Getting on CNN.com–I found the secret

As a PR person for many years, scoring a lead story on CNN.com would be a real coup. Well, I finally did it and I will share my secret. Be lucky enough to share with the world the story of a wonderful and humble World War II veteran who went through hell for his nation and was never properly recognized. Then be lucky enough to have the book you have worked on for two years come out just as the Air Force has found out that the guy never received his Distinguished Flying Cross and consequently make a determined effort to make certain he is duly honored and that the world knows about it. Then be lucky enough to have a tremendous reporter like Patrick Oppmann from CNN show up at the award ceremony, find out what a terrific man this veteran is, stay up a good part of the night reading his story, and take it upon himself to make sure the world knows.

Here is Patrick’s story which is still on CNN.com (fading to the background fast).

If you are interested and want to hear a more complete telling of an incredible couple of days honoring Captain Joseph Moser, go to www.joemoserstory.com and read the blog (www.buchenwaldflyboy.wordpress.com).

A completely different story–a WWII veteran receives his long lost Distinguished Flying Cross

If you’ve been reading crisisblogger a very long time–like over two years–you may remember that I have been working on a book about a WWII fighter pilot who was shot down over France and ended up as a “terrorist” political prisoner in Hitler’s nightmare concentration camp–Buchenwald. He was rescued after 2 months and nearly starving to death,  four days before his scheduled execution. But he was also a great pilot and a great contributor to the war effort.

In fact, while researching his book I discovered that he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions on a dive bombing mission, but he never received it. SNAFU, as they say. I thought how great to be able to arrange a special presentation by someone important–and how much greater if it coincided with the release of his book. Well, “A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald: The Joe Moser Story” has just been released. And tomorrow (Thursday, Jan 29) the Air Force will recognize Joe and the Wing Commander of McChord Air Force Base near Seattle will present Joe his medal 65 years late. It’s a great day for the Air Force and I have been blown away by how important it is to them that one of their own receive his long lost recognition. We have invited two of Joe’s squadron mates, Bob Milliken (the 429th Squadron’s only ace with five enemy kills) and Alfred Mills, also a DFC winner, to be with Joe when this award is presented.

I am absolutely thrilled by this and the honor that Joe is receiving. He is an exceptionally quiet and humble man and would never do anything to call attention to himself so it has been one of the great experiences in my life to play a part in getting a true American hero the recognition he deserves. But the PR person in me is also thrilled to see that the story is quickly spreading. Two live radio interviews scheduled. Numerous newspaper mentions, a rapidly cascading blog and online presence–all focused on the belated honor given to an 86 year old (yes, the news reports are wrong) veteran.

If interested, go to www.joemoserstory.com and read the clips–I’m trying hard to keep up with them. Oh yes, you can order the books on Amazon or order direct from the publisher at the website above. And, we even have a blog: www.buchenwaldflyboy.wordpress.com.

Salmonella outbreak and the movement toward online communication

This article about the salmonella outbreak (now almost 500 cases reported) demonstrates how much our crisis communication and public outreach in situations like that have shifted onto the internet. I’m particularly interested in the comment:

“We want to drive people to our site to get updated information,” said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council. “Food safety is our number one priority, and we need to get that information out to consumers.”

In this “post-media world” as I called it in 2001, we are the broadcasters. The power to communicate with individuals as well as masses is largely in our hands. It’s a huge issue for the peanut industry. The outbreak is widespread and it is virtually impossible given our short attention spans and the brief news reports to determine if the peanut butter or products containing it are safe. So the safe answer is don’t eat any of it until we find out that the outbreak is over. But that hurts the entire industry. Certainly we saw the same thing with e.coli in spinach a while back. It becomes critically important for the industry to aggressively communicate what is safe even while not downplaying at all the risks associated with tainted products (I had salmonella when I was a kid, unpleasant).

