The JIC and Snopes

I’ve got a few friends who keep sending these jokes and internet messages–you know, the kind that say send this to five gazillion of your friends or something really bad will happen to you. Very often the messages include urban legends–like the one I got the other day about cell phones causing popcorn to pop. Very convincing. Had links to videos showing these people putting three or four cell phones aimed at a few kernels of popcorn. They made the phones ring and wait, wait, yes! the corn started popping. Of course, the comments on the email trail sounded very concerned–if this is the kind of radiation these things put out, no wonder people are dying of brain tumors from cell phones!

Well, I went to snopes to check it out and sure enough, along with the legend of cell phone cooking eggs, there was the legend of popcorn. False. Snopes is a wonderful thing. I advised my friend who sent this to me, as I have advised several others, before passing these things on it is good to check them with snopes. Saves some real embarrassment.

What does this have to do with the JIC?

I’m up to my eyeballs in writing EPIA (Emergency Public Information Annex) including detailed JIC plans. If anybody believes in the JIC and its value I do. But I am concluding that as much as we try to put in place the processes that will allow the JIC to put out emergency information to the public very fast, it will never be fast enough in this world. The media and the informed public will ALWAYS go to the most immediate information. That’s exactly why Twitter is so popular right now. Nothing beats the immediacy of someone who just saw a plane crash and is tweeting and twitpicing the image. Even the fastest JIC can’t beat an eyewitness with a text message or a video. So if you can’t beat or even meet the speed of news about an incident, and the mass media and a good part of the public will go to whoever has the most up to date information, will the JIC even survive? As I have said repeatedly recently to clients and in presentations–be fast or be irrelevant. Is the JIC destined to irrelevancy because it can’t match the speed?

I don’t think so. I think the answer is snopes. Crisis communicators and emergency management PIOs (Public Information Officers) have always struggled with the inherent conflicts between speed and accuracy. The conventional wisdom has always been accuracy above all. It make sense because credibility is everything–lose that and the game is up. But the public and media operate on immediacy–speed trumps all (I date this to the 2000 elections and it has only gotten worse since then). Snopes focuses on accuracy. It is THE authoritative source on urban legends. While the inaccuracy of information on the internet is generally known and accepted, sites and services like snopes exist to create some sense of security that the truth can be known. Mainstream media are struggling with this as well and while tilting toward speed, some are thankfully very concerned about maintaining their credibility.

While I think that speed is still terribly important for the JIC, accuracy should trump all. I believe that only completely verified information should be approved and released BUT in the meantime, PIOs should be communicating what is known at that time. Rumor management becomes one of the most important–and may eventually become the primary–tasks of the JIC. Because when a major incident is happening it is completely certain now that a lot of people (citizen journalists if you will) will be providing immediate information. Some of it true, some of it false. The media and the public need someplace to go to verify the facts. They need, in effect, a snopes for the response. Someplace to separate rumor from truth. Those inside the response should have access to the most relevant facts about the event and the response. That is the job of the Situation Unit.

But the process of identifying rumors, checking facts, verifying the information to be released and then getting timely approval for the release of it is critically important. Evenif the JIC is not first with the information, if there is too much a time delay between the initial faulty or unverified reports and verified information, the JIC will still quickly become irrelevant.

Speed and accuracy–still the drivers. But the dynamics of social media are definitely changing the rules of the game and how it is played.

Clearly differing opinions on DC train crash communications

I have to say, looking at sites like statter911.com, Amanda Ripley, Breakglass, and the Post and Times news reports about the communications, my judgment about the communications was rather, well, disastrous.

I detailed a series of very serious problems, number one being the interference of DC Mayor Fenty in the ability of the Public Information Officers to carry out their assignments. That’s why I was rather surprised, maybe stunned, to see this action of the mayor praised in the Ragan Communications story on the crash communications.

