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by Gerald Baron: Crisis and emergency communication strategies

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October 2012 Archives
October 04, 2012

I’m very pleased to be working with a major urban area’s health department on a new project assisting them with training a team of emergency responders to conduct social media monitoring. And I’m particularly pleased to be able to collaborate on this project with two of the brightest minds and most experienced practitioners on this Patrice Cloutier and Chief Bill Boyd. I have much to learn from these gentlemen and I hope to be able to share at least some of that with you as we move this through project.

The first lesson, however, is the fact that agencies like this are taking social media monitoring seriously, and not merely as an aspect of emergency communication, but as a means of enhancing operational response. The focus here is on operationalizing information relevant to the ICS leaders to improve their decisions and the effectiveness of the response.

 Another important lesson from this assignment is that training is needed. The first wave of social media acceptance in the emergency management world is probably long over. The first wave is led by the early adopters. Those in emergency management who have an inclination toward technology, the Internet and social media have led the way in this revolution. But, I believe we’ve worked through those people. Their leadership has driven the widespread adoption. But as I work with clients in both the private and public sector I am continually reminded that we are still at the first wave of this revolution and that means that the majority, perhaps even the vast majority, have yet to fully adopt and integrate social media into their emergency response operational and communication plans and processes. That means the second wave will require that people who are not so inclined, who are not early adopters, who may even be resistant, have to be part of the process. This includes leaders as well as the worker bees. And that’s where this kind of training comes into play. Early adopters don’t really need training. They are hungry for anything new and innovative and get a kick out of trying new things. The rest have to be pushed and need very simple step-by-step directions to do what does not come naturally. I think it is vitally important for those pushing for social media integration to understand this very distinct difference and prepare for the hard slog to get to the top of the acceptance of innovation bell curve.

 

 


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October 10, 2012

Remember these names: Caitria and Morgan O'Neil, and recovers.org. These two young women living in Massachusetts experienced the unusual tornado that hit their town. It changed their plans and lives. And there is little question that what they learned, are teaching and putting into practice with practical software tools will do much for disaster recovery.

The women were recently featured on TED, a place where great ideas are shared but often of a more philosophical, technical or political nature. The fact that a talk on "community-powered disaster recovery" is found on TED is one indication of how big this topic is becoming. 

These are two very bright, very energetic, very entrepreneurial young ladies. They turned their personal experience into a software tool and business that provides what they found was missing. There are three key elements they explain in their talk to meeting the needs of disaster recovery: tools, timing and data.

In short, tools refers to the information organizing and sharing so essential to getting the right help to the right place at the right time. They talk of two burly guys with chainsaws showing up at the church where many had gathered, but leaving in disgust because they had no direction as to where they should go to help. Regarding timing, they talk about the difference between the news cycle or focus of public attention and the recovery time. The public attention shifts quicker than insurance adjusters can arrive to help customers. And that is lost opportunity in terms of fundraising and focusing assistance. And then there is data. The compelling example provided by Morgan was that FEMA will count volunteer time spent on recovery as part of a city's 15% contribution to recovery costs, but only if those volunteers are properly recorded. So, no data, no fundage. 

Their software, recovers.org, is designed to address these key problems identified. I have not reviewed it, nor do I have the expertise in disaster recovery to tell how effective this solution is. But, I do know this: "it's not your emergency." These citizens stepped up to help lead recovery efforts because of the inadequate ability of the local response organization. Yet, given the incredible demands immediately following a natural disaster, what government agency is fully equipped? And, given the ability, willingness, talent and low cost of volunteers such as these, why should the government assume the role of doing everything. The challenge today is participation, engagement, collaboration. It's a huge challenge but the stakes are high and rewards for community resilience are great. Let's hope emergency management professionals don't greet these efforts with scoffing disdain, but as a powerful new movement which they need to help guide and support.


