The JIC Exercise

If you read my post of a couple of days ago you know I expressed some great concerns about the upcoming major drill. Since I am normally the PIO for the organization involved, I was very concerned about the intent of one agency to assume that role and what it would mean for our ability to do the job at hand. It worked out very well. The agency representative served as PIO with me as Deputy and it really couldn’t have gone better. We were very well prepared to communicate and he was very impressed with being able to come into a situation and really hit the ground running. Since we use PIER, the Joint Information Center software application, we had some concerns about the information in the system being visible to everyone in the JIC which is a very good point and something we will work on. We had problems, as always, getting Unified Command approval of the next information releases but learned what is probably the most valuable lesson of all. Don’t give them press release verbiage to approve. They love to wordsmith. Instead, give them key facts in bullet form and spoon feed it on a continual basis one or small group of facts at a time and get them to approve the information–not the way it is presented. Once we started doing that with bullets to add to fact sheets, it went much faster and we were able to substantially pick up the pace of continual information updates.

Those who had not seen our JIC operation at work, were amazed that we are able to push out of PIER a continual flow of updated information to pre-staged audiences–not just media, but community leaders, elected officials, response groups, activists and NGO, and many others. Once information is approved, it literally takes 30 seconds to get it up on the website and email or fax to thousands. And of course, what was not lost on anyone was with the inquiry management function, you really didn’t have to be in the JIC to work together on responding to the inquiries.

Another lesson was on JIC truth and what it takes today. We tried some new things that worked very well but I will save that for another post.

Social media sites as crisis communication sites?

I’ve seen more and more suggestions in the past while about using social media site building tools (such as WordPress, the one I am using here) to build crisis websites. Here’s a new post suggesting using Facebook for that purpose.

Since we more or less pioneered the concept 7 years ago of using highly interactive webtools for crisis communication, I very much welcome the realization of what is needed to be prepared to communicate. And, on a pretty simple level WordPress, Facebook and other website building and managing tools can work pretty darn well. But, for most, not nearly well enough. There is a lot to managing the communication during a major event. It involves a high level of coordination and collaboration, it involves internal review and approvals, it involves not just a website (pull communications) but pushing information out to multiple pre-staged stakeholders groups in multiple modes including telephone and SMS messaging. And it involves a high degree of interactivity. One thing really cool about these sites is they are built on interactivity through the comment function. But using this function during a crisis exposes those coming to the crisis site for information also to the full vitriol, politicized and agenda-driven comments of many of those who come to the site. Either that, or an obvious editing process which undermines the credibility.

By all means, some kinds of companies or organizations with crisis exposure ought to look at these as a low cost partial solution. But for those who are serious, are who operate in larger, more complex organizations, the danger is greater than the reward.

Joint Information Center trials and tribulations

If you’ve been in a Joint Information Center (JIC) you know that the concept is one thing, reality is another. For those who are JIC-less, a Joint Information Center is the communication function of the Incident Command System, which since 2003, is the federally mandated management system used to respond to all crises and emergency events where there is more than one agency or group responding. The response team responds with the operations, planning, logistics, finance and administration while the Joint Information Center provides the eyes, ears and mouth for the operation communicating with the media and stakeholders.

The JIC concept is very solid and has proven its value in multiple major events. It provides a single voice for the response despite there being multiple agencies involved, and makes it possible to exercise communication discipline under the leadership of the Incident Command. For example, if you have several different government agencies responding, from a large federal agency such as the EPA, to a local department of Emergency Management, plus some state ecology or transportation or health departments, the media would naturally contact any and all agencies involved in the response. The Minnesota bridge collapse provides a good example. If you were a reporter, who would approach to get the best, fastest, most accurate, most colorful information? You would try multiple sources, of course. With a JIC, there is only one place to go. One phone number (or set of numbers), one website, one email address, one set of facts, one PIO (public information officer) and one Incident Command (made up of commanders from the different agencies). One voice. It saves lots of time, it makes it more efficient, it helps make certain the information provided is as accurate as it can be, and it assures that those most responsible have control over what is being said about the response. Like I said, a great idea.

