What ahead for emergency communications in 2012?

Is it the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

 

The end of one year and beginning of the next means all kinds of retrospective views and prognostications. I find these a little tiresome, yet, like watching a train wreck I can't seem to take my eyes off them. As I dive into these dangerous waters, I wish to remind my readers that I have proven quite inept at this in the past--I for one, doomed Twitter to the social media graveyard soon after it launched only to watch it evolve into perhaps the most important tool for emergency communications since the invention of the siren.

With that warning, I bravely dive into the shark infested pool:

1) Crisis and emergency response communication is ending as we have known it.

We have seen it in the past as a sort of separate and distinct form aspect of public communication. Suddenly, an organization finds itself under the hot lights of TV cameras and on the front pages of newspapers around the neighborhood, country or world. What do you do to prepare for that, and how can you plan to avoid the catastrophes that have ruined many a brilliant career and powerful organization? Crisis communication seen in this way is far from business as usual. But I really believe that is changing. As more and more organizations communicate and engage directly with their audiences on a daily basis crisis and emergency communication is like what happens everyday except on steroids. What changes is not what is said and how it is said, what changes is the mere intensity of the interaction.

When you are already engaged in direct communication and interaction with key audiences on a regular basis, you don't do a lot different in a major crisis. You keep up the same stuff, except maybe increase the frequency, and certainly the sheer amount of direct interaction increases. If you are already talking regularly with reporters, key stakeholders, employees, neighborhood leaders, customers, suppliers and others important to you future, isn't that what you would do in a big event? Clearly, there are a lot of organizations who are not directly and regularly engaging with the right people. For them, crisis communication as a distinct process is still very much a reality. Everything changes when bad things happen and the world's attention is focused on them. But increasingly major corporations and emergency management organizations are learning the value of engaging directly and regularly. Coca Cola has 35 million "fans" on their Facebook page. What do you think they will do if it hits the fan and CNN walks across the street to talk to them (both in Atlanta, you see)? They will continue their on-going conversation on Facebook in addition to talking to CNN. And if CNN gets it wrong (quite certain to happen actually), then Coca Cola can quickly get the facts straight to the 35 million they are engaging directly. And those 35 million will use the social networks they are part of  to help tell the Coca Cola story.

In this overly simplistic view of things, there are those who are engaging directly and regularly and for whom a crisis is simply what they do daily on a higher level.There are those who are not engaging directly and regularly, and for them crisis communication as it has been is not only essential, but more dangerous than ever.

2) Social media channels will continue to diffuse.

The primary social media tools of crisis and emergency communication in 2011 were Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. They will likely continue to dominate, but life will not stay quite that simple. Others will chip around the edges. Google+ is causing a lot of questions. Certainly it hasn't kicked FB off the stage yet and likely won't--but it is probably something you will have to deal with if only because Google seems committed to make it work and they have a fair amount of clout. But there are others who nibble around the edges. I've been checking out pinterest--a rapidly growing way for folks to share common interests, mostly focused around images. I'm also interested in pivotshare--which looks to take the commercial use of YouTube to a new and higher level. I'm not saying these will bump FB and YouTube out of their dominant spot, but as new channels proliferate and find their audiences it will be increasingly important to incorporate them in your communication plans. One answer to this problem has to be platform integration. We are already seeing communication management systems evolve as single-point management platforms for multiple social media channels (full disclosure--I founded the above referenced company but am no longer employed, an owner or financially involved). I think we will see many more solutions aimed at making it easier to manage the multiple social media channels that are becoming essential.

3) Content curation and situation awareness will be primary concerns.

If you think about the global internet as a nervous system, the nerve endings or sensors are growing exponentially. Think about all those cameras walking around in people's pockets, hanging on light poles, in stores. Think about the texting that happens all the time (texting is now a more frequent use of cell phones than calling--they should be called texters with phone capabilities rather than phones with texting capabilities). Think about all the blogs, websites, social media channels sharing information. Now think about the hundreds of millions of phones with precise geographic information included. The internet sensors are everywhere and at some point of time in your future, the specific information provided on a few of those is going to be very very important to you. But will you be able to get it? Emergency managers will need to know what can be known at a specific point of time and space. But will they be able to get it? Right now, we have a nervous system with gazillions of nerve endings and very little brain to help us process it. Yes, Google is doing its best and a marvelous job of "organizing the world's information." But much more is needed. We need ways to capture the petabytes of data generated every moment, process it, analyze it and present it in a way that results in effective action. Real time situation analysis remains the holy grail of emergency management in this age. I've seen some intriguing developments in this direction that I'll be sharing with you later, but we are just at the beginning stages.

I mention content curation in this context because I see them related. We not only have in our internet nervous system all these sensors, we also have a tremendous amount of content being continually added--and all of it is accessible to us. Working on some writing projects I am continually amazed at the way I can so quickly access virtually any small but important fact--thanks again to the likes of Google and Wikipedia. The things that most interest you, the things you need to know quickly, are most likely there. But we can't be wading through it all. I can't get through all the email newsletters and messages that interest me. So having help with curating that content--organizing, prioritizing and effectively presenting it in a way that suits my particular needs--is and will be a primary concern of those in the business of presenting information. One of the best sources I have seen for discussions about this is Nieman Journalism Lab--a program of Harvard University. You may want to subscribe. And if you want examples of great curated content on the subject of social media and emergency management, you can't beat Patrice Cloutier's feed and Kim Stephens idisaster2.0 blog. I believe we will rely more and more on credible curators of information that is important to us--keep it up Patrice and Kim!

