Journalism, accountability and social media misinformation–the story of the fake quote

Interesting story about how an Irish student tested the accuracy of today’s news coverage by placing a phony quotation on Wikipedia’s entry about a recently deceased music composer. The story on Yahoo shows how journalists fell easily for the phony quote in part because it was so obituary ready.

I actually hope more people run this kind of experiement and test. It even made me think that maybe this news story from Yahoo was fake and I would be caught up in the same game, repeating something that wasn’t true. I know I can’t spend the time to verify if there really is a student in Dublin named Shane Fitzgerald–certainly sounds like it could be true. Point is, if all bloggers, tweeters, and mainstream journalists get duped a few times, maybe we’ll all be a little more careful. In the meantime, reader beware.

Tweeting from outer space

Thanks to twitter.com/breakingnews, I am waiting for a tweet from astronaut Mike Massimino. Just launched earlier today on a mission to do last repairs on the Hubble. Follow Mike at twitter.com/Astro_Mike.

He tweeted a while ago that he was putting his space suit on, next stop Earth orbit.

Does it make a difference? Sure helps me feel like I am a lot more there.

FEMA refuses Hurricane Ike funding–potential implications for effective preparation

I will admit that I do not know exactly what is going on between FEMA and the state of Texas. But as Gov. Perry’s strongly worded press release about FEMA’s refusal to fund Hurricane Ike costs in Texas indicates, this suggests that funding is for those who are poorly prepared and respond inadequately to major disasters.

I have commented quite often to local and state agencies about FEMA’s potential role in a major regional disaster. I pointed to Katrina response and Ike response as indicators of what FEMA would do. FEMA was forced into a front a center role by very inadequate response on the part of municipal, regional and state responders during Hurricane Katrina. In Ike, the situation was very different and FEMA was in the background offering help and support but allowing the agencies to do their work which they did extremely well. This is what FEMA was created for and how (in my mind it should work). I used it as an example to show that by getting your act together the agency can continue to provide leadership in the response and count on FEMA’s support.

If I am reading this right, I am wrong. FEMA will fund those, it appears, who demonstrate lack of preparation and lack of effective response. If you are prepared and you do a good job, you will bear the whole cost yourself. I repeat, this is what it looks like from an outsider. I hope I am wrong. But if I am right (and FEMA, if you are reading this, please clear this up for me), then it seems the advice to response agencies needs to change. It would need to be that if you want and need to secure federal funding–don’t be too good at what you do. What a dreadful message.

And now here's proof: Internet info most "valuable" for emergency communication

Thanks to Jimmy Jazz, a frequent crisisblogger visitor and commenter, I can point you to proof of what I have been suggesting. The mainstream media is no longer the leading or dominant way in which the public gets its information about major emergencies–particularly as it relates to the value of the information. This study from Pew about the virus (H1N1 or swine flu–you choose) outbreak provides some pretty surprising and compelling evidence of the rapid shift in dependence on the internet for disaster and emergency communications.

I encourage you to read this study (Thanks Jimmy for pointing this out) as it contains much valuable information about demographics and the forms of information they choose, exposure to info vs. value of the information, perceptions of the job the media is doing on this issue, percentage of newshole filled by this story, and how worried the public is by the reports.

Two more additions to this post, thanks to my friend and respected JIC expert Chuck Wolf of Media Consultants in Houston:

An article from USA Today about the outbreak and use of social media, particularly by the CDC.

An article from Calgary Herald about the outbreak and a very important question for crisis communicators. If there ever was an argument for coordinated communication management among government agencies, this article provides it. It absolutely shows the need for short, key messages ala Dr. Vincent Covello. The problem is, in a rapidly changing situation that is hard to gauge, how can this be done. It also shows that the most important role that agencies can play in a major event like this is rumor management–someone needs to be available with the facts to counter all the inevitable misinformation out there. So an agency’s website becomes a snopes.com site around that issue.

Leaving heads in the dust–one impact of Twitter and Social Media on public information

I just returned from a whirlwind trip to San Francisco and Atlanta, speaking to and working with Public Information Officers (PIO) from federal agencies to small town fire departments.  There is widespread recognition among many (but not nearly all) communicators of the tremendous change in public information management caused by increased use of social media and particularly Twitter. I am surprised and encouraged by the number of agencies who are already adopting and using Twitter and other forms of social media. But there is one universal obstacle and problem: the chiefs, the heads of agencies, the old guys at the top (hey, I’m an old guy so I can say that).

For the most part they continue to live in a world where they see the job of the PIO as sending out a press release to local media and answering a few questions. If it is a big enough event, the PIOs job is to organize a press conference so the head of the agency can stand on the courthouse steps and tell the world that he/she is in complete control.

While many in public information management are still struggling with how to adapt to the rapid changes themselves, they are quite honestly completely lost when it comes to bringing their superiors into this brave new world of light speed public information.

