that social media is a critically important tool for emergency management. Not just to reach out to the media and directly to stakeholders, but to gather vital response information. Patrice Cloutier and Bill Boyd and I have been spending a lot of time in the past year working with clients and conducting webinars on social media monitoring for emergency management. But, one of the biggest challenges is filtering for truth in all the noise. It's one reason why so many senior managers are resistant to taking social media monitoring seriously. There is much that can be done with good training to help a team sift through the noise to find the invaluable signals. But there is more and more help available in new technology here as well.
One promising venture is coming from the UK's University of Sheffield. Bill Boyd offered his always thoughtful and entertaining take on this as well. The Sheffield team is leading an EU effort to develop a social media "lie detector" of sorts. The announcement helps understand how they are approaching this challenging task, and can also help understand the approach your social media monitoring team needs to take:
The EU-funded project aims to classify online rumours into four types: speculation – such as whether interest rates might rise; controversy – as over the MMR vaccine; misinformation, where something untrue is spread unwittingly; and disinformation, where it’s done with malicious intent.
The system will also automatically categorise sources to assess their authority, such as news outlets, individual journalists, experts, potential eye witnesses, members of the public or automated ‘bots’. It will also look for a history and background, to help spot where Twitter accounts have been created purely to spread false information.
It will search for sources that corroborate or deny the information, and plot how the conversations on social networks evolve, using all of this information to assess whether it is true or false. The results will be displayed to the user in a visual dashboard, to enable them to easily see whether a rumour is taking hold.
What I'm really looking for, however, is an automated system where a drone goes out and takes a picture of a Tweeter so you can compare it against a big data data base of known liars. (Just joking, of course!)
But the emergence of new technologies that will change our world and the way we do business shows no sign of abating. If you are interested in keeping up to at least some degree in this area, Brandon Greenberg's blog DisasterNet and his newsletter are top-notch sources.
It's a sort of man bites dog twist when reporters write stories highlighting effective communication from the police or fire service. There are typically more complaints than kudos. But Howard County (Maryland), like Boston Police earlier, has earned a well-deserved complimentary editorial from the Baltimore Sun on their use of Twitter during the recent Columbia Mall shooting.
I didn't follow the shooting and the use of Twitter during this event, but I did check Howard County Police's Twitter account when writing this. What struck me was the conversation. They are monitoring, getting questions and comments, responding, anticipating more questions and carrying on an on-going conversation. Some of that conversation is with individuals (DMs or Direct Messages) but all of it is public. And it all leads to the impression that Howard County Police consists of real people doing their best to serve the community and share the best information they can. That's called engagement and is the model for how it needs to be done. Not just when the nation's eyes are focused on you, but each and every day.
Kudos to Howard County and the leaders I know there who have pushed on this and made it happen.
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Like most of my fellow Washingtonians, I'm still pinching myself to make sure that Super Bowl win wasn't just a fantasy. It's just unreal. From the pre-game hype it looked like the game was Richard Sherman against Peyton Manning--but such is the nature of media coverage. Real life is far richer than that.
But, this isn't about football, it's about VOSTs. Cheryl Bledsoe (fellow Washingtonian but not so much a football fan) shared on SM4EM blog that she and fellow promoters of the VOST concept used the Super Bowl as an excellent training opportunity.
Virtual Operation Support Teams are one of the most important developments in emergency management of the past decade. They come out of the understanding that "it's not my emergency" anymore, that the public has important roles to play in responding to disasters and that digital communications makes such participation possible and necessary. VOSTS are most specifically used to provide the additional much-needed manpower to monitor social media, analyze and provide important information into the operational and communication response.
As Cheryl's post states, VOSTs have several important purposes in a response:
These purposes may include:
Finding pictures of damage throughout a local community,
Looking for comments from people who need 9-1-1 services, but can’t call 9-1-1 for some reason,
Looking for trending complaints or concerns about emergency response,
Tracking community-led recovery initiatives,
Watching the feeds of official public safety organizations for key messages to amplify, and
Sharing personal protective recommendations with the public.
I've talked to several in crisis and emergency communication about VOSTs and I tend to get a shake of the head response--good idea but how in the world would you make that work?
