Rumors fly fast and far on social media and the Internet. Official communicators representing the response agencies or major organizations involved in a response are no longer the primary providers of information about the event. That role has shifted to the public, to those who are witnessing it, involved in it, experiencing it and certainly sharing it. We can no longer be the first to provide most, if not all, response information. But, official voices still have a very critical role: rumor management.
Want to see how it is done? Check out FEMA's Hurricane Sandy website: http://www.fema.gov/sandy. Scroll down a bit to see the Rumor Control section. Personally, I think the site could be designed a bit better, a little less linear in style. Allowing viewers to quickly spot the Rumor Control section is very important.
Another example is the news site of Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. The Fact Check section is prominently featured on the front page of the site. When news coverage of LADWP or blogs about the agency provide false, misleading or incorrect information, LADWP is quick to provide the correct information and point out the error. This does two very important things: it prevents the rumors or misinformation from getting too much of a head of steam and two, it sends a message to those who would pass on that information that they should be careful to be accurate because DWP will correct them. That makes it one of the best media management strategies around.
Setting up a rumor control operation is not difficult. I'll be talking more about that here in the near future. But what it does take is a commitment to monitor, to make certain the communicators have unfettered access to response information, and that approval processes don't prohibit fast responses. OK, so I guess it is difficult.
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Two of the people who I learn the most from about emergency communications have written outstanding summaries of the communications around Sandy. They clearly agree: this event is important in the history of emergency communications.
James Garrow (public health communicator, Pennsylvania) talks about the inflection point. That point in the adoption of innovation where the early adopters have done all they can, and the continued acceptance of the innovation is dependent on the non-enthusiasts, if I can put it that way. James also provides an outstanding list of links of national media stories talking about the role of social media.
Patrice Cloutier (my most common source for great finds to share with you here) gives us 10 reasons why there will be a "before Sandy" and "after Sandy" in emergency communications.
Social media and digital communications is now deeply embedded in emergency management. There is no going back. Those who continue to stick their head in the sand are only exposing a part of their anatomy most vulnerable to getting kicked. Those of you who have been pushing your superiors who have been dragging their feet, you have all the ammunition you need. For those continuing to drag your feet: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
With all the focus on social media and how it is impacting crisis and emergency communication, an equally significant issue may be ignored--and that is the changing styles of communication. I was asked by a client to prepare and present a training program on writing for the web. This was a public agency, not a private company, and the class gave ample opportunity to highlight what is happening to writing and communicating, particularly for digital communications. I asked the participants to bring in examples of what they were writing for the agency's website. Almost without exception, the examples showed just how much web writing has changed--and how we as communicators are not keeping pace.
Then, an example of great web writing popped up--the Seattle Police Department's blog post informing Seattle citizens on what they can expect in marijuana enforcement following the legalization of marijuana in the recent election. I blogged on this over at crisisblogger, so won't repeat the points. But I found it very interesting to view this excellent piece of writing in light of the five key points I tried to convey to those in my training class.
The five key points:
- picture your target reader
- tell upfront what's in it for them
- have a clear purpose
- use the right voice
- be brief
One of the things I emphasized was the difference in age between most of us in the training class and most of our audience. I asked the group the average age in the room. I would say mostly late 40s to early 50s. But the average age of Americans is now 36.8 years. Since that includes all ages, chances are most reading your website at early 30s or below. They are the ones dictating the changing styles.
In looking around a bit at websites, particularly government websites, I see some struggles with these changes. It's hard, when you are representing an official agency, and maybe a stuffy and self-important elected official, to let loose and communicate in the highly personal, sometimes snarky style that is evolving. I'd like to hear from you. Is this a big issue? Do you find yourself adapting to the new styles only to have it shot down from above, by those less sensitive to the changes? Is it much easier for you to write in the somewhat officious and stuffy style that characterizes much of government writing? Do you chafe at the butchering of formal written English seeing in it a decline in literacy and sophistication? Is there need for more training and education about how to write for today's audiences?
(By the way, you might notice me using more bullet points and highlighting of text. That's because in the research I did for the class I found most don't actually read web articles, they scan them, speed read them, and bullets and key points highlighted make it much easier to scan.)
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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called LIPA (Long Island Power Authority "beyond repair." News reports are filled with stories about LIPA customers expressing their anger at the failures of the state-owned agency. And COO Michael Hervey has resigned in disgrace.