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October 10, 2012

Remember these names: Caitria and Morgan O'Neil, and recovers.org. These two young women living in Massachusetts experienced the unusual tornado that hit their town. It changed their plans and lives. And there is little question that what they learned, are teaching and putting into practice with practical software tools will do much for disaster recovery.

The women were recently featured on TED, a place where great ideas are shared but often of a more philosophical, technical or political nature. The fact that a talk on "community-powered disaster recovery" is found on TED is one indication of how big this topic is becoming. 

These are two very bright, very energetic, very entrepreneurial young ladies. They turned their personal experience into a software tool and business that provides what they found was missing. There are three key elements they explain in their talk to meeting the needs of disaster recovery: tools, timing and data.

In short, tools refers to the information organizing and sharing so essential to getting the right help to the right place at the right time. They talk of two burly guys with chainsaws showing up at the church where many had gathered, but leaving in disgust because they had no direction as to where they should go to help. Regarding timing, they talk about the difference between the news cycle or focus of public attention and the recovery time. The public attention shifts quicker than insurance adjusters can arrive to help customers. And that is lost opportunity in terms of fundraising and focusing assistance. And then there is data. The compelling example provided by Morgan was that FEMA will count volunteer time spent on recovery as part of a city's 15% contribution to recovery costs, but only if those volunteers are properly recorded. So, no data, no fundage. 

Their software, recovers.org, is designed to address these key problems identified. I have not reviewed it, nor do I have the expertise in disaster recovery to tell how effective this solution is. But, I do know this: "it's not your emergency." These citizens stepped up to help lead recovery efforts because of the inadequate ability of the local response organization. Yet, given the incredible demands immediately following a natural disaster, what government agency is fully equipped? And, given the ability, willingness, talent and low cost of volunteers such as these, why should the government assume the role of doing everything. The challenge today is participation, engagement, collaboration. It's a huge challenge but the stakes are high and rewards for community resilience are great. Let's hope emergency management professionals don't greet these efforts with scoffing disdain, but as a powerful new movement which they need to help guide and support.


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October 17, 2012

I'm outside of Philadelphia speaking to about 200 emergency managers tomorrow morning about the importance of social media in emergency management. In talking to the very kind police officer who picked me up at the airport, it is clear that there is still some selling needed for some in emergency management regarding social media. The downside may be very obvious to many, particularly in law enforcement, and particularly with all those stories of viral videos showing police in ways that police would rather not be seen.

However, there are many good reasons for using social media if you are in law enforcement, fire service, health services, corporations, education, just about anyone who may need to urgently communicate important information when the junk hits the fan. I was thinking about that and my conversation with the police officer when I read Jim Garrow's blog post today about the CDC and their communication about the meningitis outbreak. Have a look at the CDC's info on the fungal meningitis outbreak.

He is absolutely spot on when he explains how the current situation demonstrates the value of building trust in public communication. He's also right on in CDC's demonstrated leadership in public risk communication. Every organization dealing with health issues ought to have a link on their main website to the CDC's social media channels, or have it ready to load up whenever any health issue emerges nationally. They are top notch and the publications they put out about proper use of the multiple channels needed to communicate today are essential reading.

Great job Jim! 


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October 19, 2012

 Yesterday I had the distinct privilege of talking to a group of about 150 emergency managers from Eastern Montgomery County just west of Philadelphia. Aside from being some of the nicest people around (thanks much for the cheesesteak Lt. Wheatley!) it was a great learning experience for me. As usual, I think I learned more from them than the little they might have learned from me.

 The most important lesson I learned from this group is the power of working together and getting to know each other before an event. This region covers about 300,000 people and includes a number of bedroom communities to nearby Philly. But, because it was organized a long time ago (us West Coasters always are amazed at the history back east) there are quite a few small townships with their own police and fire departments. That means that there are quite a few response resources, but divided up among many small agencies. Recognizing this, a few years ago some forward thinking leaders in emergency management decided it would be a good idea if they came together. So they did and they do. It is very obvious in the twelve years they have been meeting that they have gotten to know each other well, and care deeply about each other.