At a recent conference of government communicators I heard several presenters talk about “partnering with the media” in major risk or crisis communications situations. At the risk of offending some, when I spoke I told why I thought that was hooey. Their agenda is different than yours. It is their job to assemble and hold an audience. Yours is to get the information out. Yes, they can be helpful in that, but their agenda too often conflicts with yours. So the best answer is to use the media as much as possible to pull your audiences directly to yourself. Communicate directly whenever possible. That’s what I take from the response of the industry and major players in this situation. It’s definitely a positive step.

Entering the new age of virtual response

It seems that this one idea whose time has about finally come. It was identified at the Booz Allen Hamilton conference last November as one of the important emerging trends in risk and crisis communications. What is virtual response? It simply means that the idea of a response team including communicators coming together in a physical location to do their work of crisis communicaiton is no longer tenable. Actually hasn’t been for some time because we have been in the era of instant news for going on a decade now. But most in crisis communication and emergency management are continuing to fight today’s battles with yesterday’s thinking and technologies. Does the idea of a Gatling gun in the Civil War ring anyone’s bell?

Twitter is one example of both instant news and instant response. Problem is, it is a one man band. It’s great if you are the one completely in charge and have full authority to say whatever you want about what is going on. Tweet away. But most people I know in crisis communication perform as part of a team, and how do you harness Twitter to a team?

I’ve been dealing with this topic of virtual response since 1999 when I first was thown headlong into the world of mass scale crisis communication and instant news with the Olympic Pipeline disaster. My baptism by fire you might say. That’s where the idea of virtual response and particularly a Virtual Joint Information Center capability started. Since then a great many organizations have adopted it and it has been proven in numerous incidents in the last few years–kind of starting with the G8 Summit of June 2004 in Georgia.

But while progressive organizations like the Coast Guard, BP and LA Dept of Water and Power have experienced the benefits of virtual response, most in this business still respond to the idea with “hunh?”I guess that is the challenge ahead. Any help you can give me would be appreciated.

The White House's New Website and Blog–yes, they can

Well, I am impressed. The new White House website was launched simultaneous with the launching of a new administration and a new era in American history. It, of course, contains a blog with the first blog post coming from the White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips. How about that for a new job title for the White House?

And the blog content shows in my mind anyway, that this is a president and an administration that absolutely “gets it.” How people communicate with each other, with their governments and leaders is fundamentally different. President Obama demonstrated he understood that as it related to campaigning. So far he is showing he understands that as it relates to governing as well.

Mr. Phillips expresses with great clarity the three key themes of their communication strategy. If every agency, corporation or organization would adopt these three, things would be a whole lot better:

Communication — Americans are eager for information about the state of the economy, national security and a host of other issues. This site will feature timely and in-depth content meant to keep everyone up-to-date and educated. Check out the briefing room, keep tabs on the blogRSS feed) and take a moment to sign up for e-mail updates from the President and his administration so you can be sure to know about major announcements and decisions.

Transparency – President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise. The President’s executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and that’s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. You can also learn about some of the senior leadership in the new administration and about the President’s policy priorities.

Participation —
President Obama started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he saw firsthand what people can do when they come together for a common cause. Citizen participation will be a priority for the Administration, and the internet will play an important role in that. One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.
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A blogger conference call with FEMA Deputy Chief Admiral Johnson

Blogging certainly has its benefits and this morning I was one of 6 bloggers invited to participate in an interactive conference call with Admiral Harvey Johnson, number 2 at FEMA. Since it is Martin Luther King Day, the last day of this leadership group’s employment at FEMA, and the purpose seemed quite clearly to help communicate the many positive changes at FEMA, I still am slightly confused as to what it was all about. But, it was a great opportunity and I very much appreciate the information and the way FEMA leadership is aggressively trying to address the reputation challenges it continues to experience.

