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by Gerald Baron: Crisis and emergency communication strategies

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July 25, 2013

Yesterday I had the pleasure of a lengthy conversation over dinner with a global crisis communications leader for a Fortune 100 company. One question that came up, and I know is relevant to many of you, is how do you get approval authority to effectively use Twitter--especially now that it is understood that Twitter is the PRIMARY media management tool. After all, if tweets have to go through the same legal, executive, subject matter expert review that press releases are typically subject to, well, you might as well close down your Twitter account.

I told my friend about how the Boston Police did it. They have received kudos from the media and almost all in social media for their excellent use of Twitter during the Boston Marathon manhunt. In fact, those following their Twitter feed during the event were the first to learn of the arrest (unless you were on 5_0 Scan, broadcastify, or one of the live Ustream feeds listening in on the police scanner). If you were following one of those realtime news sources, you would have noticed that the tweet about arresting the suspect came seconds after it actually happened. 

How did they do that? What PIO on earth would have such access and approval process? Well, I think it is possible but the secret here is that tweeting was done by the approver! Yes, if you have the one who needs to approve it do the tweeting, well that pretty well takes care of the time lag, don't you think? In this case it was Deputy Superintendent John Daly.

I suggested to my friend that he have whoever had approval authority do the tweeting. I got a funny look. Not going to happen. Well, I understand that. Although I don't think it should be such a stretch as many surveys are showing that leading CEOs and executives are pretty much up to speed on social media. But let's say you have that conversation with your Sheriff, police chief, mayor, emergency management director, Incident Commander or whoever. You tell them that like the Boston Police, you want to come out of any event with a great reputation for sharing information. That means it has to be fast, I mean like instant fast, like nanonews fast, and that means the best way to do it for the Chief to do the tweeting. 

Either the Chief is going to say, yes, no, or get the heck out of my office. And if it is no, then you need a conversation as to exactly how close you can come to that kind of speed. If the answer is, we can't, then a discussion is needed about how the media use Twitter, about how the scan kids will tell the news on Reddit or Ustream, and how everyone will be too busy dealing with the info (right or wrong) that they get from everyone else that they won't have time to deal with your great big, way too late important announcements.

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July 22, 2013

The remaining fire, police and emergency management chiefs who don't get social media probably have one eye locked on retirement. However, if you are working in a department that doesn't quite get it yet, I urge you, to read Chief Bill Boyd's latest blog post on "It's Not My Emergency." It's my great privilege to work with Bill, now a retired chief and active corporate executive involved in safety, on social media and emergency management training programs. His many years experience in the fire service, and as a PIO, enables him to speak with great authority on the value of today's communication technologies for response management.

Today's blog post, titled "You Are Already Behind" gives a blow by blow account of today's digital mobile communications and what it can mean to save lives and improve response effectiveness. Read it, share it, do it.

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July 11, 2013

From the earliest days of texting and channels like Twitter, a major concern of emergency managers were that people would use these means as a replacement for 911. This first came to my attention about 3 years ago when a pre-teen girl fell into an empty well in Australia. The good news was she had a cellphone with her. The bad news is she forgot the phone was to make phone calls--in this case 000, the Australian equivalent of 911. The good news is her friends were monitoring her Facebook page when she posted her predicament. The best news is she was quickly rescued unharmed.

Emergency agencies using social media routinely put "do not use this for emergencies. Call 911." This is wise and good practice. However, that doesn't stop people from using social media channels or texting when help is desperately needed. That's why it is a very good thing that the FCC is working to facilitate cell carriers to make text to 911 a reality. Progress is very much mixed on this front at this report show. A slow rollout is in progress.

But what this means is every emergency response agency needs to incorporate some means of monitoring and responding. This is particularly true in major disasters like earthquakes, floods or severe weather where cell coverage may be knocked out and text messaging still works. Disaster after disaster has shown the internet to be the most resilient so those who can access it outside of the cell networks will continue to use it--and may use it to call for help.

Where do you stand on this? Not practical? Not worth the effort? Or do you see it as part of your responsibility to respond as your customers expect of you?

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July 09, 2013

Every major emergency event seems to cement Twitter as the most significant communication channel available. That seems to be the case with both the Calgary floods and the Asiana Flight 214 crash.