As Cheryl states, to make VOSTs work you need to create a team and build its capability before any event happens. There are now 31 VOST teams operational and the leaders get together monthly on a conference call to discuss progress and share ideas on how to make it work. To join in you can email Cheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We'll also be discussing VOSTs in our continuing series of Social Media Monitoring free webinars. More info on agincourt.us, or email me for information about upcoming live webinars and accessing videos of the two past webinars, at email@example.com.
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One of the most important developments in social media for crisis and emergency management has been geolocation. This just means you can know, in at least some cases, exactly where the social media post--particularly tweet--is coming from. If some ten year old falls in an empty well (as actually happened in Australia a few years ago) and tweets "help, I've fallen and I can't get out" she doesn't need to send her lat-long coordinates. Her smartphone will do that for her.
There have been some terrific social media monitoring platforms that provide a valuable service in combining key word and hashtag searches with the geotagging available when smartphone users allow it. (Only about 30% do.) These platforms include Swiftriver, Geofeedia, Bottlenose and I'm sure many others.
Twitter is now offering a "nearby tweets function." And Hootsuite using its Hootlet applet lets you click a "Tweets Nearby" button when you use Google Maps to look at tweets near any location. (I've uploaded a couple of screenshots showing this function on Google Maps and Twitter using nearbytweets.com.)
These are important developments, because I think there is a big difference in going to a platform such as Hootsuite or Geofeedia to get this kind of information versus just using the tools you are currently using such as Google Maps and Twitter and having those functions seamlessly available. Not to mention--free.
I'm hoping this added power and convenience will make social media monitoring just a common and expected part of any crisis or communication activity--even daily activities.
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A few years ago, a friend and board member of my company who was an oil industry executive, talked about "go to jail" jobs. He said a lot of senior leadership positions in the oil industry were now jobs that carried the risk of jail time if things went wrong on their watch.
That was borne out in the first major crisis I was involved in, the Olympic Pipeline accident. The GM of the pipeline company went to jail for six months. This despite the fact that the accident, like many, was caused by a very strange confluence of a number of factors, many of which he had absolutely no control over and which, if they had changed just a bit, would have prevented the accident from happening.
Now I am shocked, appalled and saddened to find out that farmers also have "go to jail" jobs. This article from NBC News tells about the sentencing of two young Colorado farmers from whose farm tainted cantaloupes emerged that resulted in a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people. The farmers narrowly avoided jail time, instead are sentenced to five years probation and a large fine. The reporter/editor of the article clearly feels this was a gross injustice. Look at the headline and focus of the article.
It is a horrible tragedy that 33 people lost their lives, including the 92 year old "spry" victim whose son is so disappointed in the result. If there was intent, if there was criminal negligence, if there was an established pattern of callous disregard for harming others, I could see the calls for treating these farmers as criminals. But, even this very biased article makes it clear there was no intent, no pattern, no callousness. There was a mistake, or mistakes made. The farmers are called "salt of the earth" types.
I will withhold further comment on the sad state of our justice system, and our society, and the state of our media. Instead, this situation requires the attention of anyone who is in a business or government position where action or inaction could harm others. And that is a lot of you.
First, the lesson clearly is to look at all your plans and procedures and make certain you are doing all you can to prevent such things from happening. That is the value of such a great tragedy and the shocking outcome. Preventive measures will greatly reduce the risk, but not eliminate it. And when, despite your best efforts, something goes horribly wrong, what do you do?
This situation creates a dilemma for crisis communications. In the pipeline accident the company was "lawyered up" to the max. But, it made sense despite the severe impact on reputation. The company went bankrupt, but gasoline continues to flow through the pipe. Now farmers and others have to look at the legal implications when something goes wrong. A sincere apology with acceptance of responsibility is absolutely necessary to avoid turning the media and public against you. And a highly negative public atmosphere is just what a plaintiff's attorney or prosecuting attorney wants when selecting a jury. So, it makes sense to be transparent, empathetic and forthcoming. But, such admission in our great nation, is going to be used against you in court. So, you end up walking a very fine line--or saying nothing. Your best defense in such a situation, is the reputation equity you put in the bank before the accident occurred.
Farmers, processors, shippers and retailers all need to take note. There are things that can go wrong and people can be harmed. If you are the one standing at the end of a complex chain of coincidences and mistakes, you are at risk. Now is the time to prepare.
OK, let's see what can go wrong in communications when you leak a chemical into the drinking water of 300,000 neighbors.