A few takeaways:

- FEMA is very serious about social media and engaging in the new world of communication. This blogger call is a great example. Clearly they are following blogs that involve their space (including this one) and are aware of what bloggers are saying. They also believe, evidenced by this call, that bloggers are or can be influential in public opinion. This was a very direct, engaging and effective way of communicating directly to those they believe will impact the thinking of the media, other opinion leaders and the general public about FEMA. (As I was writing these words, I received a follow up email from the call facilitator, thanking me for participating and providing a detailed list of follow up points. Impressive.)

- The call was effective. I came away impressed with Admiral Johnson, Administrator Paulison and the many changes that have been made. In general terms the key changes I picked up on were: Vision, Investment in People and Business Practices. Regarding Vision, FEMA has broadened its role considerably. The Admiral mentioned Prevent, Protect, Respond and Recover as four key elements and moving from much more proactive vs reactive response. He came back several times to the agency’s investment in people and how the SES (Senior Executive Service–non-political appointees) that they have put in place will enable the agency to continue to develop along the lines set by this group despite a change in administration. Business practice improvements means that FEMA has improved how it does procurement and manages the business of providing funds and resources–critically important given the level of publicity that the agency has received regarding its incompetence in this area in the past.

- In response to my question about the difference in reputation public information management between the Coast Guard and FEMA (The Admiral was in the CG before FEMA), he responded by commenting on the differences between the CG’s mission and FEMA. The CG has good news stories every day, he noted, with rescues, enforcement, etc. “The Coast Guard does not say ‘no,’” he said. Whereas FEMA is frequently in the position of having to say no to requests. He also pointed to the CG’s investment in people–an up or out system, everyone above Lt CMDR with advanced degrees, people hating to leave after their 30 years. Just not the same with FEMA but they are trying to change that again with their investment in people, in training, in longer term employment. And he brought up what I think is much more key–information management policies. In the CG everyone has the right to speak but only on their own responsibilities. In FEMA, everyone can speak but without the same level of information discipline–so there are contradictions, inconsistencies and lack of a single voice. He also brought up the fact that once you have a tainted reputation it takes a long time to repair it.

- I also asked about the disparity between ESF15 (DHS/FEMA’s public information management plan when responding at a national level) and the FEMA PIO Guidance Manual and the National Response Team’s JIC manual–a key issue for agencies who need to prepare to roll from local to regional to national response. He stated that he thinks FEMA does a good job with public information  management but that “ESF15 had not quite found itself,” that it “was not quite solid yet.” He noted how dynamic the public information world was–this call with bloggers for example–and that it was hard to keep up with the policies and plans as encoded in documents like ESF15.  I was encourage to hear him say that these issues including ESF15 were discussed at high levels in FEMA and they are interested in how to make it more effective. My simple answer in case anyone is listening–take the political messaging control out of the equation and focus on simply providing the best information you can about what you are doing with the greatest amount of speed, direct communication with key audiences (not just the media) and with maximum transparency. Simple.

- Regarding FEMA in the future and the transition to the Obama administration, he spoke very highly of Nancy Ward, the interim director. The Admiral believes that with the senior leadership (non political appointees) in place, the positive steps taken will contine. That the Obama administration will continue high level of support for FEMA and that the basic elements he identified of Vision, Investing in People and Business Practices will continue to produce the results that we all look for in FEMA.

My thanks to the public information team at FEMA, thank you John Shea, and Admiral Johnson for this opportunity and a job well done.

First PIER Strategy Forum conference call

In less than a half hour I’ll be hosting the first of what I hope are many PIER Strategy Forum conference calls. The PIER Strategy Forum is a by-invitation group of communication leaders from major organizations around the country and the world. It’t intended simply as a way for these people to get to know each other better, be able to tap into each other’s expertise and learn from each other about how they are dealing with changes in the information environment. For example, our topic today will be around use of social media. I am interested in hearing, as I suspect other members of the Forum are, about how each of these communicators is using social media, their experience, their plans for 2009, pitfalls they may see or have experienced, and where they think this whole thing is going.

I’ll share some of their insights with crisisblogger readers after the call.

