Venturing into the dangerous water of predictions for 2012

(also posted on–my apologies–but at least its a long one)

The end of one year and beginning of the next means all kinds of retrospective views and prognostications. I find these a little tiresome, yet, like watching a train wreck I can’t seem to take my eyes off them. As I dive into these dangerous waters, I wish to remind my readers that I have proven quite inept at this in the past–I for one, doomed Twitter to the social media graveyard soon after it launched only to watch it evolve into perhaps the most important tool for emergency communications since the invention of the siren.

With that warning, I bravely dive into the shark infested pool:

1) Crisis and emergency response communication is ending as we have known it.

We have seen it in the past as a sort of separate and distinct aspect of public communication. Suddenly, an organization finds itself under the hot lights of TV cameras and on the front pages of newspapers around the neighborhood, country or world. What do you do to prepare for that, and how can you plan to avoid the catastrophes that have ruined many a brilliant career and powerful organization? Crisis communication seen in this way is far from business as usual. But I really believe that is changing. As more and more organizations communicate and engage directly with their audiences on a daily basis crisis and emergency communication is like what happens everyday except on steroids. What changes is not what is said and how it is said, what changes is the mere intensity of the interaction.

When you are already engaged in direct communication and interaction with key audiences on a regular basis, you don’t do a lot different in a major crisis. You keep up the same stuff, except maybe increase the frequency, and certainly the sheer amount of direct interaction increases. If you are already talking regularly with reporters, key stakeholders, employees, neighborhood leaders, customers, suppliers and others important to you future, isn’t that what you would do in a big event? Clearly, there are a lot of organizations who are not directly and regularly engaging with the right people. For them, crisis communication as a distinct process is still very much a reality. Everything changes when bad things happen and the world’s attention is focused on them. But increasingly major corporations and emergency management organizations are learning the value of engaging directly and regularly. Coca Cola has 35 million “fans” on their Facebook page. What do you think they will do if it hits the fan and CNN walks across the street to talk to them (both in Atlanta, you see)? They will continue their on-going conversation on Facebook in addition to talking to CNN. And if CNN gets it wrong (quite certain to happen actually), then Coca Cola can quickly get the facts straight to the 35 million they are engaging directly. And those 35 million will use the social networks they are part of  to help tell the Coca Cola story.

In this overly simplistic view of things, there are those who are engaging directly and regularly and for whom a crisis is simply what they do daily on a higher level.There are those who are not engaging directly and regularly, and for them crisis communication as it has been is not only essential, but more dangerous than ever.

2) Social media channels will continue to diffuse.

The primary social media tools of crisis and emergency communication in 2011 were Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. They will likely continue to dominate, but life will not stay quite that simple. Others will chip around the edges. Google+ is causing a lot of questions. Certainly it hasn’t kicked FB off the stage yet and likely won’t–but it is probably something you will have to deal with if only because Google seems committed to make it work and they have a fair amount of clout. But there are others who nibble around the edges. I’ve been checking out pinterest–a rapidly growing way for folks to share common interests, mostly focused around images. I’m also interested in pivotshare–which looks to take the commercial use of YouTube to a new and higher level. I’m not saying these will bump FB and YouTube out of their dominant spot, but as new channels proliferate and find their audiences it will be increasingly important to incorporate them in your communication plans. One answer to this problem has to be platform integration. We are already seeing communication management systems evolve as single-point management platforms for multiple social media channels (full disclosure–I founded the above referenced company but am no longer employed, an owner or financially involved). I think we will see many more solutions aimed at making it easier to manage the multiple social media channels that are becoming essential.

3) Content curation and situation awareness will be primary concerns.

