Eleven Top Issues for ’11–My New Year’s Agenda

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!

James Donnelly talks about implications of WikiLeaks

James Donnelly, otherwise known here as J.D., is one of my favorite conversationalists here at crisisblogger. He was interviewed by Brian Pittman for commpro.biz about wikileaks and the implications for corporations. Happy to share this interview as J.D. and I (usually) share perspectives on how crisis communication ought to be done.

Well done J.D. and Brian.

BP’s Neil Chapman and I discuss spill communications with Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson

I was pleased to be invited to discuss the Gulf Spill communications with BP’s Neil Chapman. And particularly pleased to have a discussion with two top-notch communication thought leaders–Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson. Their long-serving podcast (didn’t Shel invent the idea of podcasting?) “For Immediate Release” is a great place to learn from communication professionals about what’s going on and best practices.

I’ve had the great privilege of working with Neil Chapman for many years, starting back in about 2001 or 2002 when he was a lead crisis communicator for BP in Houston and I was trying hard to convince him that he needed this new tool I had created called PIER. Somehow, with the help of the Coast Guard really saying good things about it, I was able to convince him. Since then, we’ve walked through a few major events together. Neil is not only one of the most experienced crisis communication professionals anywhere he is one of the wisest and most gentlemanly people I know.

The hour went by too fast. Shel and Neville had great questions, of course, and Neil as usual was insightful, open and eager to share lessons learned. I hope you have the chance to listen to this podcast. There is no doubt that the Gulf Spill will change crisis communication for many years to come. I was interviewed by PRWeek this morning specifically on that topic, as to how it will change things. Listening to this podcast will help give you some ideas as to how much and how far reaching those changes will be.

Toyota–reputation disaster or just a blip?

It’s the end of the year and all kinds of PR pundits have been making their list of the worst PR blunders. On the ones I’ve seen Toyota is near the top of the list–BP usually tops them. Which raises the question to me if reputation disasters are what they used to be.

Daily Dog, as I’ve commented before, tends to hype the PR crisis of those covered in its stories. The headline today about Toyota: “As Toyota’s Dark Year Winds Up, Analysts Say Recall Fallout is Likely to Linger: Crisis-Weakened Automaker’s Troubles are “Far From Over” — Even Though New Survey Says Consumers Still Rank Toyota Highest.

To the headline writer’s credit, the positive element of the story is mentioned which is a little unusual. But, the conflict between the oft-repeated story of the the disaster that befell the company this year with the confidence the consumers continue to show in this company raises the question about the nature of today’s reputation disasters. The Dog story says: Despite all that PR trauma, a new survey from Kelley Blue Book ranks Toyota as the most-considered brand among new-car shoppers. A total of 25 percent of those surveyed say the automaker is their top pick when shopping. Coming in a very close second with 24 percent is Ford, followed just behind at 23 percent by Honda.

There is no question that Toyota was significantly impacted by all the negative press, the series of recalls, the Congressional hearings, the suggestions by the Transportation Secretary that no one should buy Toyotas, etc. But, as bad as it looked from the press story and from the analysis of the PR pundits, the question was how could the company even survive. Toyota has not only survived but it has regained its top spot with consumers. That is remarkable.

I will admit to being skeptical of the reality behind Toyota’s problems all along. I felt it was another example of the media overhyping problems, and then, with heightened scrutiny other issues that normally would not come to this level of attention were suddenly big deals. And I was very concerned about the conflict of interest of the administration owning one of  Toyota’s biggest competitors and being both competitor and watchdog. Here’s what I wrote on Feb 22:

Well, I don’t believe the reality is there. I think this is what happens often when things go bad. Additional scrutiny causes additional problems and things pile up. Now the media-shy chairman is preparing to face a highly skeptical and go-for-the-throat Congress. Secretly I wish that Mr. Toyoda would ask the members of Congress this question: How can you be credible as watchdog of the public interest when you have a dog in the hunt? How can the American public take you seriously when your president has more to gain from your problems than anyone else on earth?

I’m not the only crisis consultant who felt there was a substantial amount of media overreaching on this issue. Here is James Donnelly’s post on the topic.

I spoke at the PRSA International Conference on reputation resilience, applying some of the basic ideas about how people and organizations survive disasters to the issues of reputation crises. The goal of resilience is to return to “normal.” Normal is in quotation marks because after a major disaster the new normal is often very different. While there may be a bit of a new normal for Toyota, it looks quite a bit from the outside like the old normal. I suspect inside it is a different story.

But, Toyota in my mind is demonstrating reputation resilience and that I think is the more significant story than how damaging the recall disaster was for them. If there is a case study written on Toyota, it ought to be focused on how a reputation built over many years plus a company culture that has the solid qualities needed to survive enabled a major brand to limit the damage from today’s media and political onslaught.

The truth is our media environment and overheated political discourse makes for a difficult environment for reputation protection. But the other side of it may be that the public instinctively understands it and doesn’t take all the accusations and heightened scrutiny as seriously as we tend to think.

Jonathan Bernstein’s 10 Questions for Crisis Preparation

I’ve known Jonathan Bernstein for a number of years now and he is one of the best at advising clients in major crises. He’s definitely been through the wars, so when Jonathan speaks I know I listen. Here is his top ten list of questions to ask to see if you are ready for a crisis.

Trolling, toxic talk and the challenges of transparency

Thanks to Dave Statter of statter911 who alerted me to this outstanding op-ed piece in NYT by Facebooks’ design manager Julie Zhuo about the challenges the tech community faces regarding trolls. Trolls are those mean, nasty horrible creatures that lurk around seeing who they can attack with their slobbering, venomous mouths. In this case, they don’t lurk under bridges and pathways, but they lurk around blogs, news sites and websites, contaminating almost every conversation with their toxic expressions. Yes, you’re right, I don’t like them very much and have written about them a fair amount here under the topic of toxic talk. I think they are a significant contributor to the decline of public trust and the disagreeable atmosphere surrounding much of our public discourse.

