I can imagine a great many emergency management professionals shuddering at the suggestion of "Do It Yourself" disaster management. But I, and I think many others watching recent events, are increasingly convinced that people are doing emergency management on their own.
This latest post on idisaster 2.0 called "Social Media Foster Citizen-to-Citizen Aid After Disasters" by Kim Stephens adds more evidence to this conclusion. This one focuses on the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri. But many have noted public participation in the earthquakes in New Zealand, the gulf spill, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Haiti, the tornadoes that hit the south. Every new event brings more evidence that empowered by a way of connecting with each other that is faster, more powerful, more accessible than anything previous, people are not sitting back in major events and waiting for help to arrive. They are seeking help, offering help, and doing it on their own.
If responding to events becomes a DIY activity, is this a good thing, or bad? Although views are likely to differ dramatically here, I see it as both good and potentially bad.
Here's the good. One of the main lessons I learned from Amanda Ripley's excellent book "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why" is that resilience begins with self-reliance. Those who survive, who do best in the most difficult circumstance have an attitude that says I can take care of myself. Those who are compliant, who feel overwhelmed or incapable, who have developed an attitude of reliance and dependence are much more likely to become a victim. You might shorten that idea to say: Victim mentality = victim.
Disaster DIYers do not have a victim mentality. They dig in, they look how they can help, they have compassion matched with impatience. Something needs doing, they will do it. That is a good thing and something that needs to be encouraged. Resilience as a nation and community depends on it.
Another good thing is the opening up of a vast resource. The emergency manager's job is to know what resources are available and deploy those as effectively as possible based on best available information about the event. Disaster DIYers help in two ways: they provide an almost unlimited numbers of eyes, ears and voices. If emergency managers tap into it (a huge "if" that is occupying some of the best brains in this business right now) then they will have far better situation awareness. Better intelligence means better decision making as anyone trained in military science will tell you. But, they also provide man and woman power. They not only help provide info needed to deploy resources, they can become resources to deploy.
And that's the bad part. Because right now, the DIYers are not integrated into emergency response doctrine to any significant degree. Yes, there is good work going on in integrating their eyes, ears and voices. For the most part I'm guessing there is little to nothing being done to integrate their hands, feet and strong backs. Yes, there are the calls for volunteers to fill sandbags in floods. Red Cross certainly has made a career out of engaging volunteers to help in victim support. But there are tips of the iceberg in terms of DIYer involvement. The sheer scale of this involvement in events such as Joplin demonstrate that.
It will be interesting to watch how the emergency management profession deals with it--starting at the federal level and going all the way into towns and villages. I think we are at stage one in the process: Denial. I think most EM folks would like to pretend it wasn't happening. When it does become more widely accepted, I think we will go into stage two: protectionism. Obstacles will be created, the public will be directed and advised and ordered to leave the heavy lifting to the professionals. Legal liability, you know. Safety concerns. But, hey, when it is your mother or wife or daughter or son or cousin under the rubble, safety is the least of your concerns. So, I do think we will get to the third stage: grudging acceptance. From there I hope we get quickly to the final stage: embrace and engage.
The challenges in getting there will be many. Liability issues are important and certainly so is safety. But most important is communication. The battlefield has always depended on communicating with the troops. When those troops now include potentially every citizen in the community, organizing, protecting, directing and managing them becomes a monumental task which is primarily about communicating. Ah yes, the role of the communication professional in emergency management seems only to grow.
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Fire Chief Bill Boyd is gaining a reputation around the nation for promoting the use of social media in fire departments and emergency management operations. He speaks as one Incident Commander to fellow Incident Commanders in this video taken from the 140 Characters Conference held in Vancouver, WA.
If you want some compelling real life examples of how social media is being used to great effect as part of a mid-sized communities fire services, you'll enjoy Bill's presentation. I can think of no better way to help chiefs and ICs understand what this social media thing is all about.
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I am deeply disappointed by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report on the BP spill. It points blame in entirely the wrong direction and is dangerous for the nation's ability to respond to events like Deepwater Horizon in the future.
In their haste to chastise the Obama administration for failures related to the oil spill management, they have bought into the media's meta-narrative without digging deeper and looking to some of the real problems. The essence is the suggestion that the administration had two choices of response doctrine to follow: Oil Pollution Act of 199o or the Stafford Act used for natural disasters. They said the administration chose OPA 90 and that was a mistake. They couldn't be more wrong. In fact, the problem was the inconsistent application of OPA 90. There was a blending of two very different approaches and this resulted in responder frustration and confusion and more importantly, a communication disaster that caused significant loss of public trust.