If you think about the global internet as a nervous system, the nerve endings or sensors are growing exponentially. Think about all those cameras walking around in people’s pockets, hanging on light poles, in stores. Think about the texting that happens all the time (texting is now a more frequent use of cell phones than calling–they should be called texters with phone capabilities rather than phones with texting capabilities). Think about all the blogs, websites, social media channels sharing information. Now think about the hundreds of millions of phones with precise geographic information included. The internet sensors are everywhere and at some point of time in your future, the specific information provided on a few of those is going to be very very important to you. But will you be able to get it? Emergency managers will need to know what can be known at a specific point of time and space. But will they be able to get it? Right now, we have a nervous system with gazillions of nerve endings and very little brain to help us process it. Yes, Google is doing its best and a marvelous job of “organizing the world’s information.” But much more is needed. We need ways to capture the petabytes of data generated every moment, process it, analyze it and present it in a way that results in effective action. Real time situation analysis remains the holy grail of emergency management in this age. I’ve seen some intriguing developments in this direction that I’ll be sharing with you later, but we are just at the beginning stages.

I mention content curation in this context because I see them related. We not only have in our internet nervous system all these sensors, we also have a tremendous amount of content being continually added–and all of it is accessible to us. Working on some writing projects I am continually amazed at the way I can so quickly access virtually any small but important fact–thanks again to the likes of Google and Wikipedia. The things that most interest you, the things you need to know quickly, are most likely there. But we can’t be wading through it all. I can’t get through all the email newsletters and messages that interest me. So having help with curating that content–organizing, prioritizing and effectively presenting it in a way that suits my particular needs–is and will be a primary concern of those in the business of presenting information. One of the best sources I have seen for discussions about this is Nieman Journalism Lab–a program of Harvard University. You may want to subscribe. And if you want examples of great curated content on the subject of social media and emergency management, you can’t beat Patrice Cloutier’s feed and Kim Stephens idisaster2.0 blog. I believe we will rely more and more on credible curators of information that is important to us–keep it up Patrice and Kim!

4) We will speak in video and images

Words matter, they really do ( I say this hopefully as I pound at my keyboard). But what matters more and more are pictures. Video and still images. The use of YouTube and Flickr provide an important key. There are more than 120 million videos on YouTube. If you wanted to watch every one it would take you 600 years. Many receive a few views, but a surprising number receive tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions. We haven’t been paying attention too much to the continuing movement of globalization but the world is becoming smaller due to our ways of communicating and video and images are universal languages–even more than English. If you are involved in crisis and emergency comms and you are not thinking about how you are going to provide your vital info visually, you may find yourself in the wrong century. One quick example close at hand–power outage information. Sure, you can list all the communities, streets, locations with outages. But nothing communicates more quickly, efficiently or powerfully than a map. Especially one that tells you when the lights will come back on.

This is one lesson I am trying to practice as well as preach. Some of you saw my initial attempt at video production with the “Social Media–A Whole New Game” video. It may be a pathetic attempt, but I’m learning a lot and I’m not giving up–watch for more soon.

5) Mobile power.

This seems so obvious now that it may be not worth saying. Steve Jobs has passed on, but what he left behind has changed the world and will continue to change it in almost inconceivable ways. What you carry in your pocket or your purse in computing power is beyond any imagining just a few short years ago–and yet it is nothing compared to what is coming. People a lot smarter than me, like my son Geoff, tell me that things like Siri and Bluetooth 4 are about to change the world big time. I won’t try to explain it, but I will tell you this. If you need to do urban search and rescue, say after a major earthquake, chances are you will be using things like Bluetooth 4 in the not too distant future to save lives. We still call these computers in our pockets and purses smartphones, but as I mentioned earlier, using them to phone others is becoming a minor use. They are game machines. They are personal assistants. They are newspapers and TV sets. They are key and car finders. They are recipe books. They are grandkid connectors. They are loudspeakers, sirens, printing presses, broadcast transmitters and on and on and on. They will become so much more. Yes, they have tiny screens and inconvenient key pads. But I recently played with an iphone projector, and key pads? Well, go back to Siri and see how we will be inputting info soon.