Of course, there is a very great danger in pundits sitting from afar judging the actions of others (exactly what I am doing of course). But it strikes me that some of these crisis communication experts are evaluating it on the basis of an old paradigm: did the mayor get in front of the camera, did he say no comment, and did he present himself well. Well, I suppose he did all those things fine, I didn’t see them. But the point is the response communication was severely (and rightfully criticized) for essential elements such as what did the passengers know and when did they know. For non-transparent communications from Metro such as the train experience “mechanical” problems. There is far, far more to emergency response communications today than whether a governor or mayor does a great standup. The fact that experts in crisis communication are not looking at the whole picture is concerning to me. But then, maybe I’m the one seeing it wrong.

Twitter as a window on our world–the Michael Jackson reaction

One of the primary and very significant roles Twitter is playing in our society now is as a trend spotter and an indicator of what is on people’s minds right now. The one big caution to using it for this purpose is  to remember that only 5% of the population uses Twitter on anything like an on-going basis and that demographically it skews strongly young. With those cautions, it is interesting to see what happened to the Iran elections discussion when the Michael Jackson death occurred.

What is important for crisis communicators and executives to understand is that the media, like the rest of the world who closely follows Twitter trends, is that Twitter will be used as a gauge for public interest. That means you may have a quiet crisis–like a product quality issue, service issue, management ethics issue, etc., and it may not have any great risk of reaching the major media. But if on Twitter it builds a head of steam, it is only a matter of time before it reaches the attention of the MSM. And of course, by that time, things are really rolling.

Any company or organization concerned about its reputation needs to be using Twitter as well as online mentions as a canary in the mine. Alerts should be set and even the smallest blips need to be carefully watched to see if they gain traction.

Here’s an interesting example, where a young woman (24) at a PR firm thought she was making essentially private observations about the quality of one newspaper vs. another in her community and it blew up in her face.

Twitter and social media are hypersensitive instruments. There is a phenomenon in physics called the “Butterfly Effect” which is based on chaos theory. Simply put, when dealing with complex systems like global weather, it is well established that very very minor inputs can have dramatic and drastic impacts on the system as a whole. It is said that a butterfly flapping it wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.

DC train crash highlights some of biggest problems in agency emergency communications

Thanks to crisisblogger reader Doug who pointed out this excellent website called STATter911, we have a pretty good inside look at the emergency communications around the DC train crash that killed 9 this week.

Here are a few key points from Dave Statter’s experienced observations:

- Local media were removed from the scene to where they could not observe any of the EMS activity, but the removal was ordered not by the Incident Commander or the Fire Chief who was leading the response, but by the DC Police Chief.

- PIOs (Public Information Officers) for the response–in other words, those designated by the response commanders to provide the media and the public with information–were directed by the Mayor not to give interviews. The Washington Post reported on this with the view that Mayor Fenty has shown to be a camera-hog with the insinuation that he wanted to be the one to provide the information.

- Mayor Fenty, when he did provide information, provided inaccurate information.

- The newspaper article suggests a fairly bitter divide between the mayor and Metro officials regarding interference in their ability to communicate

- Metro’s communication is also severely criticized, particularly it in ability to keep up with the demand for information, maintain an up to date website, and use Twitter effectively.

- Text alerts were terribly delayed: “Commuters who subscribe to Metro’s e-mail alert system, which is designed to give riders early warning of trouble on the tracks, weren’t informed of a crash on the Red Line until more than 90 minutes after news broke online and on local television.” Washington Times article

- If you read the actual text of the text alert included you will see another disastrous problem–the problem is described as mechanical. This is appalling considering that the news media had been covering the terrible tragedy for 90 minutes when this text went out.

- Passengers and commuters were very upset by the poor communication–no surprise at all given what we have learned about their efforts.

Regular crisisblogger readers will recognize my mantra for effective communication in this day of instant news and internet-focused public communication: Speed, Direct communication and Transparency.

It appears from what we see so far, Metro and all the responding agencies have failed miserably in each of these three regards. There is so much to analyze here because there are so many failures–like why the heck did it take so long to use the text notification system they invested in and put in place. But I want to focus on just one critical element because in recent work with major urban areas and writing EPIAs (Emergency Public Information Annex) I see an increasingly common problem. Elected officials, such as Mayor Fenty, see in such events an opportunity to emerge as the next Rudy Giuliani. They have the power to stifle the response communication and they use it. But in the process, as this case proves, they make it impossible for trained professionals to do their jobs and enable the National Incident Management System to be effectively used.

