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by Gerald Baron: Crisis and emergency communication strategies

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October 14, 2013

There are some of us who have been pounding the social media in emergencies drum for a long time. The fact that some organizations are establishing social media monitoring training programs is one of the best indicators that this discipline is beginning to become a serious and recognize part of emergency management.

I was fortunate to participate with Bill Boyd and Patrice Cloutier in a contract for such a Social Media Monitoring Training program for New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It was a fascinating learning experience--hang around Bill and Patrice for a while and you really learn what you don't know about social media in crises and emergencies. But it was the mere fact of seeing an RFP issued for this program that got me thinking about where other organizations are at.

Wouldn't you like to know what others are thinking about this too? Tell you what, participate in my little one minute survey and I will email you the results.

Integrating social media into an emergency or crisis management program may not be quite as easy as it sounds. For example: where will it sit--with the PIO or Planning, or the new Intelligence unit that is part of the upgrade of ICS? Will response managers (Incident Commanders) take it seriously? What's the best way to inject urgent info from social media into the stream of action and planning? How will you deal with calls for help that will inevitably come through social media? What tools are you going to use for monitoring? Free ones? Subscription? Some are very expensive but where is the bang for the buck? You know in a major event you are going to need several on this team--how to organize? What roles do you create and how are they to interact? What do you tell them is expected from them in routine reporting? Does it work to use volunteers? If so, how do you clarify expectations? How can you assure confidentiality as you pull them into the emergency management inside?

My point is, as you institutionalize a social media monitoring program, there is a lot to think about that. Ugh, you say, as if I don't have enough to think about. We understand that and we'd like to take what we've learned and make it as easy for you as possible. I don't like using this blog to promote much of anything, particularly anything I'm involved in, but I do think the webinar series Bill, Patrice and I are planning starting on Oct 23 may be of interest. 


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October 07, 2013

The digital mob seems to be sneering more heartily than normal about Fox News. This time is it their brand new newsroom just revealed, call "the News Deck."

Gotta admit, I was joining in the laughter at their BATS, which Shepard Smith called their "Big Area Touch Screens" but I'm guessing, like others, that "area" will be replaced by something else, indeed, that it probably started with something else.

But, looking past the humoungous tablet that flow around the news deck floor like control stations on the Enterprise, making the "information specialists" look like somebody shrunk the news producers, there is some important insights into news, and as importantly, about the information gathering process of any crisis or emergency response.

I've been focusing on the Information Gathering role lately in part because I am completing a training video on that role for the OnePage Crisis Communication Playbook program, and also because I've been contracted by a large company to produce role-specific video training for their global crisis communication operations. 

Information gathering isn't like it used to be, anymore than news is like it used to be. But, I'm afraid, that for many the realization of how dramatically things have changed have yet to show up in plans, training and drills. Info Gathering was sending someone to the Planning Section to check in with the Sit Stat unit, write some notes on what was on the big board or the big map, bring it back to the PIO, or APIO, or Info Production lead, (or in ESF#15 the Planning and Products unit) and then go back for more. Be honest, is that still pretty much it for you?

Then I strongly encourage you to watch the video on the above link about Fox News BATTY new newsroom and understand what they are trying to do. Because your job as Info Gatherer is not fundamentally different from that of Shepard Smith or his room full of Information Specialists.

What Fox News understands is that news is now mostly captured by those who happen to be near it. That it is shared through fully public connections--connections which they can and must tap into. That there is a wide-range of possible sources--he even mentioned the New York Times feed for goodness sake! Fox News? All those Info Specialists are using their BATS to see what is out there, determine what is relevant, focus in on it, then try to determine if it is reliable or not. Here I saw Shep get squeamish. He said, and I listened to it about five times to get it right, "to try to make sure that things are, well, vetted and confirmed to the degree that we can." What do you mean, Shep, that you can? Of course you can. You got the gazillions of Murdoch behind you, why couldn't you? Simple, because as he said just a moment later, "news pops in when news breaks--that's sort of the nature of news." He should have added, news today. It was not always so.

But speed is everything squared. And all that investment in BATS, in feeds, in the 38 foot video wall with the fancy dancy remote control that Shep gets to present it all with, all that is to gather the info from all the possible sources, confirm "to the greatest degree possible" and present to a news audience that more and more is ignoring it because they can get it directly from those same sources that are showing up on those BATS.