The report criticized the administration for allowing BP to run the spill. First, it is completely untrue that BP ran the spill. This story, repeated so often in the press, came because the administration--up until May 29 when they changed tack big time--were very concerned to inoculate themselves against blame and heaped the blame on BP. But BP was never "in charge." Unified Command was, led by the Coast Guard officer who served as FOSC (federal on-scene coordinator) Unified Command included several government agencies and it was this entity which had authority. Yes, BP was a part of Unified Command, but as one Coast Guard officer explained in a TV interview, the Coast Guard has 51% vote. Confusion in this was caused by the administration in the early stages not wanting to be seen as in charge to avoid blame. They even ordered government logos off the Unified Command website at one point. It was all political messaging and positioning, and created a false impression that BP was in charge. I'm amazed that Rep. Issa and the staffers seemed to use media reports to form their opinions.
The report said the Stafford Act should have been used. The Stafford Act enables the federal government to provide resources to state and local governments. In supporting this as the doctrine, the committee seems to have bought into the arguments of many local political leaders such as Gov. Jindal, and Parish presidents Nungesser and Tafarro that they should have been in charge. God help us. Admiral Allen pointed out several times that trying to stop an uncontrolled well a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf was more like Apollo 13 than the ExxonValdez. Apparently the committee thinks given this technical challenge, not only should BP--the only player in the room with the knowledge, expertise and equipment to really do anything--should have been thrown out, but that they should give this problem over to government officials who know nothing about how to fix the problem. Not just any government officials, but the likes of Nungesser who famously said on CNN that "Admiral Allen is a disgrace, he's done nothing, he should be fired." President Obama gave Nungesser unprecedented access to Unified Command, telling him according to this New Yorker report that if Nungesser couldn't get what he wanted out of Unified Command he should call the president up directly and he would take care of it. It is this kind of political pressure that affected the spill response (see the National Oil Spill Commission on "boom wars") that the Oversight Committee should be criticizing the president for, not the opposite.
The American public are permanently confused about the Stafford Act because of the blame placed on President Bush and FEMA during Hurricane Katrina. The media meta-narrative was there that "Brownie" should have been doing a lot more instead of supporting the state and local response. That he should have been in charge, and now the federal government is trying to pretend to be in charge of every little response. But that was not the intent--it was to provide federal resources (tax dollars) to support local officials. If the committee thinks this is the way to deal with an Apollo 13-type oil spill, I think we need some new elected representatives.
The spill and its management highlighted some major problems in our nation's response doctrine--primarily that we have two very different systems--the National Contingency Plan (OPA 90) and the National Response Framework (Stafford Act). They are like oil and water. To try to mix them as the administration did after May 29 creates huge problems. We need these two doctrines reconciled. We don't need them further misapplied as Rep. Issa and the committee suggest.
I received an interesting question by email that I thought I would share with others in health crisis communications. The question relates to the need for speed and whether health communications is a little different from other first responders such as police, fire, emergency management agencies, etc. As the inquirer mentioned: "our involvement really begins in earnest a day or days following the initial 'event.'"
If I have any reputation at all in emergency management it probably is related to my call for the need for speed. "Now Is Too Late" is all about why speed is so important in the time of instant news. But, it was first written in 2001 and updated in 2006. 2011 is a very different world from even just five years ago, and one of the most profound changes is in the speed of communications. Where before I advised adopting a communications credo I learned from the Coast Guard to be "the first and best source of the news," now I say, "give up."
Unless an event is invisible to all but the insiders including yourself there is simply no way I can imagine that you as an official communicator who has to go through typically multiple drafting and approval steps can beat the crowd on the street with their pocket-sized electronic news gathering equipment and worldwide broadcast channels.
So, if you can't be first, you have to be best. That's what I mean when I say that the primary job of the JIC, or the PIO, or the crisis communication team is now rumor management. You are the official channel, presumably the only official one. You, above all, should have access to the people who need to know and need to verify the facts. What you provide must be impeccable. No one else has the obligation to be 100% right in what you say. Certainly not the crowd on the street that the rest of the world including major media are waiting to report on what is happening right now. What is seen to be happening right now is not necessary correct. But with all the voices participating, someone should know whether what is said by the crowd is correct or not. And that someone is you.
This is all the more important for health communications. Health problems create fear and uncertainty. And we know from the likes of Dr. Vincent Covello, Amanda Ripley and others that when we get afraid funny things happen to our brains. We don't process information in the same way we normally do. That puts a premium on simple, clear messages that go right to the heart of what is making us afraid; Above all we need information that is 100% reliable. We also need to have bad information corrected immediately.
