Message to Incident Commanders: Speak NOW or forever hold your peace.

I observed another large scale drill recently. Millions of dollars spent. Wonderfully trained and prepared professionals in place–including some of the top communication professionals in the country. Great facility, technology, logistics. Even the public information technology (ours, of course) was fully integrated in the operation, ready to roll, everyone up to speed. But the communication was a complete disaster. For all the preparation and tools in place, one critical element was missing. The Incident Commander responsible for approval of information was woefully unprepared and ill-informed to deal with today’s instant news world.

The information process was working very well until he arrived. Then, everything stopped. A new release of info was delayed three hours while it went through six wordsmithing revisions. The legal team was invited to come in and help wordsmith–this in a Joint Information Center with multiple state and federal agencies participating and the resulting discussion about using the words “we regret” vs. “we are deeply sorry” took an inordinate amount of time.

Clearly the commander believed he was doing his job and doing it well. Words are important. Note–there was no dispute over key facts–just the way it was written in a release. But by his decision to get everything right to his satisfaction and all the Unified Command he threw away hundreds of thousands of dollars of preparation and years of training and expertise on the part of his JIC team. Far worse, he made a decision to allow bloggers to be the voice of the response. For in a real world situation in an event of this magnitude, neither the public nor the media would wait patiently for this wordsmithing process. They would get the information they were seeking from the thousands of eye witnesses who would see their small view of the incident. The JIC in those three hours lost once and for all its opportunity to be the voice of the response which is their job. Once lost, it is virtually impossible to get it back. The commander made the decision that getting the words just right, making the lawyer happy, and getting complete consensus on every sentence was more important than the JIC speaking for the response.

Someone forgot to tell him the world will not wait for him. Someone forgot to tell him he needed to speak now or forever hold his peace.

3 thoughts on “Message to Incident Commanders: Speak NOW or forever hold your peace.”

  1. Didn’t someone write a book called “Now is too Late” that addressed this very subject? 😉

    Strong, well-written piece, Gerald!

    Jonathan Bernstein
    Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

  2. Great post. Maybe reality TV has something to teach drill designers The fun of watching The Apprentice or Hell’s Kitchen is how the fly-on-the-wall cameras let us spot the pivotal decision/s that lead to the losing team’s demise. Sometimes it’s innocuous; sometimes blindingly obvious – but the team members don’t see. It comes back to haunt them in ‘the boardroom’ inquiry. If this Incident Commander faced a similar post-mortem around such a drill decision they might hear the words ‘You’re fired’? Certainly in real life they would, possibly from the media, or the federal authorities or a community.

  3. I consider myself lucky … the head of our EMO includes emergency info in all his deliberations … keeps up entirely in the loop and then … lets us do our jobs … approves our stuff in minutes … and makes himself available to media when appropriate …

    clearly, he gets media requirement in our brave new world

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