Eleven for ’11: My New Year’s Crisis Management Top Issue List
It’s time to put 2010 into a box, close the lid and have a look at the box marked 2011. As we tape the old box shut and look for a place on the shelf we realize that 2010 will be one we come back to time and again—at least for those in emergency management and communications. (Sorry for the extended metaphor, I just moved to a new home and I’ve got boxes and storage on my mind.) For many, the summer of 2010 will rank up there close to September 11, 2001. But, it will only be important for how it influences future understandings, decisions, and beliefs. In other words, we will look back a year or two or ten years from now and see that what happened in the Gulf of Mexico had enormous influence over our lives and the field of emergency management.
With that in mind, we turn to 2011. Here is a list of some of the major topics that will be significant in 2011 and well beyond. In this 2011 Happy New Year post, I will only introduce the topics and why I think they are important. In the coming weeks I hope to flesh out each one of these as a way of thinking through what is happening in emergency management and communications. As always, I invite your reaction, comments, critique and encouragement.
1. Reconciliation of federal response management strategies.
The Gulf Spill made it very clear that there are two conflicting federal response systems, despite the establishment of NIMS. One, the National Contingency Plan, evolved in response to the ExxonValdez spill and has been the guiding doctrine in spill response for twenty years. The other, the National Response Framework, evolved from 9/11 and Katrina. The lack of familiarity among key leaders of the distinctions between these, the partial imposition of a response approach intended for natural disasters over an oil spill, the confusion in the media and the public all created confusion, uncertainty and extraordinary frustration among responders. One of the key goals for policy makers in 2011 needs to be to carefully examine these systems, evaluate what worked and what didn’t and reconcile the differences.
2. Coming to grips with public participation.
Admiral Allen has made a point of the role of public participation in the Gulf Spill and in all future events. The National Oil Spill Commission working papers have made clear the inordinate role that political, media and public involvement had in operational decisions. While politics has always played a major role in high profile responses, there is a new element here. Not dissimilar to direct democracy or the use of citizen initiatives. Imagine for a moment, directing a response through citizen initiatives fomented by opportunistic NGO leaders or local politicians–and given urgency and weight by the Anderson Coopers and Katie Courics of the day. Yes, this will be a big deal.
3. Operation and communication functions coming together.
In the past, the public communication function through the EA Officer or PIO was largely separated from operations. Not any longer. See point 2. Public participation and active involvement in response decisions, such as deployment of key resources, is changing the very nature of operational response management. Through social media, a hyper-aggressive media, Billy Nungesser-type local political leadership, the line between the response organization and the citizens its serves is getting very fuzzy. Communication leaders who know their stuff will be key to managing this kind of involvement and will become an increasingly vital part of the Command staff.
4. The coming revolution in situation awareness.
Few things matter more to good response managers than knowing what is happening out there. The best intelligence matters as much to Incident Commanders as it does to victorious generals. But how that intelligence is gathered is changing dramatically. For any event accessible to the public, there will be eyes—many eyes, hundreds, thousands, even millions when you start to factor in live video—who are watching intently and reporting in real time. Response managers will tend to be dismissive of this as so much chatter. The reality is that through the chatter, critical information is hidden. Finding ways to filter all the observations into actionable intelligence is already one of the frontiers of the technology of response management.
5. Everything and everyone is mobilized.
By this I mean that the internet with all its chaff and jewels has become smaller, more mobile and ever more ubiquitous. You carry it in your pocket, purse or on your belt now. It is and will be available to you continuously—in your car, your fridge, your fishing pole probably. Mobilization of access to the world’s information is the great, quiet revolution that is changing our world in ways that mostly pass us by. Books and magazines are giving way to pad computing, which is only a smartphone a little larger. While there are still some communicators who think their job is to fax out a press release to the mass media, the world has gone far beyond that to getting (and expecting to get) realtime, real information delivered to them in a continuous flow in the smallest and most portable devices.
6. Insert video here.
If I was truly with it, instead of writing this next point I’d give you a link to YouTube. Better, yet connect you via live video to me pounding away at my laptop on my desk. Video told the story of the spill like nothing else. Not just the endless TV coverage, but the live video feeds. At one point there were twelve different simultaneous feeds. But the ones from a mile undersea told the real story. Oil and gas, ugly, dirty and brown, gushed under intense pressure for what seemed an eternity. Video will tell the story of your next event. The only real question is whether you will tell the story, be part of the story telling, or just be a bystander watching the video while others tell the story for you in ways that meets their agenda.