Speed is important for you as Info Gatherer. Too late means you are out of the game. Accuracy is important as well, because not just reputation depends on it, but as the intelligence that is gathered out there becomes actionable the veracity of it may impact lives, health, safety, the environment and property. As Info Gatherer, you have exactly the same challenges as Fox News and Shepard Smith. So many sources, so much to follow and check up on, and so little time to verify. For them, their ad dollars depend on it. For you, lives may depend on it.

Now, I gotta go shop for one of the dad gummed BATS.


September 25, 2013

Probably no coincidence that on the day I turned 62 I had a conversation about what in the world can we do about this older generation who just doesn't get it?

Say there is one department in your city who is "old school" about news and public information. But you are of the thought that we live in a time when "maximum information with minimum delay" is the best way to build trust and protect and enhance the reputation of your department. You could say: "you go your way, I'll go my way" but the trouble is there are a lot of times when you need to work together. Those are times of intense public interest. Just when you really need to do your job of keeping the public informed, you either are gagged or risk outright confrontation with your response partners.

Is this common? I suspect it is very common. Police chiefs, fire chiefs, incident commanders, emergency managers, mayors, county execs--all may have very different ideas of how to meet the public information challenges all face today.

What to do about it? Here are a few thoughts to start with and I'm hoping to go into this subject in more detail later.

1. Wait for their retirement (or yours). Ok, so that's not a good solution, unfortunately I think it is the most common one currently employed.

2. Do what you have to do, with respect. I think this is probably the most realistic solution. The trust in your agency is at stake. Unless forbidden by those above you, communicate. Ask forgiveness rather than permission. Do it with respect and the minimum necessary to accomplish what you need to. Then have a good thorough thrashing out once the event is over and you can debrief. (This advice probably shows why I never really had a chance of surviving in a big company or big government)

3. Use the public safety argument. Chiefs and EM leaders' primary responsibility is to protect the public. What happens when a rumor runs rampant? What happens when citizens panic because of false information? What happens when the media, unencrypted scanners, provide false reports of a gunman on the loose in a mall? Who will know and tell the truth fast enough to protect public safety and property? If they say that's not their job, someone needs to suggest its time to turn in their badge. And if they don't see the connection between fast, correct official information and protecting the public then someone isn't being very effective in telling them what's what.

4. Two pictures. I went to the internet and grabbed a photo of a 1930s era fire truck, then a new one. I was imagining sitting down with a recalcitrant fire chief (say one about 62 years old or so) and trying to convince him or her that using the best available tools was important in doing the job. I would ask, suppose it is your job to fight fires and you had a choice between these two vehicles. Which would you choose? I suspect they (if they don't refuse to play suspecting a trick question) would choose the new one. Then, I would ask, is building trust in our department part of your job? Assuming the answer is yes, then ask: why do you insist we continue to use completely outdated tools and methods when the new ones have been completely proven to work much, much better. (If he/she says prove it to me then print this article out and lay it on their desk (assuming he or she doesn't have a computer to view the article on)) Or, you could have them watch the video I did on this subject called NanoNews.

5. Understand the obstacles. There are many reasons beyond sheer exhaustion that keep leaders from adopting the new communication methods. You can't change a mind until you understand the mistaken thinking behind these obstacles.

For example, "Everything on the internet is wrong. It's worthless information." Yes, a lot is wrong, especially early. Both those who have the correct information usually quickly correct it. And the corrections are distributed through the network as quickly as the rumor. But (ask them gently) whose fault is it when those who do have the correct information refuse to correct it? Who is really responsible for the false information then?

Another example: "If you put out this response on Twitter and it involves us, suddenly the media are going to be calling us, and now, because of you we have to take the time to answer a lot of questions". OK, I'd respond: I won't tweet a single event that is completely invisible to the public. Because I'm not here to just attract attention. But if there are others there, they will be tweeting and sharing information and the media will get it and much of it will be wrong. Do you really want everyone else to be the trusted source for every response? And what if they can't be trusted? Do you want the media to only get information from those who may have an ax to grind with your department?

