Station Fire–the view from Pasadena

I find myself in a hotel in Pasadena where from the street I can see the flames from the Station Fire leaping into the sky. I’m in LA for a series of meetings with government agencies about emergency communications–so it’s pure coincidence to be here at this time. But it does provide a unique opportunity to watch the dynamics of media coverage, PIO and JIC work, and local reaction.

1. Comment from an evacuee: The hotel I am in has opened its doors to evacuees and a little while ago I overheard one talking to someone on his cellphone. He said, I’m not paying any attention to the media because they are always getting it wrong. They don’t know what is going on.” I’m not saying that’s true, just reporting what one observation was.

2. Media sensationalism. Hey, this fire is pretty spectacular, scary, dangerous and deadly (two fire fighters died last night in a vehicle accident). Personally, I’m very afraid for Mount Wilson, not just for the millions in communications equipment, but for the potentially devastasting historical loss. Last year I visited the Mt. Wilson observatory where Einstein once hung out, where Edwin Hubble discovered our expanding universe and where the Big Bang theory became accepted. To lose this historic treasure would be tragic. But, watching the tv and newspaper reports is disheartening to see how substance has been exchanged for anything that will glue eyes to the screen or get someone to pick up a newspaper out of the stand. I emailed a picture of the Pasadena Star-News in the news stand to this blog to make the point. You will see what I mean when you read the headline. TV is no better. I am stunned by the lack of content about the fire and what is being done about it. But the video from helicopters, the reporters standing with flames leaping behind them, that is all impressive.

3. PIO. There certainly have been examples of stand up interviews by both fire captains and PIOs. Some good things observed, some not so good. Best thing was seeing Capt Tom Brady in full fire fighting gear, obviously dirty from the ash and smoke, giving some reassuring messages about homes being protected. Great job. Worst was a Cal Fire PIO who when asked was going to happen next to fight the fire went into considerable detail about the change in Incident Command team, the new operational period, the return of the previous team to their normal jobs and the transition to a new team. The reporter kept coming back and trying to get an answer as to what this had to do with fighting the fire. Important lesson here: while your job as PIO may be to talk about the response actions, most are not too interested at this stage of an event of getting a behind the scenes look at the operation of the EOC or Command Post. He needed to say who was in danger, if anyone, what was being done now and in the immediate future to protect people’s lives and property, and what actions were being taken to get this darn thing under control. He needed to say these things even if the reporter was asking stupid questions. But, the reporter was asking the right questions and was getting the wrong answers. PIOs need to be thinking about what is important to the public, and not what will play well when the interview is played back to Command. Not saying that was the case here. I think it was more a matter of a PIO being too close to the response in thinking and not close enough to the public–a very easy mistake to make.

Now mainstream breaks the big stories on Twitter–first

I’m getting ready for the webinar I’m doing Sept 1 for Government Educator on Twitter in Government Communications. I just keep pace with the rapid changes in how Twitter is being used for public information and news. Here’s the latest from mashable.com–now this is where at least some mainstream news organizations are breaking their big stories.

Why? Mashable’s Josh Catone posits three possible reasons: to avoid being scooped, to build their awareness and to create new audiences. I agree with all of these but number one is number one. When the competition for news is all around immediacy, you are either fast or you lose. Fast is now measured in seconds, now hours or minutes. I commented here earlier noting how Breaking News On was consistently beating New York Times with their news alerts via Twitter and email. Since then, and that was just a couple of weeks ago, I’ve noticed NYT beating Breaking News more often. I’m not suggesting because I pointed it out, but I suspect they discovered that the 15 to 30 minutes they were behind typically was enough for some news junkies to say why should I stay with them?

It’s all about immediacy–this is happening right now. I just wish I could do a better job of convincing those having to deal with this stuff in major crisis events that this is true and very real. A conversation today in planning a big drill highlights the fact the most continue to be stuck in an old world that just won’t work any more.