As Julie points out, a primary cause for this is anonymity. People will do all kinds of things when their identity is unknown and unknowable that they wouldn’t think about doing otherwise. The Greek philosophers certainly understood this. Trolling, like many evil deeds, would be seriously decreased by making it illegal to reveal who you really are.

But, that runs smack into a primary ethos of the internet. The internet crowd really likes this anonymity and I suspect a great majority of them would fight hard to protect it. And I for one do not believe there is or should be a legal or legislative solution to every problem that plagues us. If that is the way, soon our only problems will be legal and legislative ones and sometimes I’m not too sure we aren’t there already. I just think it is quite ironic that the internet ethos of anonymity runs smack dab into that other high value of the internet culture–transparency. How can you demand transparency from anyone and everyone, while hiding behind anonymity? Yet, that seems to be the value system at work.

Speaking of transparency, and speaking as one who has proclaimed its virtues loudly and tried to help organization leaders understand its urgency and demands, we are now seeing some of the dangers and challenges of transparency. I am referring, of course, to wikileaks and the widespread publication of classified war documents and now diplomatic messages. I have little doubt that those subscribing to the internet ethos, as I am referring to it, are largely applauding the release of these documents and looking to nominate Julian Assange, wikileaks founder, for a Nobel prize. Part of me wants to join in the applause but there is also that part of me that says there are some times when secrets are necessary.

The dilemma inherent in this struggle against transparency versus other competing values and interests–including the lives of people and security of the nation–is evidenced in the New York Times explanation of its decision to publish most of the leaked documents. Wikileaks creates a huge dilemma for responsible news organizations like the New York Times. Refuse to publish and they not only lose out on all that web traffic and public interest, but they look like digital content Luddites. Publish it all, and they fall right into the reasonable accusation of not caring about anything other than their ratings or readers. Personally, I think they did a pretty good job of walking this tightrope with this explanation. Still, it makes you wonder a bit when they make a point of pointing out that they did not necessarily agree with the Obama administration’s opinion about publishing all documents and so are making themselves the arbiters of national security questions rather than leaving that to the government. I guess so it has always been, but this seems to be on a whole new level.

What seems clear in all of this is that transparency is not an unmitigated good–as even the most adamant of internet freedom protectors would agree. If they did agree that transparency was the ultimate good then they above all would demand an end to anonymity on the web. So, both individual members of society, like the publisher of the NYT and society as a whole will continue to struggle with finding the right balance between transparency and protection. It will be interesting to see how this will play out in the field of conflicting values. What is certain for crisis communication is that any effort to restrict information without clear and compelling justification will be met with hoots and howls from the media and the social media crowd alike. All the more for the trolls to slobber over.

Way too much information–the challenge for emergency management and crisis communicators

Today I blogged on something on Emergency Management that I have been thinking about a lot lately. The amount of highly useful information is exploding–but the useful information is buried in the detritus of that explosion. This has significant implications for almost every aspect of life–from shopping, to conversing with friends, to studying up on your next vacation destination. Since I work in crisis and emergency response, I’m looking at the implications for that field.

My blogpost is focused on emergency managers. The implications for response management is that more and more decisions about how to respond to an event are going to be based on the plethora of information available from information sources outside the response–the observers using their mobile computer capability along with all the information capturing sensors that are taking over our world–like webcams and building status sensors.

But this challenge hits crisis communicators hard in a couple of ways. Since part of the job of crisis communications is external monitoring, it right now typically falls on the communicators to do the media, social media and community monitoring. The purpose of this was to gauge communication, capture rumors and misinformation and generally use this info to improve the communication. But now we are seeing that the information gathered through this monitoring may be of extreme importance to the response managers. So suddenly communicators have a very important new role and one that brings them or should bring them much closer to the response management decisions. They may have the best intelligence available, and that intelligence is needed to make informed response decisions.

The other reason this hits communicators hard is that the information coming from the outside world is extremely dynamic. As we saw in the gulf spill as in all major events, the issues come and go like the stuffed animals in the “whack-a-mole” game. Smash one down and another pops up. While the dynamic nature of “mini-crisis of the moment” has been around for a long time, now it is more dynamic and potentially more of a crisis than ever. An issue can pop up in your trend tracker and become huge as you sit and watch the word cloud grow. You don’t know if it will transition into the broader blog world or the mainstream media world and become the “breaking news” story of the evening cable shows, or whether it will disappear into the ether like most of these instant issues. So it means that the monitoring never ends and neither does the necessity to be extremely nimble and responsive.

I fully expect that solutions will begin to emerge that will allow all the data coming in from outside a response to be strained, manipulated, algorithmed, and trend-tested to death. There will be major efforts launched to try to assimilate all this mountain of realtime information and turn it into actionable intelligence. In the blogpost I point to ALADDIN as one artificial intelligence project aimed at capturing this kind of information and automatically turning it into useful information for, in this case, robots to use in responding to disasters.

One might say, well, look at Google. We need to googleize realtime disaster or crisis information. After all, it is their stated intention to “organize the world’s information.” And I think Google needs to be considered as a sort of model for what needs to come next. However, for every action there is a reaction. Note this story today in the New York Times about how one extremely unscrupulous business man discovered that the worst he treated his customers, the better it was for his business–thanks to Google and its automated search.

Given the stakes in crisis and emergency management, I suspect there will be a role for humans to evaluate this mountain of information. So, in the meantime, there is plenty of work for crisis communicators to do in helping decisionmakers make sense out of all the information.