6. Chinese water torture. Keep it up, keep bringing them information, examples and case studies about the use of these tools. Ask, why are agency after agency from the White House to the smallest response agency eagerly adopting these tools? 

What's your solution?

I suspect most of you out there have far more experience with this issue than I do--and probably a lot better answers. Please be willing to share them here. If you want to remain anonymous, you can send me your thoughts using this form (I'm loving the forms function of GoogleDrive). You can also email me at gerald.baron@agincourt.us or simply comment on this post. Thanks for sharing!


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September 17, 2013

Yes, I'm the one who laughed when a few years ago Twitter launched and some told me it would be big. I thought: who's going to care what kind of latte you are sipping right now? Now, I find myself over and over telling communicators of all kinds that Twitter is the most important media and crisis management tool you have. 

Will Instagram become the next big news channel? Huh? Instagram? Where the social media kids share sepia-toned pictures of themselves mugging at the camera like we used to do in those old photobooths? Before you pull up your nose, or laugh, or switch to a better blog, you should know that Instagram is now becoming a news channel. That is, one news provider "NowThisNews" is using Instagram as one platform for distributing news. Here's what it looks like. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, one of the rising political stars in part based on his social media savvy, is of course one of the featured stories right now.

Why use Instagram as a news platform? Instead of building a new news channel, or app, or website the thinking, according to the Nieman Lab article, is that Instagram is where the audience is already so why not go there. Rather than a "if you build it they will come" idea, it's a sort of "since they are already at the ballpark, let's go there and have a game." Makes sense to me.

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September 16, 2013

The tragedy playing out in DC at the Navy Yard provides more valuable lessons about the progression of real time news reporting.

I called this NanoNews in a recent presentation for a DC emergency management conference and posted a video on it. It highlighted sharing of police scanners during the Boston manhunt. But then it was non-professionals getting this info from sites like Broadcastify and Ustream (where someone had put a webcam on a police scanner in Boston), or scanner apps like 5_0 Scan.

But, now the news media are using police scanners to provide realtime info. This article from Poynter provides the details but also says this shouldn't be done because the info is usually inaccurate. Like that's going to stop them? The audience race goes to the fastest and not much faster than scanners. So this may be the first but won't be the last.

What I find even more surprising is that the DC firemen's union @IAFF36, apparently now the official PIO and voice of DC fire service as their twitter feed has nothing on the tragedy, is actually promoting using emergency services scanners. They are even giving the actual link to the DC scanner.

USNavy (@USNavy) appears to me to have emerged as the go-to source for information on this tragedy.

Lessons? Establishing your organization as the correct and trusted source of information in this time or real-time clearly inaccurate news reporting by professional and non-professional sources alike, is absolutely critical. And Twitter with your news website are the indispensable tools.


September 13, 2013

Does your emergency or crisis communication plan state that only authorized spokespersons are to speak for your organization? That anyone else should not speak to the media, but refer to the authorized spokesperson? That has been standard fare, and when I tell clients--government or private--that that won't work, it is outdated and indeed may cause you significant problems, well, I get some very surprised looks.

Now, I'm the one surprised to see that the "everyone is a spokesperson" policy is now firmly embedded as federal emergency communication policy!

One of the biggest lessons coming out of the Deepwater Horizon event was this change in media access policy. Here's what happened. BP had the standard "spokesperson only policy." So did the government for that matter--at first. But reporters were crawling all over the place and with some 14,000 people working the spill at any one time, they had plenty of people on the beaches, in the street, on vessels to talk to. But, they started getting the standard answer: I'm not allowed to talk to you. Talk to the PIO over there." The media asked: who told you not to talk to us? The reporters wanted to focus it on BP and say that BP was hiding and being less than transparent. The truth was that Unified Command was in control and in that early stage was being run as Unified Command with BP as responsible party and US Coast Guard admirals leading the response along with representatives from other agencies. So, it was Unified Command policy. Then, with a much stronger DHS and White House presence, BP was removed from the joint communications and policy was set exclusively by the National Incident Commander with direct interaction with the White House.

It became a hot issue with the press digging deeper into why the access was limited and who was controlling it. One very experienced, very competent government official was summarily fired by Command (aka White House) when he told reporters, no, it wasn't BP setting that policy, it was coming from the White House. Hard to convince reporters the story is different from the way they want it to be.