In her excellent analysis of the Calgary floods, Melissa Agnes points out that the Calgary police and Mayor Nenshi relied on Twitter to carry important messages. That is, until @CalgaryPolice (the Twitter identity of Calgary Police) ended up in "Twitter Jail," which is what Twitter does to your account when they believe you are being too active and chewing up too much of their bandwidth. Your account is temporarily suspended. but that didn't stop Calgary Police--Constable Jeremy Shaw simply took up the work with his personal account.

However, this does identify a strong problem with Twitter as a vital emergency communication tool. I hope Twitter gets the message and perhaps identifies accounts in advance that are exempt from "jail" based on their need to provide emergency communication. Twitter in the past has proven pretty slow on the uptake on issues like this (note: fake Twitter accounts, spamming, etc.), so it may be advisable to secure a second or third Twitter account. For example @hometownpolice1, @hometownpolice2, etc.

Bill Salvin similarly dissects use of social media in the early moments of the Asiana crash. What I was interested in was this event demonstrating nano news, which is my term for absolutely real time reporting. Sure enough, someone was shooting a cellphone video of the plane landing and caught the entire crash including tail hitting the seawall and the "cartwheel" that wasn't quite a cartwheel. CNN played it perhaps ten thousand times as a background to all the experts repeating inane comments about the crash. 

In Bill's analysis you can see the what appear to be remarkably calm tweets from passengers, photos of passengers dragging their carryon luggage from the plane, and also see Twitter being used by news reporters to try and contact passengers for on-air interviews.

I watched the news reports on TV in those early hours after the crash, all the while knowing that if I went to my ipad or pulled out my iphone, I'd be getting a wider range, more immediate, and more colorful story. 

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July 05, 2013

Remember all those fake images circulating around the Internet during Hurricane Sandy? Like this one:

Beyond entertaining millions, these images convinced many that social media and the Internet were completely unreliable sources of information. Therefore, there is no use for social media or Internet-sourced information in emergency management.

However, it is now clear that emergency managers are in general not taking that view and are accepting the importance and role of Internet and social network information in situation awareness and response intelligence. As this becomes more accepted, the importance of verification and validation grows. That's why I tuned in to this story from Poynter that suggests that fake photos on Twitter can be spotted with 97% accuracy.

How? I won't go into the detail provided in the article, but it is a matter of identifying who is retweeting these fake images and finding out if the retweeters have certain user features in common. It's sort of like asking: are all town gossips basically the same? The answer is yes. People who retweet without verification, who spread rumors and false information with abandon, have certain characteristics in common. When you look at those characteristics, run them against images they are retweeting, you can pretty much tell what is fake. I would assume the same would be true of other content other than images.

Since I and my colleagues Patrice Cloutier and Bill Boyd are deep into developing a social media monitoring program, the issue of validation and verification is very much live. What this news about identifying fake content tells us is: 1) no doubt monitoring tools in the future will incorporate the kinds of algorithms these researchers have identified and that monitoring in the future will include some kind of "validation score." And 2) the basic premise of validation is know your source.

One new emergency management technology I've been involved in recently involves clear identification of "Trusted Sources." That makes it very very helpful for those wanting to find reliable information. But whether or not you have technology helping you or not, when looking at what you see on the Internet or social media whether or not you know the source matters.

No doubt you are on the lists of a few friends or acquaintances who have too much time on their hands and who send endless series of jokes, cat or baby videos, or political diatribes on the right or left. So often what they send seems hard to believe. So I check snopes--and sure enough, often it is rehashed emails that have made the circuits and have been shown to be false--but they keep sending them. So even though I know some of these people (I mean like very close family members) and I have warned them several times to PLEASE check snopes before sending this kind of garbage out, it doesn't stop them.

Point: Know your source and whether or not they care what they send is true or not.

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June 19, 2013

Drone journalism is becoming a hot topic of conversation as this report by Nieman Lab indicates. Huh? you might respond. Drones are quite clearly--for good and ill--the future of conflict, but they will soon play a very signficant role in people telling stories and providing reports about major events going on right now. A bridge collapse? No more helicopters overhead--too expensive. Send in the drones. An earthquake, oil spill, no question. How about searching for a bombing suspect? No doubt the FAA "no-fly zones" will affect drone traffic to some degree, but I suspect a lively debate on this.