1. You can fail to prepare. Check.
2. You can not have the capability of communicating with the media, community and public with a website and social media. Check.
3. You can have no capability of notifying neighbors or the community. Check.4.
4. You can tell people you will keep them informed without telling them how, where or when. Check.
5. Your CEO can do a press conference that makes things worse. Check.
6. Your PR firm can announce it is firing you in the middle of your crisis. Check.
7. You can have confusing and conflicting information about your company on your website. Check.
8. You can have a convicted felon and cocaine supplier listed as one of your owners. Check.
First, thanks again to Dave Statter of Statter911 for pointing out some of these things.
A comment or two on the press conference.
1. British accents on CEOs is generally not a good thing, at least not after April, 2010.
2. This press conference was planned but clearly no thought went into setting it up re background, talking points, preparation for the speaker.
3. There was no moderator to take the heat off the CEO, particularly when he attempted to end it short.
4. He ran away. That's how it looked. He really had little or no intention of answering questions, just presenting his statement and then ducking out. It simply can't be handled this way.
5. He drank water--repeatedly, obviously, and without awareness of what that signified.
And that leads to the most important lesson. I'm a huge advocate of using video in a crisis or emergency. But it needs to be done right, planned, managed and produced in a way that show awareness of the risks. That is tricky and this video shows why.
Almost any video of a 'black hat', that is the person or company demonized in an event, is going to show up altered or with comments like this one. Unfortunately, this spokesperson or his minders were completely unaware of the symbolism of him nervously gulping bottled water when 300,000 are depending on bottled water that has to be shipped from another state in order to drink or wash the dishes. Even without the snarky comments from this person who edited the video and posted it on YouTube, the unfortunate gulping would have been a problem. Now it becomes a joke and helps feed the outrage.
At the beginning of 2013 I jokingly said I was going to refuse to talk about social media in crisis and emergency communications. That's like a fish saying I'm going to stop swimming in this damn water. 2013 might be seen as the year when social media really went mainstream in emergency communications--despite the fact that likely a majority of emergency management agencies still have not adopted it.
What is beyond? What will 2014 bring us that is new, entertaining, informative and helpful?
There is still a long way to go to thoroughly incorporate what has been learned about social media in crises and emergencies. Evidence of that is in Patrice Cloutier's excellent post on press releases and why they need to be forgotten.
As I enter 2014, and with it, the rapid advance of my fuddy-duddy years, I am more convinced than ever that with the focus on the Internet, social media, digital communications, video, press releases vs tweets and all that stuff, we continue to miss the underlying point.
We have to think about what we are really trying to accomplish--other than keeping our jobs or advancing our careers. It seems to me that the goal of communication in our setting is to enhance or protect trust, respect and appreciation.
Well before I got very involved in this whole crisis communication thing I had a marketing company. Our slogan for a while was "Helping the Right Few Place a High Value on What You Do." Don't you want those important to you to place a high value on you and what you do? Well before I had my own marketing business, I worked as a funeral director and grave digger (yes, the truth--worked my way through college that way). I learned something important. Your funeral matters. Even more, what people say or think about you as they contemplate your life really matters. Especially people close to you like your spouse or children or grandchildren. The saddest funerals I ever worked on were the ones where the person we buried went completely unmourned. I did not blame the people who did not come. It was a reflection of the deceased's life and priorities. To be loved, you must love. To have others place a high value on you and what you do, you have to be someone they value and do things that are of value to them.
I also said "the right few." What does that mean? Years ago, 1997 to be exact, I had a marketing book published called "Friendship Marketing." In it I shared what I had learned from the years I had spent helping business owners and executive grow their businesses. What I discovered was that relationships were what really mattered. Duh, you might say. Yet, how much discussion in marketing and business development is about social media strategy, metrics, creative approaches, content marketing and so on, versus how much about identifying, building and developing the right relationships? Yet, I found that most businesses depended on a surprisingly small number of very important relationships. The magic number was six. And even if there were more than six, almost everyone agreed that the people who were really vital to the business were quite small in number.