4) We will speak in video and images

Words matter, they really do ( I say this hopefully as I pound at my keyboard). But what matters more and more are pictures. Video and still images. The use of YouTube and Flickr provide an important key. There are more than 120 million videos on YouTube. If you wanted to watch every one it would take you 600 years. Many receive a few views, but a surprising number receive tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions. We haven't been paying attention too much to the continuing movement of globalization but the world is becoming smaller due to our ways of communicating and video and images are universal languages--even more than English. If you are involved in crisis and emergency comms and you are not thinking about how you are going to provide your vital info visually, you may find yourself in the wrong century. One quick example close at hand--power outage information. Sure, you can list all the communities, streets, locations with outages. But nothing communicates more quickly, efficiently or powerfully than a map. Especially one that tells you when the lights will come back on.

This is one lesson I am trying to practice as well as preach. Some of you saw my initial attempt at video production with the "Social Media--A Whole New Game" video. It may be a pathetic attempt, but I'm learning a lot and I'm not giving up--watch for more soon.

5) Mobile power.

This seems so obvious now that it may be not worth saying. Steve Jobs has passed on, but what he left behind has changed the world and will continue to change it in almost inconceivable ways. What you carry in your pocket or your purse in computing power is beyond any imagining just a few short years ago--and yet it is nothing compared to what is coming. People a lot smarter than me, like my son Geoff, tell me that things like Siri and Bluetooth 4 are about to change the world big time. I won't try to explain it, but I will tell you this. If you need to do urban search and rescue, say after a major earthquake, chances are you will be using things like Bluetooth 4 in the not too distant future to save lives. We still call these computers in our pockets and purses smartphones, but as I mentioned earlier, using them to phone others is becoming a minor use. They are game machines. They are personal assistants. They are newspapers and TV sets. They are key and car finders. They are recipe books. They are grandkid connectors. They are loudspeakers, sirens, printing presses, broadcast transmitters and on and on and on. They will become so much more. Yes, they have tiny screens and inconvenient key pads. But I recently played with an iphone projector, and key pads? Well, go back to Siri and see how we will be inputting info soon.

What that means is if you are not planning your communication to be managed on and distributed to mobile devices you will soon be left behind. Now, not tomorrow, is the time to plan for mobilization. I complained recently in this blog about a power outage and what I as a customer needed from my utility provider. I thought maybe I was blueskying it a bit, but then I got an email from the emergency management department of Seattle City Light and he showed me that they indeed have an interactive map that shows in essentially real time the status of power outages. Not only that they have a mobile app that will provide access to Seattle City Light including outage info. Thanks Jerry for the heads up and congrats to Seattle City Light for meeting today's expectations.

6) Threats to the internet will rise.

It is not all goodness and light in the world of internet communications. The dark cloud of SOPA hangs over everything and it has many of the folks I trust about these things positively terrified. I don't know much about it but it seems a typical extremely heavy-handed approach to solving an intellectual property concern in a way that will have devastating consequences.

While I worry about that, I worry even more about the impact of what I would call "instant rage" and "toxic talk." This post is already way too long but I will just highlight the problems that Lowe's and Chiquita have been having as examples. It's one thing for ham-fisted politicians to do in the internet and the freedom and transparency that it brings, it is another for those hypersensitive individuals who misuse the power of the internet to intimidate others and heighten outrage.

Toxic talk has been a problem on internet discussion since the very beginning. Many who participate in internet discussions hide behind anonymity and spew the most hate-filled venom and the most foul language that is possible. What they would not say in public they say without accountability--and the results are potentially very damaging. Lowes for one had to shut down comments on its Facebook page after its TV show sponsorship problems because their Facebook page became a platform for the screaming, disgusting rage of those on both sides of the Muslim vs fundamentalist Christian divide. It's disgusting, horrifying and potentially deadly to our society and the free and open use of the internet.

I find it a bit ironic (as a cigar smoker, admittedly) that a society that is so intolerant of the slightest whiff of smoke from someone's questionable habit, is so completely tolerant of the venom, hate-filled language and outrage that sometimes seems to dominate our public discourse (and I'm not just referring to political debates). I hope and pray that a backlash against this will develop--nothing involving legislation--just a reaction against those who participate in this sort of thing so it becomes as socially unacceptable as passing gas in polite company. (Realizing of course that that somewhat scatalogical reference may put me in the category of toxic talk.)

Just one more thing before I get off my high horse and start slipping quietly into the new year. One thing I think John Naisbitt got right in Megatrends a long time ago was the idea of high tech-high touch. The higher we go in technology, the more there will be a balancing need for the human relationship and interaction. We are so ridiculously connected via high technology right now and admittedly, much of that has to do with maintaining our human relationships and connections. But the sheer amount of connectedness has to be doing something to us as people and particularly in our relationships with each other. My wife has often brought to my attention the way people who go out to eat in a restaurant are often spending much of their precious time together hunched over their pocket/purse computers (aka phones). It was sad watching a grandmother go to dinner with her 14ish old grandson, only to have him spend almost the entire time texting his friends while she watched quietly and ate. What opportunity that young man missed--and won't he some day regret it? Here's what I propose--a sabbath day for connectivity. One day a week to completely and totally disconnect. No cheating. Just see if you can do it.

Blessings on all of you in the new year!

Gerald

 

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