I don’t know how to solve it for them. I know people like me have to be speaking to the heads of agencies directly rather than expecting the PIOs to carry the message. But since we don’t often get invited to speak to the heads of agencies, PIOs and public affairs managers have to carry the water on this.

Here are key message points:

– Communicate fast or what you say won’t matter.

– The press release is dead and gone forever.

– Short, continuous bursts of information have replaced the well-crafted press release as the most vital form of public information.

– The website may be a far more important source of information than the press conference.

– Direct communication with key audiences is rapidly replacing messages sent through media “partners”

– The public will know about an event through Twitter and through the media (who use Twitter as a scanner) perhaps faster than the agency heads themselves

– Rumor management is becoming perhaps the primary job of the PIO and Joint Information Center rather than the initial or primary source of information

– Incident commanders, agency heads, elected officials who have their heads in the sand will probably only wake up after they have been through a major event in which they discover all these important points themselves.

Here’s my plea: take this list into your supervisor, your agency head, your incident commander and sit down right now and talk with him or her about this list. See if they agree or disagree. If they disagree, hash it out. If they agree, make sure you are putting the plans and steps in place to meet their expectations for speed from you.

H1N1 Flu Communications–my Quick Guide

Since we are working with literally dozens of agencies and organizations involved in communication activities surrounding this outbreak, I’ve prepared a quick guide. It is there to help those in our organization help our clients, but may be of help to anyone dealing with this potentially fast breaking situation. It’s not comprehensive so I’m sure there will be some comments of critical things I missed.

Quick Guide for Effective Flu Communications

1) Be fast.

The three basic rules apply. There are multiple ways of getting relevant information today. When audiences are hungry for information they may want to get it from you, but if they do not find you are providing the latest, most relevant information, they will go elsewhere. It is much better to say: “This is what we know right now” even if it is incomplete, than to wait for the complete story before delivering it. Crisis communication is becoming more like Twitter all the time. Audiences need continuous, very brief updates of information. Be now with a little rather than late with a lot.

2) Go direct.

Your website, email distributions, use of social media sites are critically important in communicating directly with your key audiences. Public information today is no longer just about sending press releases and holding news conferences. Those who have prepared in advance by developing good lists of stakeholders, internal audiences, media and community contacts are way ahead of the game.

3) Be transparent.

There is no tolerance today for hiding anything, covering up, or even for language that suggests spinning. Effective communication today is simple, direct, straightforward, open and honest. The tone and style need to match the audiences recognizing some significant differences in communication styles in different audiences. Basic rule—bad news and good news both need to come from you, not someone else.

4) Use multiple forms.

Today’s audiences use a multiplicity of forms of communication. Mass media, email, websites, and all kinds of different social media. The CDC for one recognizes this multi-mode world. Their social media site is filled with options allowing those seeking information to choose the methods they prefer. http://www.cdc.gov/socialmedia/?s_cid=tw_eh_28

5) Be specific about actions taken.
Trust is built first on right and appropriate actions. If your organization is taking concrete steps to help prevent the spread of the illness, communicate those actions clearly and with detail. Websites allow for detailed information so your releases and updates can be brief but point back to the very specific details about actions taken.

6) Allow for and encourage interactivity.

The fear of inundation with questions is causing some to shy away from methods that allow people to ask questions or make comments. Resist this temptation. There are tools that can help facilitate fast, direct responses to questions. Knowing you can get answers to your question quickly and easily is a great reassurance. Monitor those questions closely because as they emerge you can answer them with your next update or push them to out to your contact lists. By doing so, you will anticipate what people are asking, surprise them with your forethought and greatly reduce the number of incoming calls and emails.

7) Don’t reinvent the wheel.

There is a tremendous amount of good information available on the outbreak (like the interactive Google map tracing new cases). The CDC site provides excellent resources. Use what is available, provide links, RSS feeds, summaries and access to resources.

8) Keep perspective.

While there is a tremendous amount of interest in H1N1 right now, it is highly uncertain if it will prove to be a minor blip or a very serious issue. It’s appropriate for agencies to take it seriously, but not to contribute to paranoia or panic. There few confirmed deaths from this illness, even while approximately 100 people a day die in the US from the flu. Keeping a balance between reassurance, proactive measures, precautions and appropriate response activities is difficult. Keep perspective and help your audiences keep perspective, too.

9) Monitor, monitor.

The tools for monitoring new information plus what others are saying about you have exploded. Many are free but monitoring is a worthwhile investment. As SunTzu pointed in the 6th Century BC, intelligence is the key to winning the battle, including the battle for trust and confidence.

10) Practice what you preach—go virtual.

If your communication team does not now and cannot now operate virtually, that is from their homes or social isolation, you need to address that need very soon. Technology exists to support virtual communications operation. Don’t get caught in the irony of gathering a group of communicators together for the purpose of advising others not to gather together.

For those interested in seeing the different agencies using our technology to support their flu communications, we will be posting a list of sites at www.piersystems.com soon.