If you are still with me, you have to be thinking, what does this have to do with crisis communication and 2014? A few years ago I was talking with some senior leaders at the US Coast Guard. I asked them the question I love to ask any group I present to: who are the people whose opinion about you matters most for your future? Some head scratching went on. "Everyone," someone said. Are some more important than others. Yes. "Voters" someone said. Do voters control the Coast Guard? No. What it came down to was the members of the appropriations committees of the House and Senate. Those who vote the budget. Because if they got seriously sideways with the Coast Guard, it would be felt significantly in the future. Who beyond them? More head scratching. Who influences those sitting on the committees? Voters? Not so fast, how about staff? Then how about those major donors who have great sway over the opinions of staff and elected official?
The point is this, even for a federal agency like the Coast Guard, it is very possible to identify a fairly small group of people. Individuals. They have names. More to the point, they have phone numbers and email addresses.
What happens when things go seriously wrong? What happens in a reputation crisis? What happens when social media goes nuts, the press goes wild and everyone is thinking the worst of you and your organization? What happens depends on a few very important things:
- how much goodwill, trust or reputation equity do you have stored up with those most important few?
- how will those few evaluate the character of the leaders as seen through their actions?
- what sources of information do they have access to and are trusting about the event and the accusations against you?
That's why this matters. Because building or protecting trust, respect and appreciation depends on those three things:
1. You need to engage with those important to you NOW, so they know what you are doing, so they trust you as a source and so they place a high value on your organization and what you do for them.
2. When the worst happens, there is nothing more important than your leaders taking the right ACTIONs--that is those steps that demonstrate the greatest possible care and concern for all those affected and particularly any victims of the event.
3. Communicating and engaging DIRECTLY with those critical few in a way that meets their needs and expectations for information from you is your primary task.
Now, tell me where press releases fit into this? Where social media? Where digital communications and video and PIO mumbo-jumbo and JICs and all that? They do fit. There is a place and a need for all that is discussed. But only as each and everyone one of those tactics, strategies, technologies and content contribute to helping the right few place a high value on what you do.
2014? I hope it is a back-to-basics year.
And the very best to each and every one of you.
Thanks to Neil Clement of the Port of Bellingham, I was alerted to the Emergency 2.0 Wiki and their comprehensive list of global emergency management agencies using social media. This is an incredible list.
I have to admit its the first time I really looked at this wiki and saw the variety and depth of emergency management information available here. Seems a good thing for most emergency agencies to put a link to this resource on their websites.
The listing of social media channels used by agencies is a good example. Everyone interested in getting information in emergencies can use this to reference the agencies they wish to follow. It was the first thing I did, went to my local county and regional governments and started following some of the Twitter accounts. But what struck me, as it did Bill Boyd, was the large number of Washington State emergency management agencies not using Twitter or any social media.
I learned a long time ago that Drucker was right when he said you can't manage what you don't measure, and that furthermore, measurement only really affects behavior when it is disclosed. That's why the transparency today is changing so much behavior. This list is fully public, and if it becomes widely known and used, it will no doubt have the affect of encouraging those lagging behind to start to catch up.
So, if you support social media use by emergency management (if you don't I doubt you are reading this), then pass this list along as far and wide as you can. Nothing any of us can do will likely have greater impact on accelerating this important trend.
My hats off to all those people behind Emergency 2.0 Wiki for doing some really great work.
In this brave new world of everything Internet, everything is visible and available to be known. In New York City that includes information about crimes. On December 8, the New York Police Department unveiled an interactive crime map that shows felony arrests anywhere in the city.
The map was created by the police department after requests from the City Council. But apparently not all are pleased with it. I thought maybe because it showed too much, but the criticism seems focused on not providing everything that everybody wants. Like time and date of arrests and vehicular homicides. For more on the complaints, here’s an article from theatlanticcities.com.
NYPD’s response to the criticism is basically, well, that’s too hard. And here’s my point or points:
- you will be expected to produce almost anything and everything you are involved in in readily accessible public forms and on maps
- that means your IT or tech support people will need GIS and web application skills
- there’s almost no such thing as TMI (too much information)--someone is always going to complain you didn’t provide all you could
- lack of budget, too busy with other things, not enough interest--all these reasons won’t mean much when the pressure is on, because every excuse will look like a coverup
- coverups or failure to provide information when asked is one of the worst things you can do today
Happy New Year!
(PS—just as I was writing this I got an email from Dave Statter saying that LAFD’s social media accounts were on hiatus, just as he was looking for info on a fatality fire. Hiatus? Are you kidding me? Failure to provide information today when needed leads to all kinds of speculation and conspiracy theories.)
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