Higher Education Webinar with Widmeyer

I’m here in DC for a series of meetings and yesterday conducted a webinar on communications for higher education with Widmeyer Communications. I am so pleased to be partnering with this exceptional public relations firm. They are very well regarded in a multitude of areas and one of those is higher education. We had over 50 university leaders and communicators on the call which included Dr. Tim Tinker, a nationally recognized expert in risk and crisis communications.

If you weren’t able to be on the call but are interested in the notes and possibly the recording from this webinar, you can get that by emailing kschafer@piersystems.com

PRSA conference–a great summary

I’ve presented four times (I think) at PRSA international conferences and this time was by far the most enjoyable. Although it was near the end of the event, my room was packed, the audience unusually engaged and responsive. Plus, and here’s a real bonus, one of the attendees Kami Watson Huyse, did a great job of summarizing my presentation. So, if you couldn’t make it and want to see what was discussed under the topic of “Building Trust During a Media Maelstrom,” here is Kami’s summary. Thanks much, Kami!

FEMA's getting another public information black eye: "fake" news conference

I know for a fact that following Katrina, FEMA went out and hired some of the best and smartest communication people in the world. But, what happened here? A “fake” news conference? Someone wasn’t thinking. Apparently from the news report, FEMA called a press conference but called it with little lead time and not too many reporters showed up. So, rather than going with what they had or rescheduling it, they had some FEMA staff members pose as reporters and ask some softball questions. As the transcript shows, they sounded a lot more like willing FEMA staff members than seasoned reporters. Not sure how, but someone smelled a rat and now what is the story? The fire? No. FEMA doing a great job of responding? No. FEMA calling a fake press conference.

Oh boy. This is the age of transparency, people. This is about credibility. About not trying to fool anyone, ever, for any reason. It’s not about covering for someone because they didn’t leave enough lead time. It’s not about doing everything you can to look good when the cameras are on. It is about truth, honesty and building trust. Oh boy. Nuff said.

Philadelphia, PRSA and the California Wildfire communications

Writing here from the birthplace of the nation, Philadelphia where yesterday I presented at the PRSA international conference. I think I have spoken at four of these now and this was by far the best crowd, most informed, most engaged and most supportive audience I have had at these. A packed room and given that it was the last day of the conference that was great.

Things have definitely changed in the last few years and communicators are getting more and more in control of web-based communication which is a huge improvement. My sense was that the discussion about the changes in the news business, the opportunities to communicate directly to stakeholders, the focus of communicators on those people who matter most to the future of the organization–those were the things that were of most importance to this group of pretty sophisticated communicators. The other thing that struck me is how small our world is. I talked individually with a few before the session and with most there was some connection to users of our system, or other presentations or activities that we have been involved in.

As I write this, and as we talked about the new world of communication in Philly, it was very much in evidence in the big story of the day–the wildfires in California. Today’s issue of USA Today has a story titled “Technology’s Pipeline is Lifeline.” This confusing headline focused on the use of communication technology both by victims to connect to each other as well as officials to communicate with stakeholders. Universities in the region are using their new text and phone callout systems to inform their campus communities of closures. Public safety leaders are using their reverse 911 (phone-based emergency notification systems) to alert hundreds of thousands to evacuation information.  Bloggers are active and playing a role in the response. Social media sites like craigslist are providing means of communicating damage.

Interesting. It shows dramatically the shift of public communication to a variety of internet opportunities. But, how is such an effort coordinated? Given the fragmentation and shattering of traditional means of communicating, how do the responders participate and manage communication control? How can they speak with one voice–or is such a thing no longer possible and desired?

Much to think about here.

But, while in Philly I also want to spend time thinking about the meaning of this city and its artifacts to our history. Yesterday I visited Independence Hall for the first time. Sacred ground and I felt it in my soul. Having read a number of books recently about our revolutionary beginnings, only those who have stood in front of the tables where Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest sat and deliberated, debated and then signed those incredible documents can understand the sense of presence one feels here. Thank you Philadelphia.

Social Media and impact on crisis communication

Last week I gave a presentation at the Whatcom Business Conference on social media and how it impacts small businesses. It helped me take a step back and get a little more perspective on how important these changes are for almost anyone in business today. Chuck Wolf, our partner with Media Consultants in Houston, suggested a few weeks ago that we do a white paper on social media and its impact on crisis communication. We agree and are starting to work on that using the survey we did for this conference as a basis.

But what does social media really mean for crisis communicators. Revolution. Nothing less. The internet created the post media world where the domination of those who had the capital invested in mass media began to decline. No longer were millions or billions needed in order to widely distribute information and be influential in forming public opinion.  But web 2.0 or social media took us in a whole new direction. Actually, it took us back to the days where the only form of media was voice. No machines, no electronics, no digits, no electromagnetic waves, nothing. Just one person talking to another or a group of others. What dominated that form was interaction. It wasn’t just one talking to a listener or a small audience, it was discussion, debate, back and forth. And the internet with social media has brought us full circle. But now we combine the machine, the electronics and the digits with the interactivity of highly social settings.

Interactivity is the key to understanding the direction of the future in crisis communication. It is not about the audience any more. In fact, the audience concept seems headed for the dustbin of history. It is about friends. It is about talking directly to one or millions individually and at the same time. You say it can’t be done? I say it must and will be done.

Our multimodal world

I was speaking to a group of Navy PIOs the other day and as part of a panel was asked a question about how to reach seniors, in this case the large population of Navy retirees in this region.  Other panelists commented on the high degree of penetration among seniors of the internet which still surprises a lot of people. While not as high as 18 year olds, the majority of seniors do use the internet regularly, particularly to stay in touch with family.