Emergency managers and elected officials–be warned, be seriously warned. NIMS requires compliance with the basic processes of ICS including the Joint Information Center, and that means that the Incident Commander is the ONLY one authorized to approve public information. It helps insure speed and accuracy–when done right. It also helps ensure that glory hungry public officials don’t interfere with the basic communication task at hand which is to get out the information as to what is happening. The federal government can enforce NIMS compliance by withholding funding from agencies who do not comply. In this case that would apply to the DC Fire Department, the Police Department and the City.

As I mentioned, this problem is more than common in most major urban areas–it is the norm rather than the exception. These problems with public and media communication are going to persist until NIMS communication protocols are enforced. And I don’t think anyone will give them due attention until there is a financial hit to the agencies who refuse to comply.

DC Train crash–the predictable media fault finding

This report from the BBC about the tragic train crash in DC yesterday is so predictable and yet so disturbing.

In the aftermath of almost any accident or tragedy, one of the first things news media will do is dig for evidence that it was preventable, that there were warnings, that officials were negligent, that someone is to blame. So, yes, they found a warning that the trains should be phased out issued by the NTSB back in 2009. That’s what leads this story.

Is there any evidence presented that old trains had anything to do with the incident? None whatsoever. But the reader is left with the unmistakable impression that someone didn’t heed a strong warning (doesn’t look like such a warning to me) but they heedlessly went ahead and ran old trains against the NTSB’s wishes. Clearly negligent, careless, and if they were a for-profit organization, clear evidence that profits are put ahead of people.

It isn’t until the last sentence in the report (surprising to even find it in there) that this is the first fatality in nearly 30 years for the system.

Why is this kind of reporting so common and apparently so necessary? It isn’t just that if it bleeds it leads, it is if someone can be blamed it leads, and of course, they higher up they go, the more it leads. Now, if we could just find evidence that Bush or Obama were behind this outrageous negligent act of ignoring the warning, it would be all over the place.

I’m certain there are warnings about just about anything in the files in your organization. All it takes for them to become the blaring headline on the BBC is for something serious to go wrong. Then those warnings will be used as public evidence for your carelessness–whether the warnings had anything to do with the incident or not.

Sorry, but this kind of news coverage really gets me.

Guest post from Jimmy Jazz: The Voices of Iran

Longtime crisisblogger reader and commenter Jimmy Jazz spurred my interest in the topic of social media, Iran and implications for crisis communications. I provided a few quick thoughts yesterday but asked Jimmy to contribute his thoughts via this blog. Thanks again Jimmy!

Title: The Voice of Iran

Many of us have been watching the events following the Presidential election in Iran unfold across the newspaper pages, the cable news networks and the internet. While protests and revolutionary fervor generally merit some coverage, these protests have been covered in great detail. Gerald pointed to why this is in an earlier post, and it’s been something we’ve talked about here a number of times—the actions are being coordinated via social media. Some are even going so far as to call this the “Twitter Revolution.” That the State Department would step in and ask a private company to change its established business practices to facilitate revolutionary speech is simply unheard of, but that’s exactly what happened. For most of the media and the general public, the Iranian protests will be all about how Twitter (mostly, but also social networking sites like Facebook) have become mainstream and are now regular communication tools that are used in crises. But we already knew that was going to happen. To those of us here, though, we’re looking for the next big thing. And, as Gerald hinted earlier, I think that next big thing is video.

The idea of citizen journalism has been around for, well, ever. Hundreds of years ago, community newspapers were published by community members. With the rise of the corporate media, news collection and dissemination was done almost exclusively by that corporate media. As social media has taken off, there’s been a move to supplement traditional, corporate reporting with this citizen journalism. CNN has their iReports and CBS has their EyeMobile, I’m sure others have some other way to get “on-the-ground man-on-the-street” reports. These reports, however, have always been supplemental—someone calling into the newsroom or text-messaging the show’s host. It wasn’t until the news van arrived that the viewers at home could actually see what was going on. Until now.