The fact that the journalism community is showing great interest in the story telling capability of drones is indicated by a Google search on the topic. There's even a Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ of course) with a website and membership. Ball State University is offering a course on drone journalism in fall, 2013. How's about that for a university recruitment scheme: come play with our drones!

To be perfectly honest, my interest in this was stimulated by my own interest in RC airplanes. Getting into this a little I was absolutely stunned by the huge variety, remarkably low cost and incredible capability of all kinds of radio controlled flying machines. Most intriguing was the discovery of FPV, or First Person View of these vehicles. You rig a small camera (or even the HD GoPro camera) onto almost any of these flying machines, put on a pair of goggles or hitch it to a big screen and you can fly your plane, quad copter or whatever from your den, your van or out in the field--all the while watching the scene from the cockpit point of view. Amazing. I'm going to do that--after I learn to stop crashing. Our son in the video production sees a necessity of building this capability for aerial shoots at much less cost than normal. 

This might seem just entertainment for some old, bored fighter pilot buff (like me), or you can see it for what I think it will be: your future.

As a communicator, hopefully by now you realize your job is not to feed the journalists and broadcaster but to be a journalist and broadcaster. Social media, now used by almost 70% of emergency management agencies, helped more than anything to get the idea across that we have to tell our story fast and to those who want to listen--reporters or average Joes. That means the tools and techniques used by journalists are your tools and techniques too. Certainly monitoring social media has become the PRIMARY means of reporting (don't believe me? Read this), and that means you are the story teller, the reporter, the broadcaster. If the story is best told by a drone--or in hobby terms, an FPV camera-equipped el cheapo RC plane--then you will likely be required to tell the story that way.

As for me, I'm teaching my grandkids to fly my RC planes. They'll have a great future in journalism that way.

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June 18, 2013

I reconnected with Mark Challender, a former employee back in my business magazine publishing days, and discovered his passion for amateur radio, particularly in supporting emergency management. I confessed to him I didn't see that much of a role for it given all the other options. He soundly corrected me and I asked him to inform the rest of you as he did me. Thanks Mark! Here is his guest post:

Is Use of Amateur Radio in an Emergency Still Valid?

The answer is YES, amateur radio can make your communications better during a crisis when “normal” modes of communication have failed.

There are many articles showing successful use of “amateurs” in crisis situations – just search “ham radio use in emergencies.”  One recent example is the role of amateur radio during the Boston Marathon……..after the bombs went off and cell phone and other traditional modes of communication failed due to saturation of the network, amateur radio worked and worked well.

Amateur Radio Operators were already on site providing communications for the Marathon (something they have done for years.)  When the bombs went off they were asked to perform other tasks and, from all reports they performed well.

Amateur radio can transmit email using their radios even if local internet, cell phones, and social media is completely down, and they can get that email to the Internet (perhaps a nearby city or even across the country) by using other radio operators to relay the data.  They can also keep certain details of your scene secure using this method (maybe you do not want the number of victims transmitted over voice communications, for example.)

While amateur radio frequencies can be scanned and their voice communications heard on the scanners their digital communications described above cannot easily be intercepted.

Our amateur radio organization (an ARES – Amateur Radio Emergency Service – group) has used digital modes to send names and conditions of “victims” during drills.  We are able to send that information from the field to a central location and we can set up relays “on the fly” to get the message to the intended recipient.

Amateur radio operators can bring their own antennas, deploy those antennas and can communicate to stations hundreds, if not thousands of miles away and help you get more assistance.  Radio Operators can even build an antenna, with wire and other common, easy to find materials so they can get their signal out.

Amateur radio can operate from any 12 volt battery (Got a spare vehicle that runs?  They can use that vehicle to charge the battery and can connect their equipment to that vehicle’s battery and run as long as there is fuel available to run the vehicle and keep the battery charged)  Amateur radio operators are innovative and flexible and they can communicate for hours, if not days, getting the signal out for you and your team.