But my answer was there is no single answer. Email, websites, absolutely. But no single medium will reach all you need to reach and part of the internet-dominated world we live in is the reality that the receiver is in control. They choose their own media and it is constantly changing. It reminds me of the student from a campus who was not in a position to receive and urgent message from the university via the automated phone message, the text message or the email message. Using the website, he complained he didn’t hear the announcement on the radio in his car! Mass media still lives and still plays a role in this day of instant, direct communication.

The message is simple: use multiple means. No single method has any assurance of being complete. There are even times to use snail mail. Well, not often.

The Vancouver BC taser death–cell phone video vs. the police

I commented the other day about the use of cell phone videos in news. Suddenly there are millions of reporters out there. Now, another news story shows how these reporting devices are impacting the new and communications. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police tasered a man at the Vancouver BC airport after he got out of control. He died. The police said they tasered him twice. But, the news program I just watched showed an airport patron with a cellphone video who said the police tasered him four times. Oops. Now, I’m not ready to say the person with the cell video is right and the RCMP is wrong. But let’s say they are. Oops. Credibility? Lost. And that is something you can never afford to lose.

So, warning to communicators. Make sure what you say is true. Because there are a million–no, hundreds of millions of eyes out there. They know how to get their videos on tv and a whole lot of them know how to get them on YouTube too. The battle for who is to be believed has never changed since the days of Aristotle. But the technology to dispute or prove has never been so ubiquitous. The age of transparency.

Media-centered thinking and the new JIC plans

Several recent events have reinforced the media-centered focus of so many in crisis communication. Although evidence of the post-media world is all around and growing daily, most leaders responsible for planning a communication response still think that the job is about managing the media.

To wit: new plans coming out of DHS relating to the Joint Information Center–the primary vehicle by which government agencies work together to coordinate communications in a major event. In the latest iteration, known as ESF 15 (Emergency Support Function 15) the JIC has been completely gutted. Today’s JICs that I am familiar with manage all aspects of the information relating to an incident including gathering and preparing the information, distribution to multiple audiences including the media but also key stakeholders, government officials, other response agencies and the like. In the new version, the JIC has one job–to serve as the “news desk” responding to media inquiries. All other jobs have been parsed out. Even “Planning and Production” is a new department, separate from the JIC and responsible for developing messages. It seems one lesson coming out of Katrina is that government communicators need their own “spin-cycle,” a kind of political war room requiring strategy discussions and message development. What happened to the idea that the JIC should know what is going on, prepare the basic facts for public release, get Incident Commander approval, and get it out as far and wide as possible?

Other tasks such as community relations, government officials, tribal contacts, etc., are all separated out with their own structure, organization charts, connections to the External Affairs lead. I see a recipe for disaster. If this is supposed to be an improvement over the communication disaster FEMA experienced during Katrina (which it is according to the FEMA presenter I heard) then I think the next big FEMA event is going to be even worse. If it isn’t, I’m betting it will be because they threw out ESF 15 and did things the way experienced communicators know they need to be done.

Other evidence of this media-centric approach. Some government agencies are considering replacing their comprehensive communication management approach with technology that supports only media engagement. Talk about taking a step backwards. While most of the world is waking up to the fact that in this social-media world, this post-media world, more and more of the conversation is going on directly by the affecter and those affected. But these agency heads have had their heads in the sand while these changes are going on and are trying to tell the folks down the line who actually have to do the work, that only the media matters. What are they going to do when they get hammered by neighbors, constituents, elected officials? Their only answer will be to read the newspaper or watch tv. Why don’t they just go back to the US postal service I wonder.

How the media contributes to a "state of fear" following a national tragedy

Here’s an interesting blog post from Dennis McDonald, reporting on a study of social attitudes following the Virginia Tech tragedy. The vodcast with Dr. Jim Breckinridge highlights how the media–both MSM and new media–contribute to fear and anxiety.

I haven’t viewed the vodcast yet, but what I find interesting is the comment about how the fears resulting from this spill over to other agencies such as the US Coast Guard.

It also raises the question I am most intrigued with which is social responsibility of those influencing others whether MSM or new media. When the goal is attracting an audience to sell ads via broadcast or google ads, how much does social responsibility come into play in making decisions as to how events like this are covered. My suggestion is very little. But the alternative of legislating moral or social responsibility is repugnant to me. How do we get people to care when they have the power to build audiences?

The cell camera: crisis a phone click away

Over the past few days I’ve repeatedly watched a spectacular explosion at foundry in Tacoma. It has been aired over and over on KING5 in Seattle and probably all other local tv stations. Here it is on the KING5 website.

Explosions are also fun to watch–although as I write this the driver of the propane truck that was unloading propane remains in critical condition. But what made the airing of this exciting video possible was the cell camera. A passerby caught the whole thing, starting from a reasonably small fire that erupted into a huge fireball, blowing out windows a quarter mile away–all on his cell phone. Sure, the image was grainy, the cameraman hardly still, and you get the obligatory “Oh sh…..!” commentary. But it is compelling news footage. The frequent airings make that clear.

I thought about this because last week I was sitting with the PIO of a large west coast city and we were talking about the ubiquity of cell cameras and what that means for the instant news world. I’ve been used to talking about 70 million citizen journalists with their blogs. But how about the many more millions of cell phone owners with camera-equipped phones. Each of the them eager to do with this man did: capture something truly exciting and have it aired all over the region or nation.

The implications for crisis communications ought to be obvious. The day of transparency. Acceleration of the news cycle. The emphasis on video. The use of the graphic, scary and otherwise compelling images to attract audiences and keep them. The delivery of these through multiple modes including internet. The continuing discussion about them after the news media has gone on to other stories–just like I am doing now. This is the instant news world in front our eyes. Get used to it.