I'm not in any position to evaluate LIPA's performance, or that of any of the utilities, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. With 8.5 million power outages in 21 states, their task has been herculean. And, what many who are still without power may have a hard time swallowing, according to this Wall Street Journal story, the utilities have done a remarkably good job of restoring power.Much better in fact, than many other areas experiencing major storm damage.
But the noise coming from politicians, the press and the angry customers provides some invaluable lessons for everyone in emergency management, and particularly utility providers.
1. Someone has to take the heat. Doesn't work in this day and age to simply blame God for a horrible storm. It's clear in any major event that our political, media and social media culture requires that the outrage we feel being victimized in an event like this needs to find a focus. It's quite clear that LIPA is the black hat of Sandy, as "Brownie," Bush and FEMA were the black hats of Katrina, and Tony Hayward and BP the black hats of the gulf spill. So, think about it. If there's a big disaster that you are involved in, someone is going to end up wearing the black hats. Career's will end ignominiously. Blame will be laid. Fault will be found. Sorry about that, it's our world.
2. Politician's instinct is to avoid heat by heaping outrage on others. This process is nothing new. Where there is citizen frustration a politician is going to be attracted like a manure fly to, well, you know what. They all see in a disaster the opportunity to be the white knight, but there is also great risk in having the black hat put on them. So the blame game is played very quickly and efficiently. We saw it in Katrina where local and state officials (who had responsibility for the response) ducked it by blaming Bush and FEMA (which did not have responsibility for the response, despite what the media said). I saw it first hand in the gulf spill where the mechanism of response communication was grabbed from Command and turned into a mighty weapon to heap outrage on BP while inoculating the president against growing frustration. Now we see it in the words and actions of Cuomo and Bloomberg and local mayors. This is a great worry to me working in emergency communications, because the ability of local responders to communicate directly with the public is often managed by the elected officials. And they have the power to then deflect blame and place it on the responders. Who holds the mike, holds the power.
3. Effective response is more and more about effective communication. Why are people on Long Island unhappy? Bad communication. Sure, they'd like their power on. More than that, they want the truth about when their power is coming on. What is the focus of complaint about LIPA? Poor communication with customers. A “complete breakdown in communications” between the Long Island Power Authority and tens of thousands of its powerless customers was the agency’s biggest post-Sandy failure, a member of the Board of Trustees told The Insider." Governor Cuomo is forming a commission to investigate the failures, but has already pronounced a death sentence on the agency started by his dad.
This situation is not that unlike that faced by several utilities in Southern California after the big windstorm of Nover 30, 2011. State legislative inquiries, public hearings, lots of media focus on blame--and most of it came down to failures to communicate effectively about outage status and restoration times.
The Wall Street Journal article that basically said the utilities were performing well also brought home the priority of communications:
"A common complaint from residents throughout the region: The lack of accurate communication about when power would be restored.
Redpath, who is served by Jersey Central Power & Light, said he understands that the restoration job was enormous and would have understood if it took utilities three or four weeks to restore power. But for an entire week he was told almost daily that power would be restored the next day. He said he just happened to discover the power had finally been restored when he noticed the lights were on his neighbor's porch while driving by."
There is such a huge lesson for emergency communicators here, I hope it is not missed. Performance is important, yes it is. But ultimately, it is communication about that performance that is going to determine the future of your agency. No one would be happy to hear that it will take three weeks to restore power. But their unhappiness with that is nothing compared to the outrage they feel if they hear nothing, or perhaps worse, hear that it will be tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
I hope every utility operator in the nation is paying attention. What is at stake is nothing less than becoming the next LIPA and facing an agency death sentence.
You can't trust what you find on the Internet, and you certainly can't trust what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter. That statement and the belief behind it constitute the biggest spoken obstacle to better integration of social media in crisis and emergency management, let alone communication. (I say biggest spoken reason because I think a bigger reason, not spoken, is us old folks too tired, weary, lazy and to close to retirement to have to bother with learning something as mind-bending and mentally challenging as social media seems to be for some.)
For emergency managers to use social media in major emergency response decisions, there are two major obstacles to overcome. First is the noise, second is the truth. For the purpose of this discussion, I'm going to not use "social media" as a generic term, but use instead "user generated content" or UGC.