That brings us back to speed. Speed is still essential, in some ways more important than ever. But now the trigger for speed is not necessarily new event information as that is going to be reported by others. What we need is a very fast process between identifying bad information circulating out there (rumors), developing corrective information, and distributing it as quickly as possible.
And that brings us to the other part of the inquirer's question. What role does social media have to play in this? An essential one. First, because it is most likely how you are going to find those rumors in the first place, and second it is the fastest, most efficient and reliable way of correcting the bad information.
Reader warning--I am about to say something cynical about the media. You might think the best way to get corrective, calming, reassuring information to quell a rumor is through the media. It may be and media communication is essential. But you must understand, that to reduce fear is to run counter to what is in the media's interest. Read Jack Fuller's book titled "What is Happening to News" to understand the dependence the media has on highly charged, emotional information. People focus in on those things that frighten. Fear, uncertainty, doubt gets eyes on the screen. Calm reassurance does not. How many news reports in the US did you see that say: Japanese radiation leaks will not impact the US? How many did you see that led you to believe that the situation was highly dangerous?
I'm not saying that the media can't be helpful in calming fears and conveying vital health instructions. You have to try. But you need to understand how desperate the competition for eyes is and how that calming information runs counter to the way the game is won.
Which brings us back to social media. Sure, social media can be victimized by fear mongering and we are the same people in responding to what we see on social media as on mainstream media. But, as this report from Ragan shows (disclosure--I'm quoted here) the "Internet" has a self-corrective nature. Also, the "Internet" hates bad information. They particularly hate when bad information is intentional as the story about the McDonald's photo hoax shows.
My answer to the question is regarding health communications: you are the official voice, and you are the broadcaster of the correct information. You need to know what is being said almost as soon as it is being said, you need to be able to address wrong information and distribute correct information very quickly. You should be distributing this correct information as directly to audiences as you can, which makes your website number one and social media channels a very close number two. Distributing to mainstream media should also be included--and hold them accountable for communicating accurate information.
The McDonald's hoax, which I blogged about at crisisblogger, is providing some interesting lessons about rumor management. If you aren't familiar with the story, just look at the crisisblogger blog post for some of the background. What intrigues me about this story is the relative ease with which McDonald's ended it. Actually, I don't think it is accurate to say that McDonald's ended it--although their simple tweet was a classic example of how to get a lot of meaning into 140 characters. The outrageousness of the hoax contributed, but even more was the attitude of "the Internet" as gawker.com refers to the social media crowd.
You see, "the Internet" really doesn't like dishonesty--including when perpetrated against big companies. So once someone determined this was a hoax, I suspect that "the Internet" would pretty much have taken care of it. But what got me thinking about that was whether other companies, industries or organizations would fare as well as McDonald's in this. Since I work a lot with "Big Oil," it struck me that if a hoax along this line, even one as outrageous and fundamentally as unbelievable as this were perpetrated against let's say ExxonMobil, or Shell or Total, or any of the giants, what would the reaction be? What if it was against BP? Would "the Internet" be as quick as they were with McDonald's to discount it and so quick to retweet the statement from McDonald's that this was clearly a hoax? I sincerely doubt it. And that has major consequences for anyone in crisis communications.
We all tend to think we start a crisis from ground zero. Every organization begins a big event with a blank slate, and the outcome of our efforts as communicators is determined by how well we do in quickly and accurately conveying response information, and perhaps more importantly, whether or not our spokesperson stepped on him/herself in the process. But that is a big mistake. Not every organization starts from the same position. Many start with a deep hole in the ground, and others have a huge bank account of goodwill to draw on when it hits the fan. I believe, and I think recent events help demonstrate, that where you end up has more to do with where you started than what you did during the response.
I am continually amazed at the people who think that BP's reputation problems are all related to PR mistakes they made during the spill, or more specifically to Hayward's gaffes. Even a lot of PR and crisis experts have this viewpoint. I think it is dangerously wrong--particularly if you are in an industry or group or organization or company that suffers from a public trust problem right now.
Clearly, organizations with lots of stored up goodwill can squander it quickly through terrible mistakes, and companies with real trust issues can conceivably turn around questionable reputations by unexpectedly charming behavior when things are going very wrong. But in general, if you are in it deep to begin with, you really have only one way to go. And if you have a solid reputation and enjoy the trust of customers, taxpayers or constituents, congratulations--it will definitely help you, to a point, when things go bad.