What that means is if you are not planning your communication to be managed on and distributed to mobile devices you will soon be left behind. Now, not tomorrow, is the time to plan for mobilization. I complained recently in this blog about a power outage and what I as a customer needed from my utility provider. I thought maybe I was blueskying it a bit, but then I got an email from the emergency management department of Seattle City Light and he showed me that they indeed have an interactive map that shows in essentially real time the status of power outages. Not only that they have a mobile app that will provide access to Seattle City Light including outage info. Thanks Jerry for the heads up and congrats to Seattle City Light for meeting today’s expectations.

6) Threats to the internet will rise.

It is not all goodness and light in the world of internet communications. The dark cloud of SOPA hangs over everything and it has many of the folks I trust about these things positively terrified. I don’t know much about it but it seems a typical extremely heavy-handed approach to solving an intellectual property concern in a way that will have devastating consequences.

While I worry about that, I worry even more about the impact of what I would call “instant rage” and “toxic talk.” This post is already way too long but I will just highlight the problems that Lowe’s and Chiquita have been having as examples. It’s one thing for ham-fisted politicians to do in the internet and the freedom and transparency that it brings, it is another for those hypersensitive individuals who misuse the power of the internet to intimidate others and heighten outrage.

Toxic talk has been a problem on internet discussion since the very beginning. Many who participate in internet discussions hide behind anonymity and spew the most hate-filled venom and the most foul language that is possible. What they would not say in public they say without accountability–and the results are potentially very damaging. Lowes for one had to shut down comments on its Facebook page after its TV show sponsorship problems because their Facebook page became a platform for the screaming, disgusting rage of those on both sides of the Muslim vs fundamentalist Christian divide. It’s disgusting, horrifying and potentially deadly to our society and the free and open use of the internet.

I find it a bit ironic (as a cigar smoker, admittedly) that a society that is so intolerant of the slightest whiff of smoke from someone’s questionable habit, is so completely tolerant of the venom, hate-filled language and outrage that sometimes seems to dominate our public discourse (and I’m not just referring to political debates). I hope and pray that a backlash against this will develop–nothing involving legislation–just a reaction against those who participate in this sort of thing so it becomes as socially unacceptable as passing gas in polite company. (Realizing of course that that somewhat scatalogical reference may put me in the category of toxic talk.)

Just one more thing before I get off my high horse and start slipping quietly into the new year. One thing I think John Naisbitt got right in Megatrends a long time ago was the idea of high tech-high touch. The higher we go in technology, the more there will be a balancing need for the human relationship and interaction. We are so ridiculously connected via high technology right now and admittedly, much of that has to do with maintaining our human relationships and connections. But the sheer amount of connectedness has to be doing something to us as people and particularly in our relationships with each other. My wife has often brought to my attention the way people who go out to eat in a restaurant are often spending much of their precious time together hunched over their pocket/purse computers (aka phones). It was sad watching a grandmother go to dinner with her 14ish old grandson, only to have him spend almost the entire time texting his friends while she watched quietly and ate. What opportunity that young man missed–and won’t he some day regret it? Here’s what I propose–a sabbath day for connectivity. One day a week to completely and totally disconnect. No cheating. Just see if you can do it.

Blessings on all of you in the new year!


An unbelievable honor from SMEM expert Patrice Cloutier

I consider Patrice Cloutier, a former CBC journalist and communicator with a Canadian government agency, one of the top experts in the world on social media and emergency management and communications. No one that I know of digs deeper and has more insight into the remarkable changes being brought about by this phenomenon. Crisisblogger readers have benefited from the frequent tips he sends me about important developments, articles, blog posts. I hope all of you are subscribed to his blog crisis command post and his daily list of high value article and posts.

In the last few weeks Patrice has been assembling his list of “Top 25” destinations for social media and emergency management. I’ve been following this with interest and finding some great names, examples and resources here. I was thrilled to find myself included in Item #8 as one of several bloggers on Emergency Management.

So suffice it to say when I found that I had made the top of Patrice’s list, it took me some time to pick myself up off the floor. Patrice, you are more than kind, more than generous. But coming from you, who I know would be the tops on most people’s list if they went about assembling one as you have, it is an honor beyond belief.

A wonderful Christmas present. Here’s wishing all of you the very merriest of Christmases.