Amateur radio operators are self-contained and can deploy their own vehicles or their group’s communication vehicles when requested by a local DEM or law enforcement or government agency.  Amateur radio operators in the field can be supported by radio operators at their homes, in an EOC, or even miles away from your “crisis” location.  Amateur radio operators are flexible, innovative and solve communications problems through their knowledge of their equipment and their experience.

Amateur radio operators affiliated with ARES or other groups have undergone a clearance process  with their local law enforcement and emergency management agency, have ICS training from FEMA, have first responder training, understand the incident command structure and are your communicators when on site during your emergency.  They log their communications, create clear and concise messages, transmit those messages and make those messages available to your organizational structure.

Amateur radio operators understand they are not your PIO.  They do not talk to the media or the general public. They understand the importance of maintaining radio silence and communicating only when necessary and they know they work for you not the other way around.

Amateur radio operators are amateurs only by definition, and because the FCC licenses them on the amateur radio frequencies.  But, amateur radio operators can operate on your frequencies when authorized and, in fact, many of them have purchased and programmed commercial radios with your frequencies on them just in case they are needed by you.  They are your communications link when everything else has failed.

Amateur radio operators plan for failure, drill for success and are ready to be called out when needed.

So, is there still a valid need for amateur radio in your crisis?  Yes, if your power is out, your radios don’t work, you are disconnected from the internet, your cell phones don’t work and/or your SMS is failing and you need a team of “professionals” who can help you communicate to your teams…..

See an FCC article here on the use of amateur radio in emergency management.

Connect with your local amateur radio operators, look for ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) and go to one of their meetings, ask to see their capabilities, look at their equipment bays and their radio rooms and present them with a scenario.  They will rise to the challenge and surprise you.


Mark Challender

NG2G, Whatcom County, WA ARES

June 12, 2013

New technologies are emerging every day--most of those in that supercomputer you carry in your pocket or purse. They're designed to solve every day little problems or just facilitate how we maneuver through our every day lives. But, as this blog post from Patrick Meir points out, these every day tools get a major workout in disasters. And as such, they become part of the entire disaster management effort.

Waze is one great example. My tech-savvy son-in-law just shared it with me as navigating around our recently collapsed I-5 bridge over the Skagit River is a bit of a challenge these days. Waze is simply brilliant. Download the app and then drive with the waze app open. It uses your geolocation capability along with all other wazers in your area to give you realtime traffic information. It will alert you when an alternative route would be better and it allows you to make handsfree reports in addition to the fully automatic reporting that goes on simply by driving. In other words, Waze provides realtime information on traffic by sharing what is happening with everyone using Waze. 

It's pretty easy to see how this can be invaluable in an emergency requiring evacuation or simply avoiding the area. 

Uber is another example, although as Meir points out, they didn't adapt to the needs of Hurricane Sandy other than to raise their fees. Uber makes it very easy using an app to order up a towncar with driver to take you anywhere. If you use this service in every day life, it make sense when you need a ride to get the heck out of town, its where you are going to turn.

Two points I want to make here:

- technology is evolving and changing so rapidly it makes the heads of old guys like me spin like a weathervane in an Iowa tornado

- these kinds of every day technologies are what people are going to turn to and use in a disaster to help them avoid danger, get information and share information. Google Peoplefinder may be the ultimate example. If we use Google every day to find just about any little bit of information we may need or want, why wouldn't we turn to Google to find the people most dear to us?

The implications for emergency management are pretty obvious. If these are the tools people are using to respond to an emergency, they become part of the emergency management system. And emergency managers should become familiar with every element of emergency management. Learn what people are doing and how they are doing it. Because emergency management is providing for the public what the public can't provide for themselves--and what they are providing for themselves and in community through their interconnections is ever increasing.