Bike riding mom turns drive-in policy around with Twitter

First, thanks to Doug Walton for pointing me at this story. I’m sure that Burgerville employee who told the mom on a bike  that should couldn’t use up the drive-in window had no idea her story would end up in USA Today. She rolled up on her bike in bike-friendly Portland, OR and was told no go. As she rode away she tweeted her unhappiness with this strange policy. It was not difficult for the USA Today reporter to find the irony in a chain that prides itself (and invests heavily) in eco-friendliness to have such a policy. It is afterall a big part of their website.

The Burgerville folks may have their head in green, but not in the sand like United Airlines (see post just before this one) so quickly apologized and either changed the highly questionable policy or communicated to their drive-in window staff to not turn mothers with four cheeseburger orders away at the window.

But, for everybody in business, the real question is obvious. What bonehead, lawyer-driven policy do we have that will be tweeted and end up in USA Today? Or even more real, what careless decision or action might be taken by one of our young, inexperienced staff that will end us up being written about in about a hundred crisis communication blogs? If you are in Public Affairs, marketing or any form of communications for almost any company these days–send this blog to your CEO or just send her a link to the USA Today article and ask: what about us?

Dave Carroll back with more music for United Airlines

I just don’t get it. After getting something like 4 million visits on YouTube for his entertaining complaint music video, Canadian musician Dave Carroll apparently is still ticked off at United. I just can’t believe they aren’t bright enough over there to give the guy the $1200 bucks he is asking for and get over this nightmare. Because now he is out with another even more clever and entertaining music video attacking United. Hey, the guy is an entertainer. He knows what his fifteen minutes of fame is worth. Why not milk it?

Now, if it turns out that United has played kissy face with him and he turned around and did this to them anyway, it will most likely blow up in his face. Watch out, Mr. Carroll. Your own self-interest, promotional instincts, pity-party or just plain greed may over take you and turn all the fame, sympathy and shared outrage against you.

But, for goodness sake United, make a dad-gummed music video saying, “Please Mr. Carroll, accept our apologies and this monstrous check,” and do it now before Carroll’s music videos top the Billboard charts. Hmm, do they still have those charts?

Whole Foods and the dangers/opportunities of controversial stands

This world can be a scary place for people who dare to express political opinions. I certainly found it out when I ran for state office five years ago. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods found it out as well when he offered his opinion on health care reform. The brouhaha goes on. Crisis communication consultant Gerard Braud does a great job of analyzing this situation–particularly when he calls “bull” on Whole Foods media relations folks trying gamely to say that their CEO was speaking for himself as a citizen and not representing the company. Yeah, right.

Incorporating social media into communication drills and exercises

Drills and exercises are at the core of almost anyone’s crisis response preparations–as they should be. I’ve been involved recently in preparing communication drills and exercises (usually JIC or Joint Information Center drills). I’m finding a lot of PIOs and communicators need real help in this area.

I blogged about this yesterday at my new blog on www.emergencymgmt, so you might want to check that out. But here are a few more observations about this important topic.

1) Incident commanders, communication heads (PIOs in the public world) and drill planners typically want to stay away from social media in drills and exercises. Very good reason for this–it is a strange new world and the last thing you want to do is embarrass yourself in front of a bunch of other people who are looking to you as the expert. Why throw in what is seen as an unnecessary complication when you have enough stuff to deal with that will test you and the participants to the max?

2) Social media drives communication. That’s why it must be included because no drill today will be at all realistic if it doesn’t include a strong social media element. Many will be shocked by the statement that social media drives communication. That’s because they are still living in an old world where they think the media will be waiting on them for hours to tell them what is happening so they can tell the world. The reality is, the cellphone camera eyewitnesses, tweeters, bloggers and facebook pagerers (OK I’m making up words again) will be telling the world every little detail of what they see and know or speculate. And the media will be following them avidly and reporting what they are saying because after all, they are not social media nerds, they are eyewitnesses. Why wouldn’t the media report their observations? If you have any doubt, look at media coverage of the Flight 1549 (airliner in Hudson) accident.