There have been calls throughout Iran to bring cell phones and cameras and video cameras to every protest and rally, to shoot continuously, to document everything. This effort has created a vast databank of images and videos that has brought the world into Iran. People around the globe see the massive protests and burka-clad women with green fingers even as the traditional press has been locked down in their hotels. The protesters are intensely smart and immediately started writing their signs in English to drum up support in the Western world for their cause—knowing that these images were being broadcast over the internet. And then a young woman was struck down by a sniper’s bullet (one of many so far, apparently). Two people close to her recorded the last moments of Neda Agha-Soltan; one got 40 seconds, the other 14. At least one of the videos was posted to the internet (I haven’t seen either, nor do I plan to), and Neda became the face of the Iranian Revolution, the Voice of Iran.

So, what does that mean for us? As crisis communicators looking ahead to prepare for our next crisis, we need to learn a valuable lesson from this. Our next crisis might not just involve people Twittering from the scene, or someone calling into the newsroom with a first-hand account—it might be live, streaming footage. Instead of a local reporter asking you for an update on the situation, or “what just happened,” they might just come up with a laptop and ask, “why did you let this happen.” I’m sure we all know which of the two is the more difficult question to answer. And as long as there has been crisis communication, we’ve never had that question posed first. We’ve always knew something was up and had time to formulate a response. Be prepared for your next crisis to be replete with pictures, tweets, and live video. Be prepared to be confronted with the worst possible view of your crisis.

I usually write about public health preparedness. From my standpoint, few things blow up or are out-of-the-blue disasters. We have slow-motion disasters. But even still, the prospect of video shot by the public and released without censor or clean up can change the tone of the response. Lately, we’ve been worried about pandemic influenza. Taking a lesson from the Spanish flu response, how would a hospital communications staff member respond to video of a flu ward where young folks wallowed and died, seemingly without care? Could we withstand the recorded voices of people calling the government for help and no help ever coming? Video of bodies contorting from nerve agent exposure? How do you—could you—respond to that? Tools like Qik.com, UStream.com and Justin.tv when coupled with video capable cell phones like the iPhone 3GS and the Nokia N97 all make that a very frightening reality.

I don’t have any solutions—that’s why I emailed Gerald. I figured if anyone would have an answer, he would. But he just told me to write a post on it. Thank you Gerald, for letting me drive for a while. And, not to get political, but I wish only the very best and safest resolution to the rallies in Iran. If violence must happen, I hope only that justice is served and that it ends quickly. My thoughts and condolences go out to the family and friends of those who have died.

How citizen journalism may be changing the world right now

This post is prompted by longtime Crisisblogger reader and commenter Jimmy Jazz. Mty head has been buried in work lately and I missed the story about the killing of the Iranian woman now known around the world simply as Neda.

As Jimmy pointed out in an email to me, this event of the Iranian protests fueled by worldwide outrage over the murder of an apparently innocent young Iranian woman by the government forces, may have a lasting impact on our world and the world of crisis communication. The Iranian election protests are making one thing very very clear–social media is a driving force in global politics as it is in crisis communication. But this event also shows something else that has been discussed here at length: the role of the citizen journalist.

Nearly every cellphone has a camera and nearly every person carries a cellphone. If something happens, it doesn’t take a journalist and camera crew nearby for the world to see it in shocking detail. I have not seen the cell video of the dying woman–I don’t need to see it to understand its powerful impact.

The telling thing in this BBC story about the protests and the Iranian government’s reaction to it is this: “The authorities are aware that everybody in Iran and throughout the whole world knows about her story,” he told the BBC. “They were afraid that lots of people could turn up.”

No memorial service was held for the young woman for this reason. Yes, we have become a global village. We do live in an age of transparency when what leaders do to hide only makes their wrongdoing the more obvious and odious. It will be interesting, and I suspect sad and tragic to see how the drama in Iran ends. But one thing is certain, their world has changed and one person with a cell camera will have proven to have made a stunning difference.

(Thanks Jimmy!)