 I’ve worked with a number of different regions around the country and particularly on efforts to coordinate public information in major events. I've seen a lot of silos, in some cases some pretty strong competition, some animosity, jealousy, and history of non-cooperation. I’m not saying that’s the rule, but I am saying that Eastern Montgomery County is the biggest exception to general practices I have seen. Recognizing that a day with this group is not enough to see the warts and tensions and potential conflicts. But what I did see looks like something that should be looked at harder and possibly used as a model for many communities in our great nation.

 The other lesson I learned is about progress, or lack thereof, in social media acceptance in emergency management circles. Often I feel that those of us who have been preaching this message have virtually completed the task and that little is left to be done. Then I find that there are still many in emergency management who have some pretty outdated ideas about what digital communications, the internet and social media are all about. And the resistance then can be remarkably strong. This group I suspect it quite typical where there are some who have fully embraced and are using it aggressively, a few that have their heads stuck so far in the sand that nothing and nobody is going to pull it out. And a much greater number in the middle who realize that they are behind, there are good things that need to be done, but there are forces, and pressures, and people and fears that stand in the way and are too powerful to overcome.

 What struck me in a few conversations I had was the fear. The fear of what people may be saying about their agency or their people or their practices on social media. The fear of what opening the door will allow others within their departments to do and say wrong and cause all kinds of trouble. The fear of moving from the method of just giving something to the media rather than engaging directly with audiences—I suspect some of that is because if something goes wrong in the messaging they can always blame the media and who will doubt them? Mostly, however, it is the fear of the unknown.

 I realized after my presentation, I had made a significant tactical error. For those needing to take baby steps, just the first steps, I didn’t give any real guidance. I dumped on them so many different things—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, video, interactive websites, and on and on, that I probably contributed to some digging a little deeper into that sand.

 What I should have said is start slow, start easy. First thing is to start to monitor. Step one, set up a Google Alert around key words relating to emergencies in your community. Step two, monitor Twitter, particularly using those handy little hashtags. Yes, that means setting up an account and that is a bridge similar to the one over the Rubicon, but if you are only setting up so you can monitor, what is the harm in that? Third, use the search function on Facebook to find content of interest to emergency management in your community. Do those simple things to get started and you will soon find there is much less to fear than you might think. And if you don’t have a clue how to do those things, grab anyone under thirty years old who happens to pass by and they’ll get you started.

 

 


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October 25, 2012

Police in Durham, Ontario, Canada (across Lake Ontario from Buffalo, NY) seem to believe, like a great many in police service today, that they still live in the old world where they could control the flow of information. This story about a police standoff with a former city council member (councillor in Canada-speak) provides a striking illustration of how news is done. 

The article is written by a newspaper reporter or editor covering the story. If you want to see how news reporters today work with social media, plus the very serious problems it causes, you can't do better than reading this. Can you trust what is being said on social media? Can you trust tweets from the scene or things spreading on Facebook? This questions came up when the standoff was happening and a name was being floated about the subject of the standoff. But, police weren't saying. Should they go with what they were seeing on social media, or verify through other more traditional sources? This became even a more urgent question once they had confirmed that the subject was a former city councillor who had kidnapped the city solicitor. So, social media turned out to be correct. But, what do they do when the social media sources say the subject committed suicide? Go with that? The police were silent. What's a good reporter to do? Fortunately, they waited. It turned out the social media reports were wrong and the standoff ended with an arrest.

As the writer of this story concluded: As a newspaper on one of our most challenging days we were able to work under that old slogan: get it first, but first get it right.

Now, my question is this: Do the police, knowing about the speculation, the rumors, the misinformation flying about, have a moral obligation to provide information? Is it their job to monitor, correct, and tell what they know when they know it to be the truth? Is it more right to let those who are willing to share what they know or think they know determine the story line? I think not. What do you think?


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October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy hits the East Coast today but no one can say they didn't have information. Every major event reveals the increasing depth of information available online. 