May 31, 2013

Marcus Deyerin is doing us all a big favor by honestly sharing valuable lessons learned from his experience as initial PIO for the I-5 bridge collapse in Skagit County, Washington State. His third post on Jim Garrow's blog moves from the initial stages into the next stage where he began dealing with the media crowd

I have some questions for Marcus and thought it might be good to address them here and hopefully have Marcus answer them here or in Jim's blog. One thing that struck me early on is that Marcus was out there by himself and could have really benefited from some help, particularly experienced help. That's where a good crisis communication plan and some training really helps because if you know what you are doing (Marcus clearly does) and you are lone rangering it, you don't really need a plan. But when the focus of the world is suddenly on your event, the crush of media, social media, monitoring, info gathering, dark sites and all that starts descending on you, you really can't go it alone. So, my first question is: Marcus, did you get any help? Did you try to? Would you have been able to organize and manage a team while meeting the demands, or do you think having some help would have resulted in less efficiency? Do see a VOST (Volunteer Operation Support Team) being any help here?

My second question is a fundamental one for today's communicators, particularly given the reality that Marcus faced when he tried to take on the media crush by himself. He reports that at 8:38pm (bridge collapsed at about 7 pm) his phone number was tweeted out by a State Patrol PIO (hmm, did he ask you first? And, is there a reason you didn't tweet it out? I would think so.) The first media calls came two minutes later and Marcus reports at that point he became inundated talking to the media.

As a highly interested news consumer eagerly watching Marcus' tweets, I noticed this without knowing the reason. The flow of information essentially stopped, switching from Marcus to the media. However, prior to this the media were getting a great flow of information from Marcus. So, here's my question: when you are lone rangering it and you have a choice of continuous tweets vs. answering individual media calls, what should you do? 

I was PIO for an industrial facility owned by a global giant quite a number of years ago. Since I was pioneering and advocating for a strong online presence, as the initial PIO in a major drill, I focused on getting all the information on the website. I delayed responding to some media calls in favor of getting this information out believing that by doing so I was serving the most number of media and non-media stakeholders as well. I was called on the carpet quite severely for this being told in no uncertain terms that the media come first, even if it is a local radio station. The facility management even chided me because it was the headquarters types who were beating me up over this. I humbly acquiesced (never easy for me) but I always thought they were wrong. I believe that even more so about ten years later.

My thought (and I'm throwing this open for question) is that it would have been better for Marcus to tweet something like: To media--I can serve you best by continuing to provide updated tweets. Pls understand I can't respond to interview requests at the moment. And then keep tweeting.

That way, all in the media from Cairo to Chicago to Mount Vernon would have access to the same and the best info, plus even me watching twitter in California.

Marcus--and the rest of you PIO types--what do you think?

May 29, 2013

I posted last week about the bridge collapse taking both lanes of Interstate 5 down between Seattle and Vancouver BC. In that I talked about Marcus Deyerin who provided the best information via Twitter, information the news media were relying on for their reports. I know Marcus (I live about five miles from the former bridge, Marcus about 25 miles) and knew he served as a PIO for regional incident management, but he had to drive in backed up traffic or be in some position to know what was going on. And I couldn't tell from his tweets if he was acting as a citizen with unusual access to rescue information or if his tweets were official communications. 

Well, Marcus is sharing some of his personal experiences serving as the PIO of this incident on Jim Garrow's terrific blog. In his post I find out that if I had followed his tweets back to the beginning I would have found out that he was indeed operating in the official PIO capacity--but using his personal Twitter account. In this account I find out why--although I hope to hear more. 

I also found out how Marcus happened to become the PIO for this incident. He was right nearby and like a good responder checked in to see if he could help. The fact that he knew the incident commander, had worked with him before as part of the regional incident team is extremely important. This is why we form these teams, we we drill, we why get together and get to know each other. I suspect the IC was quite happy to see a familiar face and one he knew he could trust to do the PIO job.

As one of the first responders to this scene commented on my previous post, the fact that there were no fatalities, not even any serious injuries, suggests in his words "the Good Lord watches over Skagit Valley." As a Skagit Valley resident, I have every reason to agree. As for Marcus being there when needed, just a coincidence? Maybe not.


UPDATE: Here is Marcus' second post about his experience as PIO on Jim Garrow's blog. The lessons learned here are invaluable!

Seeing the very high value of having a communicator like Marcus share these kinds of honest reflections and lessons learned, I would strongly urge other Crisis Comm readers who find themselves on the hot seat like Marcus did to use this blog to share their experiences. No better way of learning than listening carefully to those who have just been through what you are preparing for!

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