Twitter, Iran elections and the death of a pilot

A few hours ago I was on a flight from Kennedy airport in New York to Seattle. CNN was carrying “Breaking News” during an hour or so of that flight about a Continental Airlines flight coming from Europe to Newark airport. During the flight, the captain had died of natural causes and now CNN was covering the “drama” live of whether or not the First Officer who had “commandeered the plane” (in their words) would be able to bring it down safely. Well, duh, he’s got 1500 hours in the 777, but never mind that. Aside from wanting to make a point about the ridiculous lengths today’s cable TV will go to dramatize an on-going incident, this comment is about Twitter. In the middle of their “dramatic” coverage of this ‘breaking news” story, they pulled up a screen with a Twitter search site, and the reporter said “just a few minutes ago, this story was one of the biggest on Twitter, oops, wait, now it is the biggest story on Twitter, it just bumped th Iranian elections off the top spot!”

Well, I may not be quoting exactly, but I just want to catch my breath and think about this for a moment.

There is little question of the role of the Internet, social media sites and Twitter in particular in the Iranian election crisis and our ability to learn in real time what is going on. Twitter has become so significant in this that the State Department (according to this article in Washington Post) asked Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance window in order to not disrupt the way in which Twitter was impacting the protests as well as enabling all of us to see first hand what is going on there.

What do we call this phenomenon? What is this–the Sixth Estate? China is doing its very darndest and a darn good job at that of grabbing control of the Internet in order to keep the party in control and political protest from spiralling out of control. No doubt the cleric leaders are right now huffing and puffing with their technology gurus and yelling at them–do a China, do a China! But the cat may be out of the bag.

Hey presidents, dictators, party leaders and theocratic clerics–news flash: the citizens are free. Fear Twitter! This is the age of public permission, this is the age of transparency, this is the age of citizen journalism, social networking, instant news and public opinion getting out of your control before you have a chance to dial your attorney. I should have mentioned powerful CEO in that list, because that is where this lesson really needs to resonate.

Lessons from this rambling?

1) the news media now determines the level of interest in their news stories by Tweets

2) Governments who wish to control their people had better figure out how to get control of the means of communication–and that usually doesn’t work out too well.

The biggest gap in emergency response communication

I’ve been at this game of crisis management and emergency response communications for over ten years now–at least where that has been a primary focus. There is one problem that keeps coming up over and over and over. And the rapid changes in the last couple of years have only made this problem greater and the damage caused by it more significant.

The gap is simple: It is what Incident Commanders and emergency response leaders don’t know and understand about the public information environment.

Ultimately, they are the ones who make the decisions during a crisis or emergency response. They have many many important decisions to make and precious little time to make them. When lives are on the line, when minutes count in a response, it is little wonder they tend to have little patience for getting into a discussion about the pros and cons of web content and whether or not to set up a Twitter feed for the Joint Information Center.

I have to admit to being very frustrated with this problem–particularly because it is nigh unto impossible to get Incident Commanders or Crisis Team Leader or CEOs to pay any attention to this gap in advance of an incident. Participate in training? No way. And I was quite surprised and disappointed that my effort to address this topic at a major conference on oil spill management was rejected. If conference managers and presentation review panels don’t understand how important it is to help Incident Commanders understand their operating environment better, then how can the ICs be expected to pay attention.

There seems to be only one proven method of changing this–experience. Unfortunately, going through a major event and learning from that what the media, stakeholders and internal audiences expect and demand from the response leadership seems to be the only way to close that gap. As one experienced crisis communicator told me, he can tell immediately whether or not an incident commander has been through a real event. The difference in their understanding of and the need for fast, direct, transparent communication is profound.

Instant crises, but Twitter slowing?

I’m glad to see that others are bringing more attention to the instant nature of crisis management these days, as in this article from PR Week. Mark Senak of Fleishman Hillard notes how different the Tylenol tampering event would be today.

At the same time there are a number of reports around that Twitter adoption is slowing. There are other reports that the actual use of Twitter may be declining.

I can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from communication managers. Not so fast. My prediction–made a while back on this blog–is that Twitter will fade and may die, but the underlying functionality of instant posting via email and text and the ease with which networks of followers can be created will be incorporated into everyone’s technology and used ubiquitously. That is already happening–Facebook didn’t wait around for example. You will see many more applications appearing with easy integration into how people are normally doing things. Check out Google Wave for one thing.

So don’t think for a moment that if Twitter slows, stumbles or dies that the underlying realities of instant communication change one bit.