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.