This article from Poynter shows how journalists, struggling to be the sources of news for residents in the face of crowd information sharing, are creatively presenting storm information. This includes live video, graphically demonstrating wind power and direction, and combining information from multiple sources.

Google's Crisis Map makes instantly clear where the shelters are, and of course, if needed their People Finder service will help people find each other or communicate their status.

And ESRI, a provider of GIS-based emergency systems, provides a helpful map combining historical and current information about hurricanes.

Those using digital communications (the Internet in all its forms) have rich sources of real time information from which to make informed decisions. The question is, are emergency managers also using this information to make intelligent decisions as well?

 

UPDATE

From idisaster2.0 comes this interesting official application of crowd-mapping. This will be important to follow to see the results of Fairfax County's effort to integrate crowd sources of information into their operations. Great to see this happening.

UPDATE 2

Model predicts 10 million will be without power.


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October 30, 2012

The emergency management world is quite divided over social media, as I recently discovered at an emergency managers conference now in the Sandy-zone. Those for it and those against have plenty of ammunition for their points of view.

This morning I got a photograph from a friend who is one who likes to forward lots of (normally) good stuff. It was a photo of our brave soldiers guarding the tomb of the unknown soldier in horrid storm conditions. I had read before Sandy hit of the numerous storm photos being circulated that were not from this storm. Sure enough, my friend sent it with the message that this was Sandy. It was actually shot in September.

There are a great many phony photos and images being circulated, and some of them have fooled reporters and editors.

Far worse, is the phony tweets and blogs intentionally designed for strange and wicked reasons to scare people or cause them to take wrong action. For example, one tweeter using the name @comfortablysmug tweeted that the New York Stock Exchange was underwater and that Con Edison was shutting down all power in Manhattan. The anonymous tweeter was outed by Andrew Kaczynski of Buzzfeed and this story was posted, on alternative site because BuzzFeed was down because of the storm.

This story from Poynter talks about the false stuff coming out of social media. Interestingly, the reporter says that mainstream media got things wrong as well including CNN reporting that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded--but that info was reported nationally based on the, guess who, ComfortablySmug.

But, the Poynter story also makes clear the corrective power of social media, even in this kind of mess. They showed how Reuters ran the story of 19 Con Edison workers trapped, and how Con Edison corrected the media story using Twitter.

One of the most important elements of all this, is which channels of communication prove most resilient. I was watching CNN this morning and the reporter was complaining about now cell service. Duh. One of the first things to go in disasters is cell service just because high demand quickly overwhelms it, even if the infrastructure is still there. I thought, use Skype on her cell phone. No question that the Internet is the most resilient. 

Buzzfeed, as I mentioned above, couldn't post the story about false tweets because its site was down. However, Tumblr, a social media channel was up. I got notice of my accounting service site being down due to the storm. And Huffington Post said their site was down but "we'll keep tweeting." This is incredibly important for those trying to keep communicating during an event. One, look at geographic redundancy in your hosting plans (that's what we did at PIER and placed servers on both coasts). Second, consider the reliability and resilience of social media channels. Having a presence there that is widely used can be considered a key element of communication resilience.

No doubt, those wanting social media in emergency management to go away and leave them alone are finding plenty of fodder for their arguments. False information is rampant. Incredibly, some use it for evil purposes. But, if you need arguments to counter these, consider this:

- communication resilience--nothing stays up and running like the Internet and these social media channels
- self correcting nature of the Internet (I heard about the false picture circulating by email through social media at least one day before it showed up)
- because this is where citizens and media get info, both true and false, it is incumbent on every official communicator to monitor and respond to the false info--just like Con Edison did.

In other words, maybe social media can be a bad thing in an event like this, but what really makes it bad is when good people don't participate.

UPDATE

As I pushed the button to publish this, got a note from Dave Statter about the incredible tweeting done by FDNY's Emily Rahimi (I think she's already won awards for her work there). This story also highlights the growing problem facing response agencies related to calls for help on social media. 

 


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