Twitter and crisis communication–some thoughts from Neil Chapman

My friend Neil Chapman and I were having an interesting discussion yesterday about Twitter and its use as a crisis communication tool. I was discussing some concerns about how it works great if you are independent and have full freedom to communicate without approvals, a vetting process, or if you are not part of a joint response such as occurs in a Joint Information Center. I am working on a White Paper on this and will share it with Crisisblogger readers when it is done.

Neil had some interesting perspectives about other problems with using Twitter which he is sharing with us in this post:

What a difference a year makes, even though the new one is just a few days old.

Britney Spear’s Twitter feed was hacked, according to the UK’s Guardian newspaper.  She’s wasn’t alone. About the same time Apple suffered a similar attack, according to the Huffington Post.

For me – and I assume other crisis communicators – Twitter hit our radar screens in a dramatic way during 2008. In terms of eye-witness reporting, the Mumbai attacks saw Twitter come into its own, according to Forbes. And some individual organizations used Twitter to enhance communications during events they responded to, notably the Los Angeles Fire Department (@LAFD) and Public Service of New Hampshire (@psnh). A fascinating development that crisisblogger highlighted along with other developments involving Twitter.

But Apple and Britney have discovered Twitter can bite them.  As a Twitter user I have to do a lot of work – sign up and into my account , ensure I’m following the right people or organization, regularly check the information stream by scrawling through all my tweets to get what I want – then click somewhere else! There’s some push  but a lot of pulling.

Just last week the Twittersphere was abuzz with a nasty phishing attack. Twitter, as a service, seemed to be caught on the back foot with just a tiny word warning posted on home pages very late on, but that disappeared after a couple of days. On more than one occasion I signed in to be told to come back later. There was too much Twittering going on!

The lesson for me isn’t that organizations like LAFD and PSNH adopted Twitter as a channel to enhance their crisis communications and that it’s a best practice we all need to adopt. What they did is demonstrate they have the right philosophy – of timely, targeted information updates during crises.

The channel itself has shown to be insecure and less than perfect – a bit like Britney really ( though I do like her music).

Neil Chapman

New use of text messaging: mass apologies in China

I’m not sure what is more bizarre here–the emergence of text messaging as the latest mass media, or government and corporate behavior in China. In this story from the BBC, the now bankrupt Chinese company accused of tainting milk with melamine has apologized to millions of cell phone subscribers across China–by sending a text message. That seems a little strange to me. Hmm, my cell phone starts alerting me I’ve got a text message and it is from a big oil company saying, sorry we spilled oil in your water, or a big car company, saying, sorry our engines are blowing up. Maybe it is just part of the new world of high tech direct mass communication I have been talking about, but sending me a text for these purposes almost feels an invasion of privacy. Not sure I want to pay for you apologizing to me.

I should be all in support of this I suppose because I have been advocating for a long time the need to go direct and circumvent the media whenever feasible. But not sure this strategy is going to take off in the rest of the world. How would corporate giants get access to all cell phone numbers? I understand the government is trying to set up a nationwide text message alert for emergency notification purposes in cooperation with the wireless providers, but a nationwide network so companies can apologize? I think not.

The bizarreness does not end there. It appears that Sanlu, the company accused of adding the melamine “discovered” the problem and alerted authorities. But nothing happened until New Zealand complained. Not sure what discovering the problem means when the head of the company has pleaded guilty and possibly faces the death penalty. If she personally ordered the melamine added, I can see some pretty severe punishment, but if it was done at a different level and then discovered and reported, her culpability would most likely be explored in depth in a court of law in this country. And the death penalty?

But wait, it gets stranger. It seems if you are a victim of a problem like this, you may run into trouble with the government too. Families have been complaining about lack of support from the government and if you read down to the bottom of the story, you will see that such complaints will end you up in jail.

Mass text messaging an apology to millions, getting shot for discovering a big problem, going to jail for publicly complaining–ah yes, welcome China to the civilized world. God help the crisis managers in that country.