7. The continuing disintegration of major media.
The Pew Research study of the spill showed that the story was told online and by TV. The fragmentation of major “mass media” that we have already seen will continue and accelerate. News is being shared, not presented. We are getting our information from each other, the formal and informal networks that connect us are getting blended. Now we think of the internet as distinct from TV. That distinction is quickly fading—2011 will see us “watching TV” on the internet much more so than in 2010. The main lesson for communicators is “you are the broadcaster.” You have the world’s biggest printing press and fleet of delivery trucks, plus the world’s most powerful transmitter—and they are in your pocket and/or on your desk. It is up to you to use them, or let everyone who understands they are the broadcaster be the messenger—with their messages, not necessarily yours.
8. Email is dying. Reminds me of a story.
A friend was explaining Easter to his young granddaughter. He got to the part of Jesus dying and she burst into tears: “But he was just born!” The time between Christmas and Easter was very short to her young mind. And so is the time between the creation of email and its decline. The point is not to mourn email’s passing (or even to look for the resurrection of email), but to be aware that the dominant modes of communication are changing almost daily and communicators absolutely must keep pace. Yes, there are demographic shifts—some haven’t even gotten to email while most of the younger generation has largely left it for MySpace, Facebook and Twitter years ago. Some still use the phone for talking–many converse in the special language of texting. How we get our vital information out to the public in 2011 will be quite different from even a few years ago, and before the year is out, we are certain to be surprised again.
9. Wikileaks and underground communication.
The Gulf Spill is not the only event to profoundly impact crisis communication. Wikileaks, and the million imitators it is certain to spawn, will open up the floodgates of uncomfortable communications. Corporations will be embarrassed, governments certainly so, celebrities will be hit hard, so will everything and everyone powerful. Especially those who have enemies or opponents who would like to take them down a notch or two. 2010 was when the virtue of transparency turned ugly. Julian Assange will do more to make communications less transparent than almost anyone. For the simple reason that those who need to or wish to keep things confidential will revert to modes of communication where that is more assured. We will know less than we know now. Response managers will be more aware than ever of how emails can be discovered and used against them not just in a court of law but in the court of public opinion. I believe response management will suffer through the chill on communications, as will government and business. A handful of terrorists have virtually destroyed our ability to fly freely about the world. Now, a single man with a small team has done similar things to our ability to communicate and work effectively together.
10. Resiliency-thinking will start to take hold.
At first I resisted the idea of resilience as a new way of thinking about emergency management. Now I think it is not only on track, but am promoting it in thinking about organization reputations. Resilience is all about strength. Resilience will become a CEO’s number one concern, a mayor and his/her emergency manager’s mantra. I have a hard time thinking of issues more important than the ability of a company, an organization, a government, a community or a nation to endure the worst thrown at it and return to normal with some level of ease. We need to understand what happened in Galveston and Houston following Hurricane Ike and how that compares to what happened in New Orleans and Louisiana following Katrina—sure circumstances were different, but so was and is the resilience demonstrated. We need to look at Haiti and while we admire the people, we must be sad for how good and strong people are so ill served. Resiliency-thinking will lead to new understandings as to how reputations are protected and lost. It’s a rich, ripe concept and I’m looking forward to exploring it in much more detail.
11. Building trust from the inside out.
Building public trust has been an abiding interest for me, but I will confess to a significant new understanding and approach to it. It comes largely from reading Peter Firestein’s excellent book, “Crisis of Character” as well as from Amanda Ripley’s “The Unthinkable.” We live, move and have our being in a public discourse environment that is extremely challenging to building and maintaining trust. Most problems in crisis communication come from not thoroughly understanding the dynamics of that environment—BP, Toyota, Goldman Sachs and NPR are all examples of failing to understand and respond appropriately to that environment. Yet, there is something deeper at work that Firestein focuses on. Ultimately it is about character. Certainly about the character of the CEO in crisis, but in many ways about the character of an organization. We talk about corporate or organizational culture. We need to talk about corporate or organizational character. Is the trust within the walls high? Is communication open? Is respect for others and their opinions a high value? Is there a deep understanding that organizations operate for the benefit of multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders or those who directly pay their bills? These things matter beyond creating a pleasant work environment. They will largely determine how an organization prevents, prepares for and responds to a major crisis. Building trust from the inside out and then responding to a major event with a thorough understanding of the public information environment is the key to resilience, the key to organizational strength, the key to surviving and thriving in the aftermath of a major disaster.
Finally, on a more personal note, at the end of 2010 I will complete a ten year+ career with PIER Systems and one year of employment with O’Brien’s Response Management which purchased PIER in late 2009. Desiring more time and freedom for other projects such as more writing, I am re-hanging my shingle, this time as Agincourt Strategies LLC. But I will continue to work with PIER and O’Brien’s in a “Senior Advisor” capacity continuing to consult, write plans, conduct training as well as assist with selected marketing projects.
Here are my very best wishes to you and yours for a prosperous, peaceful and resilient New Year!