I am about to head out to another large-scale Joint Information Center operation. I am supposed to be the PIO as I have been for the past 8 years. But I won’t be. The simple reason is politics. The rules of ICS and JIC have been designed specifically to avoid politicizing and in-fighting, but that’s what gets me to my original comment. If any of you have been involved in JIC or ICS operations you know that it is dang near impossible to keep the politics and in-fighting out of just about anything. And so it goes. But, as in all things in life, you do your best to get along and go along and as far as it is possible be at peace with all others. If even if it means sitting back and watching a process that is important to you fall apart. I’ll let you know how it goes. No doubt I will learn important new lessons and that is what it is all about.

Minnesota bridge collapse tragedy–initial observations on communication

First, as other bloggers have done, I must express my sorrow and condolences to those impacted by the tragedy in Minnesota. My interest here is commenting on the efforts of the responders to communicate with the public about this and the way this incident is covered by the news media, blogs, etc. A few quick observations:

I watched the press conference last night covered by FOX News that featured the fire chief predominantly. Overall, he did a very good job and was/is and effective spokesperson. He got into a bit of dangerous territory in my mind when he highlighted to a fairly high degree his assessment of the outstanding response. Some information was very good and helpful like how many fire trucks they have and how many were on scene in what length of time, as well as the mutual aid response. But (and this is only minor criticism) there was a bit too much of sense of satisfaction of a plan that was working rather than a sense of what a great tragedy lay before them and feelings for the families of the victims. It is very important to communicate positively about the response effort, but you do not want families to be thinking: “Good for you, you all got there soon, but my son or daughter is laying in that cold river water so don’t be too satisfied just yet.”

Some of the other spokepeople who were involved in the press conference were much less effective. The shorter woman involved in traffic information (I believe) was ineffective in part because personal appearance issues dominated. A good point for those planning press conferences. During the conference, and on live or recorded national television, the questions from reporters could not usually be heard. Effective spokespersons such as the chief, made it clear in their answers what the question was. Ineffective ones gave quick little short yes or no type answers and you had no idea what they were responding to.

It seemed there was no PIO (Public Information Officer) managing the conference. It came to a ragged end where you really couldn’t tell if it was over or not but the cameras were still rolling. There was no apparent person in charge except the chief and when he ceded the floor to others, it kind of fell apart. The lesson–the PIO has to be in charge, has to make certain spokespeople can be heard and that they are communicating to the tv audience while answering the questions. He or she has to be aware of what is on camera and keeping the conference moving along, and then they need to create a definitive end with information as to where people can get additional information.

And here is the main and important criticism I have: website. During the conference a young woman got up to explain that additional information about traffic impacts would be available on the city website. She then gave a long string of characters and dots that no one could possibly have caught. And then she said that they should not look tonight for more information but tomorrow morning when new information would be posted. I’m sorry Fire Chief, your response team may be performing very well, your information team doesn’t appear to get it. Here’s why:

– a Joint Information Center operation such as this is needs a response-only dedicated website in which all agencies that are part of Unified Command need to participate in. A note on a city website doesn’t cut it today.

– information on that site needs to be constantly updated because that JIC site needs to be the voice for the response. That is where you want people going for information. It is the morning after the tragedy and I did several google searches looking for information. I find lots of outdated information on news websites, I find more up to date information on blog sites, and I can’t even find the response site anywhere. There is none. There is no official voice for the information apparently. I found the Minneapolis city website but only through a specific search for that and the only reason I knew to do that was I heard a quick mention of finding more info on the city website. Because I work with lots of different government agencies and leading companies on Joint Information Center operations, I can tell you for certain that this is not best practice.

I don’t mean to be hard on people who no doubt are doing their very best in very trying circumstances, but people in emergency management and crisis management need to be continually reminded that a good response poorly communicated is still a reputation disaster. I’m not saying there is a reputation disaster here. I’m just saying that like a lot of other first responder organizations, it appears at this time to me, that Minnesota has done a great job of drilling and preparing to respond effectively to a large scale disaster (congratulations are in order), but have done an inadequate job of preparing to communicate effectively, particularly through a JIC response-specific website.

Another note– from a quick read of blogs commenting on this I note the cynicism of blog commenters about the role of politicians and media in an event like this. They are really picking up on two things I continually talk about–the propensity of the media to immediately engage in the blame game, and the propensity of opportunistic politicians to jump on the bandwagon following such a tragedy with a whole new level of regulations and expensive government programs designed to protect us all. I say, God protect us from the blame game and heavy-handed politicians. And may God be with the families.