3) Monitoring and rumor management are now a primary if not THE primary role of the JIC. Another controversial statement I will stand behind all day long. That’s because the JIC will NEVER beat all those citizen journalists with the news. Heck, the New York Times with news alerts can’t even come close, nor can any legit news channel. Can’t be done. Add the complication of setting up a JIC, getting it operational, gathering info, getting it approved and getting it distributed. Nope, the instant news will come via cellphones and tweets. BUT, a lot of that will be wrong, or incomplete, or inaccurate (Actually turns out to surprisingly accurate but I’ll save that for another blog). That means that the JIC needs to know continuously what is being said, not just in the media, but in the social media world in order to very quickly get on top of it and correct misinformation. Fast, efficient rumor management is the real name of the game, and it starts with effective monitoring.

4) Drill injects must include social media. Since social media will undoubtedly be very involved in any major crisis or event, it simply is not realistic to plan a communication exercise without it. Drill injects need to include how the JIC will deal with phony Twitter accounts (a very real problem–see blog here about MobilExxonCorp). It needs to deal with bloggers with agendas and willing to challenge credibility of the JIC. It needs to deal with the reality of instant info that is evolving much faster than approvals within Command but that are true and verifiable. It needs to deal with innocent but incorrect and potentially harmful information–the most common real problem. That means that those planning the JIC element of the exercise must be knowledgeable about these new realities and how they play out in real events.

5) The JIC should use social media for distribution. This gets tricky because it is a drill afterall. But you want to replicate as much as possible the process of distributing instant updates via Twitter, posting videos to YouTube, images to Flickr and updating a JIC facebook page. For PIER users this is pretty easy since PIER is now set up to treat all these channels as another point of distribution–the only thing you change is not complete the last step of making the actual RSS connection–but this is getting too technical. Give me a call if you want more details on how to effectively replicate social media use in a drill with PIER or without.

No crisis preparation can be complete without a good drill. But, no drill today is complete without the social media element. I suspect some drill planners, ICs and PIOs are going to be very unhappy with me for saying this. Just the truth.

Dominos explains its response to the YouTube video crisis

Tim McIntyre of Dominos Pizza explains in the PRSA Strategist article how Dominos responded to the video posted by a couple of idiotic employees on YouTube. This event helped deliver the message to corporate leaders better than almost anything I can imagine how vulnerable they were to the lack of good sense inevitable in their employee base and how social media and “going viral” represents a new and unprecedented threat to their brand value and reputation.

McIntyre does an admirable job of explaining what happened from an inside perspective. It all sounds good and reasonable but as I was reading I was thinking about my criticism of Dominos at the the time as well as every other crisis communication pundit–they were too slow. McIntyre here clearly isolates the reason what slowed them down. And in the process he highlights one of the most critical elements of crisis management: how do you assess the potential damage and how do you prevent your response from creating more damage?

On Wednesday, we learned that Domino’s as a search word had surpassed Paris Hilton for the first time ever. So that got mainstream media’s attention. We were still communicating to YouTube, communicating to these other Web sites, communicating via Twitter. And even at a million views, we were thinking, “This is fast, but there are 307 million people in America. There are a lot of people who don’t know about it; let’s focus on talking to the audience that’s talking to us.”

