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.