"The Internet" likes McDonalds--after all, it is a big employer of many who would be included in that group, and the kitchen for many others. It is a trusted brand. "The Internet" does not like BP, Big Oil and lots of other things. They generally don't like government, particularly elected officials, particularly Congress. As an emergency communicator or crisis communicator, part of your job in advance of an event is to help the senior leaders understand just how important it is to build up that bank account of goodwill. If the trust level is low already, the job you will have during an event will be many, many times more difficult. Instead of getting help from "the Internet" to correct hoaxes, rumors, attacks, misinformation and the like, "the Internet" will magnify these and be highly resistant to your efforts to quell them.
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You're an emergency management professional, so how do you think people will get the information they seek in a natural disaster? If you are thinking radio, TV or the newspaper you would not be alone. But according to the National Hurricane Survival Initiative and their "Get Ready America" campaign, social media is about to dominate public information in disasters:
The Sachs/Mason-Dixon Poll commissioned by the initiative found that 72% of Americans are members of a social network, such as Facebook, Twitter or MySpace and 45% said they would rely on it to communicate with friends and loved ones in the event of a natural disaster; another 24% said they might.
There are more details in the report linked above that you will want to study. But according to this about 223 million Americans use social media, and of them 101 million said they would rely on social media to communicate with friends and loved ones. Another 54 million said "they might." That's 155 million out of a population of 311 million. And that is today, not tomorrow.
I'd like to go further and suggest that this does not fully explain the role of social media in a disaster. This refers specifically to those using it to communicate with loved ones and friends. What about the media? Think they'll sit around a wait for a PIO to tell them what is going on? Not so much, not when they can rely on 155 million who are telling what is going on for them--and at least some of them will be in a position to see and know what is going on. Social media for public information operates on two levels--one direct as people talk to each other, second through the media as the media gathers what it can from these direct conversations and amplifies what they find out to the millions who may be watching TV, listening on the radio or checking the news sites.
What's a PIO and Incident Commander to do? There's a lot of heads sticking in sand right now. But there is a growing realization that the days of the existing process of developing information, drafting releases, securing IC approval, handing out to the media and scheduling the big press conference are rapidly going the way of the Dusenberg. Official information must become part of this vast flow and conversation or else it will become increasingly irrelevant.
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Facebook is for kids, right? And families, and those youngsters who keep their heads in their phones all during a trip to a restaurant. Twitter, that's really for text junkies.
I sort of thought that using these social media giant sites for serious news like crisis communication and emergency management was a little sideline that they keepers of these sites would have little interest in. It seems they have discovered what an important role both of these play in how the world keeps informed--so now they are going out of their way to court journalists.
Facebook has some new pages dedicated to showing how journalists can make use of Facebook. It's clear they see Facebook as an ideal newsroom and one in which journalists provide information more directly, informally and interactively. Christian Amanpour is highlighted as an example.
Twitter, not be outdone, also just announced the Twitter guide for journalists. Using examples from journalists such as Katie Couric they show how journalists can make great use of Twitter, and they don't assume everyone knows what Twitter is or what the basics of tweeting are all about.
You might say, great for journalists, but what does this have to do with me? But you'd be missing two important points. One, is that the more journalists rely on social media to get their news and tell their news, the more critical these channels become for you in engaging with the media and monitoring what they are saying. But the bigger point is this--in this time of direct communication, you are the media. Your incident website, newsroom, agency media site, whatever, it will become the focal point for incident communications. It will become the CNN and FOX competitor. That's whether you like it or not. People will come (as in 155 million times in the gulf spill to the Unified Command website). It's like you find yourself at the starting line with world class sprinters and you say I don't want to be here. Maybe not, but now you only have one choice--compete the best you can.
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Consider it a kind of special blessing for Twitter. Today, the Pope started tweeting.
So, here's the question: are you? Is your agency? Is your organization? I admit it. I was a holdout, I even predicted that Twitter would die relatively quickly. But it has solidified its position as one of the "must use" channels for crisis and emergency communicators.
To understand Twitter's essential role in emergency communication its helpful to look at the Pope's tweet. It did two things: alerted the media to some interesting news, and directed those interested to much more in-depth information on the Vatican's new news site. Exactly. Twitter is now probably the most essential media management tool. It's where the media goes to see what is happening. And now that Twitter is reaching out aggressively to journalists its role in media coverage will likely grow even more.
Every bit as important as this is the role of Twitter in alerting the interested media and public to more in-depth information which you can/should be providing on your website. Wouldn't it be great in a crisis if a good portion of those interested would go to you directly for the straight scoop on the event? Well, they will if you put the straight scoop out there and then bother to let them know where they can find it (can you say bitly?).
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