So they focused on trying to deal with those who were aware of it while not creating more awareness. Or, as he discusses later, cleaning up the mess in aisle five without closing all the other aisles in the grocery store (an analogy). The problem was that he didn’t really count on the viral nature of social media and how quickly it can spin out of control. Here is his answer to the question of what they could have done better in those first 24 hours:

Two things we didn’t anticipate. The first thing we didn’t anticipate was the pass-along value, or the pass-along nature of this particular video, because there was a lot of “Man, you ought to see this going on.” And the sheer explosion of interest from the traditional media. In fact, the writer for USA Today who contacted me first sent me an e-mail. The body of the e-mail said, “This is the e-mail you did not want. Please call me.” And that’s when I knew that we were going to be accelerated and we needed to take a more aggressive stance about reinforcing the message that we didn’t do this; this was done to us. (NOTE: THE EMPHASIS WAS MINE)

Here’s McIntyre’s very valuable advice about crisis communication today:

If there’s a crisis happening in the social media realm, or if there’s a fire in the social media realm, there’s a segment of the population that wants you to put on a microphone and a webcam and describe what you’re doing as you’re doing it. They want you to describe how you’re putting out the fire. And that’s an interesting phenomenon.

Absolutely right. That segment is big, powerful and very influential–and it now includes much of the media. So strap on your webcam and start talking–nonstop! It’s just not about press releases anymore folks–its about continuous 140 character updates with lots of video and images. It’s not about accuracy (heresy!!!) it is about what is happening right now and what you know right now.

McIntyre’s conclusion (and these may be the most important pieces of crisis advice you will get all year):

That would include responding on our Web site a little bit faster, hitting the Twitter community a little bit faster and talking to senior leadership a little bit faster.

No surprise here–most of Twitter is "pointless babble"

Even while Twitter among professional communicators such as those in government is all the talk and concern, I believe that it is already on its way down after a meteoric rise in attention and focus. I predicted, to the surprise of some, that it would die, but that the function of instant updating would become ubiquitous. But why would Twitter die just when so many are finding it useful for critical communication? Because so many are finding it even more useful for disgusting, pointless, banal and completely non-critical communication. This BBC report shows exactly why. Quoting a Pear Analysis study it shows that only 8.7% of the content on Twitter has any “pass-along” value. Most of it (40%) is pointless babble–essentially meaningless conversations between individuals or small groups. Hey, don’t blame Twitter. that’s exactly what it was intended for. Remember, the whole point of Twitter was to answer the question: What are you doing now? No wonder people use it to talk about the coffee drink they are enjoying or other significant events in their lives.

As some conversations with government communicators suggested, Twitter has become very important to them as “listening posts.” An almost inconceivably powerful way to listen in on conversations about your agency or company. But that has its own problems as we will explore here soon. The point here is that Twitter is being buried alive in its own success, but that the functions it provides of listening, communicating and conversing are increasingly important today–even as they find new channels to make these things possible.

Russian power plant disaster and the global village

As I write this, the world is finding out about a horrible power plant disaster in Siberia. I’m now also blogging for Emergency Management’s new website and I offered a more complete list of lessons learned on that blog. (For those who may be reading this before they get a chance to post my blog on it, you can find it here.)

It is quite remarkable that a remote power plant disaster in Siberia would be communicated instantly and globally. Such is the global village. As they say, all incidents are local, but the impact is global. An important lesson for anyone preparing to respond. The most remarkable thing in this story right now is the fact that 54 workers are missing. They have 8 confirmed fatalities but don’t know the whereabouts of 54. I suspect this is going to cause a ruckus in Russia, but in the US such information coming out of a disaster at this stage would be completely unacceptable. Understandable, maybe, but unacceptable. The media would be all over this and heads would roll. People’s expectation is that when you go to work, they know where you are and if something bad really happens no one is going to say, we don’t know where these people are. Not 54 of them.

Employee safety and security is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. Within our company we certainly have seen an increased interest in improving the ways in which companies communicate with employees, verify their status, and keep their families informed if bad things happen. Some are using RFID devices to make certain they know where people are at. No doubt proximity-based notification will be close behind so those closest to danger will be alerted with specific instructions. With these capabilities comes the demand to use them.

The big lesson here is if you have a lot of employees and bad things could happen, be prepared to answer the question of where they are and if they are accounted for. If you can’t, a tragedy will soon turn into a reputation disaster from which you and your organization may never recover.