Behind the Scenes at the Austin Plane Crash–an exercise in virtual communication response

On the Frontline of a Virtual Communication Response—The Austin Plane Crash

For several in days in February the major news story was the crash of a small plane into a building in Austin, Texas. This is the kind of event that is discussed here on this blog all the time and I was fortunate to have a front row seat of sorts to the public communication and news coverage of this particular event.

The City of Austin, specifically the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, is a new client having recently implemented our crisis communication system. While the agency’s website was set up on this platform and ready to roll, the agency’s PIO had little experience in working with the system. To make matters worse she, like several others from the office were in San Antonio for the Homeland Security conference.

I was sitting in a meeting in Houston when I was called out and informed that there was a plane crash into a building in Austin. The initial information we received, not from the City, was that the building may have housed FBI offices. The specter of a terrorist attack was immediately raised. We made contact with the PIO who was on her way back to Austin from San Antonio. We quickly informed her of the information that was being broadcast and that was coming via Twitter. She confirmed some of the information from her sources and we placed an initial statement on the City’s OEM website—from Houston.

For the next day and half we continued in almost continual contact and pushed out a total of nine information releases. Since the city staff were out of their offices and away from their normal tools and systems, they could not push the information to their normal media lists. But we quickly built an up-to-date media list of all Austin media and distributed the releases to them. These were in addition to the almost 400 contacts of Austin area agency contacts and other officials that had been built into the platform.

There were several times during the incident that we were able to report back through the PIO new information that was emerging on Twitter. This information would quickly find its way into the news coverage which had geared up with remarkable speed.

The various agencies from the City of Austin soon formed a Joint Information Center using the OEM site as the focus of new information. News reports began to reflect a coordinated flow of information from the City. Clearly the most significant communication came from the several press conferences held at the scene of the crash and fire. But the PIO was able to maintain the relevant information on the website by calling us from the press conference and we would quickly add and update the information on the site. Plus the agency was able to very quickly and efficiently distribute updates on the fast breaking situation to the media as well as to numerous agency leaders and others in the Austin community.

I say “we” because those involved in supporting Austin remotely during this event included Kevin Boxx, VP PIER Systems and Timothy O’Leary, my colleague at O’Briens’s Response Management. Direct support was also provided by Sandra Salazar, PIER’s Project Manager located in Houston who was at a different location than we were. Geoff Baron at PIER’s HQ in Bellingham, WA also provided direct assistance.

Some key learnings from this event:

-       Austin Police and Fire have received some strong kudos for their fast and effective crisis communication during this event—both from people within the community and from experts outside observing.

-       Virtual communication operation, or the Virtual JIC, does indeed work as has been demonstrated in other events. But this event was particularly telling because of the speed of information flow between the PIO and those on the scene and those operating remotely to keep the updates going.

-       Twitter and other social media are no doubt driving the information about an event of this nature. Reports coming from Twitter were almost concurrent with the event as some early “tweets” were from people witnessing the event as it occurred.

-       Major media use Twitter and other social media as primary sources of news. When you see “reports” or “eye witness reports” in the media coverage do not think it is that they have talked to someone directly but are likely getting it from the many tweets or posts on the internet.

-       The initial reports are virtually certain to be wrong—that is the nature of the internet and witnesses commenting from their perspective and speculating. But it is quite amazing to see how the online community sorts things out and gets to the facts faster than you would imagine.

-       Where it used to be that official sources would be the primary focus of the media’s interest a quick review of the media coverage will show that a primary interest of the media is to talk to eyewitnesses—often those same people who are reporting what they see or know (or speculations) via the internet.

-       PIOs and public officials have to scramble very, very hard to keep up with, let alone try to get ahead of, this kind of instant information coming from so many sources. As the official source of the news about the event, their primary role becomes rumor management—correct false information as it emerges—rather than focusing on being the first with the news.

Congratulations are due to Candice Wade and the team at Austin for a job well done in very difficult circumstances.

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