The media access and limitations on who reporters could talk to became one of the burning issues to such a degree that National Incident Commander Thad Allen issued a Media Policy statement that said everyone involved in the response could speak to the media with the only restriction being that they were to speak about their area of responsibility and not go beyond that. If they were cleaning up the beach they could talk about their work, but couldn't go on and talk about other beaches, or policies about beach cleanup in general. This was nothing new to the Commander as it was exactly the same policy he implemented when he was 
Commandant of the Coast Guard. There were reasons why the Coast Guard was widely respected for their public information management.

This policy effectively took away the media's metanarrative about restricting access. But, the residue lingers. Which means that anyone attempting to implement the now out-dated policy of spokespersons only runs the serious risk of accusations of lack of transparency, of trying to manipulate the news, or less than full disclosure. Such is our world. I believe it is only a real risk if the story has you wearing the black hat in a big way and there isn't much you can do to get it off.

Given this background, perhaps I should not have so surprised to see that this new policy finding its way into the new and modified ESF #15 External Affairs. This is the public communication policy and structure under the National Response Framework, and for those who have followed this blog, one that I have been highly critical of in the past. I don't like the fact that the US government has two completely different and in many ways contradictory emergency communication plans. And that the ESF #15 plan is so focused on political messaging versus just getting the facts from the response and communicating them. But, I have to say, this new 2013 version is much, much improved from what I have seen in the past. It doesn't do away with its weakness in Information Gathering and it generally doesn't include social media monitoring in any realistic way, but in many others ways it is much better.

As it relates to spokespersons here is what it says:

4.3 Spokespersons
? ESF #15 leadership can address policy and incident management operations.
? All others can talk about what they do.

Couldn't be simpler, more straightforward and on target. This supports the separation of facts from organizational or response messaging, and helps the delegation of approvals to appropriate levels. Which, by the way, the new ESF #15 is also much more realistic about this delegation of approvals.

My congrats to Jeff Karonis and team on the vast improvements. I'll be looking closer at the new ESF #15 and commenting here more I'm sure. I'd love to hear from you about your thoughts about this new version.


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August 30, 2013

Way back in May I raised the question about where social media monitoring fits in the ICS. I received an unprecedented number of responses and many strong opinions. It is a very relevant question as emergency managers understand more and more just how valuable the information gained from social media and other Internet sources can be in making good response decisions.

As I expected many conclude that it belongs with the PIO and the JIC. This is no doubt because what happens on social media is of intense interest to the communicators. But, what if in monitoring you come across urgent pleas for help? If you discover (and verify) that a source of much needed water has just been located? Or that a building appears to be very near collapse and there are people in it? That's operational stuff, its urgent, and important. How to get it from the monitoring team, to the JIC Manager, to the PIO, to Sit Stat unit, to Planning, to Command--so that something can be done? How and where do you draw the lines so that your team can understand where they fit, what they do, where they go? And how do you put a process in place that takes seconds, rather than minutes (or more) when lives may depend on seconds?

I recently received a very intriguing answer to this from one of those involved in this earlier discussion. A discussion among team members resulted in the Planning Section chief saying: How about we move Sit Stat to the JIC? I thought I saw pigs flying when I heard that. But that's just what they did. The Planning chief observed that the JIC was scurrying around trying to gather up all the information from internal and increasingly from the important external sources and why duplicate the effort they were already involved in. Make it their job to collect information for Planning, assemble it, analyze it, verify it, share it. Sharing information is what they are supposed to be particularly skilled at anyway. Plus, the Planning chief said, it allows us to focus our job on preparing plans for the next operational period.

What do you think? I suspect the vast majority of Planning Chiefs and Incident Commanders would be more than a little squeamish about this. But, I would not have expected that solution so I may be wrong.

One thing is abundantly clear to me and is becoming an increasing element of my conversations with clients and others in this field, social media monitoring and its vital role in response management, not just communications, is driving communications and Planning, Operations and Command closer together than ever before. That, I believe, is a very good thing. 

August 22, 2013

Does the top dog in your organization tweet? I hear you laughing, but the question is why not? President Obama does @barackobama and he has 35.5 million followers. Sure, you say, he has a staff who tweets--yes and that is made clear in the brief description that also says that when the president himself tweets it is signed (rather inelegantly) bo. 