Noise--finding the needle in the haystack
In any major event, the amount of user generated content accessible to anyone who knows how to monitor it is overwhelming. During Sandy, Huffpost reported 20 million tweets on the storm in one week. That's just Twitter. Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing channel, reported that 800,000 images about Sandy were posted on Instagram. Some of the UGC would have been incredibly important to emergency responders--where damage was, where people were who needed rescuing, where supplies were badly needed, and so on. But, there's just too much noise. How do you find the signal in the midst of the noise? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff, the needle from the haystack? Because it seems too overwhelming a problem, it seems better, safer for many to pretend there are no needles in the haystack, and it is all noise.
Truth--what is actionable intelligence and what will lead you astray?
Sandy provided some outstanding examples of why UGC cannot be trusted. There were all the fake photos, so widely discussed including on this blog. There was the story of the nasty tweeter who intentionally tweeted false information--stories that got reported on CNN. User Generated Content is as reliable as the user generating the content. Some are careful, most are not. Some are mean, nasty demons, most are not. But, those who wish to avoid the topic of social media or UGC in emergency management or crisis communication will focus on the lack of trustworthiness so clear in much content.
What can you do then? What is the answer to the noise and trustworthiness problem?
This video from PICNIC 2012 Festival in Amsterdam provides some of the best answers to these difficult questions. It's too rich to try and summarize here, and as I am still digesting this lengthy presentation I'll probably be sharing lessons learned for some time to come. Here is the upshot: the major news outlets have the same problem you do, except they have it worse--they live or die by UGC. Their business depends on both being first with big news and getting it right (and often they fail in either of these and sometimes both). But, unlike probably the majority of senior leaders in emergency management, the leaders of news organizations have determined that UGC is central to their work of delivering the news, the truth, the facts to hungry audiences.
The question then is, how do they solve these problems of noise and truth?
Here are a few quick highlights from the presentation by Michael Eltringham, founder and editor of BBC UGC Hub.
- Hub--did you notice that in the title? Monitoring and analyzing UGC is the hub of BBC's news coverage. That is so important to understand. In a few very short years they have learned that UGC (eg Internet and social media) is where news first appears. So, if they want to provide the news, they have to be where it is happening first. (Can you imagine the UGC Hub in an EOC--and thinking that this is the central point from which all response management begins? Yet, that is what is happening in news.)
- whose job is it? I hear EM folks saying, yeah, we'd like to monitor but we don't have the staff for it. The BBC Hub employs 20 people, but is that who does the work? No. It's everyone in the BBC. Here's what Peter Horrocks, the head of Global News for BBC says: "This isn't just a kind of fad from someone who's an enthusiast of technology. I'm afraid you're not doing your job if you can't do those things. It's not discretionary." That means that BBC considers everyone of their journalists to be experts at UGC. Can you imagine an Emergency Management head calling the staff together and saying "as of today, a new item has been added to your job description. You will be required to monitor UGC and be able to separate the signal from the noise and the truth from the lies. Your job depends on it." I can't imagine it either, but the BBC can, and I suspect almost every other major news organization. Funny thing, while the news outlet's future may depend on their ability to report the news (starting with UGC) the emergency manager only has to worry about things like whether or not people live or die, or become ill, or lose property. Funny thing.
- How do they tell truth from fiction. Ah, here's the tough job. In a gruesome and powerful example, Eltringham showed a video from Syria of an enemy being buried alive. On video. He was covered up to his head and then they shoveled dirt over his head. But, the BBC Hub team had to determine whether to run this or not. Much is at risk here. Run it and if it is wrong, you have contributed to a thoroughly nasty propaganda campaign. Don't run it, and you are keeping valuable information from the world. They determined it was false. As Eltringham states, "verification is an art, not a science."
Much UGC is noise, and some of it is dangerous in its untruth. Many in EM are now using these reasons to keep their head firmly in the sand. But in that posture, another part of the anatomy is seriously exposed. There is no choice if you take your responsibility of protecting the public or protecting corporate reputation and brand value seriously. But, no one should minimize the challenges of curation--the emerging accepted term for separating signal from noise and fact from fiction. The news media are leading the way in the curation process--but responsible emergency managers cannot afford to be far behind.
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