Coincidentally, I received an interesting news story this morning (thanks Marc!) about how Latin American leaders are tweeting. At the same time read Jim Garrow's blog post on "Tweeting Like A Boss." Add to that the presentation I recently made for the National Capital Region Social Media in Emergencies conference (via video and Hangout) where I suggested that one of the primary means of overcoming the approval delay problem is to follow the lead of John Daley, Deputy Commissioner of Boston Police, and have the approver do the tweeting. 

In 2006 in my updated (then updated) Now Is Too Late2, I added a new chapter called "The Ultimate Communicator." I suggested that with the access to powerful digital communication tools (pre-Twitter and most social media) that the move would be for the top dog, the CEO, the elected official to be doing his or her own communications. We certainly have seen a lot of progress in that direction. But there remains much resistance. Yet, the models are out there. Cory Booker, according to the Economist is a rising star in the Democratic Party and I would suggest one of the reasons is his embrace of social media on a very personal basis. Someone complains about a pothole in Newark, he's on it.

If I were a communication manager of a large company or government agency or jurisdiction, I believe I would strongly promote that move. Certainly there are risks and challenges. A leader has more to do in a crisis (or everyday) than DM a bunch of complainers. But I'd rather be at their side advising them on how to respond or what messages to delivery rather than put a cumbersome organization in place aimed at trying desperately to get approvals for those same messages. 


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August 20, 2013

I really appreciated Jim Garrow's post today on "Nothing's Happened." What it says is that when people are looking to you for information, you need to keep talking even when there is nothing to say. What do you say? That there is nothing new. Jim explains why that is a big deal.

But, let me tell you a quick story. In the early days of selling our online communication management system we had a local school district as a user. We had a big snowstorm in our area and so school was out for a few days. Every morning about 6:30 am the communication manager for the district would send an email to parents who had signed up for updates and post information on the website that said school was again closed. One morning we noticed a very large amount of web traffic on their site. I mean 500,000 hits in just a little bit of time for a school district of 10,000 students. What was this? Denial of service attack? 

No. The weather was improving and now it wasn't certain whether school would be closed. The administrators were having a hard time deciding. 6:30 am came and went and no decision. Parents were getting frantic. Do we arrange for child care or not? Nothing on the website. And where the heck is our regular update? So, every few minutes they refreshed their browser and hit the website again, and again, and again.

The problem was the communication director didn't have an answer so she thought she had nothing to say. She was wrong. She had the most important information which was that a decision had not yet been made. If she had just said "nothings happened" as Jim says, or just let them know what she knew, she would have saved a lot of anxiety. 

What is a bit ironic about this, is this was about 2003 or 2004--they were one of earliest to set up an email alert system. The year before those parents would be sitting by the radio or TV waiting for the endless crawl of schools announcing their schedule. How impatient those parents got once there was an improved, direct and immediate way of getting the vital info they needed. 

That too is the lesson. The better you get at providing good, fast, accurate, direct information, the more is expected of you. The easier it is to let people down when you don't meet their needs for information. So, communicate--even if there is nothing to say!



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August 05, 2013

Shayne Adamski, who leads FEMAs social media operation, recently provided written testimony to Congress on the agency's use of social media. That document is well worth the read.

For those looking for the digest version, I think the most relevant part is the five uses of social networks he identifies.

1. Inform public about how FEMA helps communities prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. (In other words, you should use social media to build awareness for the good things you do.)

2. Provide safety and preparedness tips. (If helping your citizens and communities prepare, and if giving important safety information is important during an emergency, social media is an important channel.)

3. Help the public help survivors. (Encourage donation to appropriate charities.)

4. Inform survivors of available assistance. (You may consider using your social media channel to help those link directly to FEMA. Saves work.)

5. Gain feedback--and control rumors. (This may be the most important function. Given how fast rumors spread on social media, only social media can stop them before they go too far.)

It is interesting, but understandable, that Adamski did not include improved situation awareness as one of the main reasons for using social media. Understandable because FEMA, despite severe media and public misunderstanding, is not and never was a response management organization. So because it was not mentioned in his testimony does not diminish its significance.




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