Fast Company’s Communication Winners and Losers for 2011

Here’s a great list from a blogger on Fast Company.

Their list of winners coming soon.

Who’s on your list?

Here’s another list from Fineman PR–always a good list from this firm.

Lowes and Chiquita show “social responsibility” a slippery slope

I think the focus on social responsibility by corporations is a very positive step. I have long believed that companies can be a force for good or ill in our world, and social responsibility helps them think through their actions. But, as Lowes and Chiquita are both showing “there be dragons there.”

Lowes ran into a firestorm when they first sponsored and then pulled their sponsorship from a TV show “All American Muslim.” Lowes pulled its sponsorship from the show and that led to a storm of protest. Many believe that the decision by Lowes was influenced or forced by a Christian group from Florida protesting the show. The online travel website Kayak also got into the controversy after it backed out of sponsoring the show, but said on its blog that the show “sucked,” and that TLC, the network airing and selling the show, misled them about the nature of the program. Lowe’s is facing a firestorm of controversy, boycotts and threats of boycotts and high profile celebrities looking to jump in front of any TV cameras who happen to show up around this issue.

Chiquita stepped on the proverbial banana peel by attempting to show its social conscience by boycotting Canadian oil based on environmental concerns about extraction from oil sands. It’s kind of a hot topic around here as our hyper-environmentalist city council locally decided some time ago to boycott Canadian oil as well–not a friendly gesture as we live on the US-Canada border and much local business comes from Canada.

Chiquita’s social statement resulted in efforts by Canadians and some Americans to organize a boycott of Chiquita bananas. Of course, the alternative to Canadian so-called “dirty oil” is more oil from the sands of the Mid-East, which, as the Canadian Huff Post article points out, is hardly free of ethical concerns.

The dragons of social conscience and social statements coming from corporate actions surround us. From a corporate standpoint, your damned if you sponsor a show and damned if you change your mind. Your damned if you support Arabian oil or Canadian oil and damned if you don’t. Sorry, but wind power is not safe either because if you say we support wind farms, those bird lovers who decry the occasional avian death will likely try to organize a boycott and perhaps even get Mia Farrow involved.

I find this very disheartening. For one thing, it will likely serve as a damper on enthusiasm for social responsibility. Second, it will likely further contribute to the deadening of our entertainment to the lowest common denominator because what corporate sponsor concerned about their brand will support something that may create a backlash? Third, it shows the power of social media but in my mind in a negative way. Networks of like minded can be quickly built and the pressure these groups and individuals can put on organizations is often way beyond their actual power. It’s a kind of false power, but, it is amplified by the kind of media reports we are seeing on these controversies. Media feed on such controversies so even a small protest, when aided by activist-celebrities, make any editor, publisher or producer slobber. What is particularly sad to me is how the public relations publishers jump on these things and fan the flames of controversy in many ways more irresponsibly even than mainstream media.

No doubt executives will think carefully about implications of sponsorship and their own social conscience-led decisions. That is a good thing. But I hope these flare-ups prove to be benign in terms of brand damage because too much of the kind of political correctness enforcement we are seeing is ultimately going to hurt all of us.



Media fear-mongering–the Onion’s take

The Onion is well known for its irreverent and sarcastic take on today’s issues–and in this hilarious spoof of a news report they highlight the fear mongering of media reporting along with the “irrational fear” exhibited by news viewers. (Thanks again, Patrice!)

As with most of the Onion’s “reports” this contains a painful element of truth. The competition for eyes on the screen (either computer, mobile device or TV) is intense and to win that competitive battle editors and producers have learned that nothing attracts like fear, uncertainty and dread. So in an event, like a minor train accident, the question that naturally occurs to those concerned about attracting an audience is how can I use this story to heighten public interest. The main concern of course would be, is anyone I know involved in this? Hence, “millions feared dead.” Of course, it is overdrawn, but the fundamental truth remains.

I continue to marvel at commentary about reputation crises that do not take into account this phenomenon. This season I’ve read many marketing pieces from crisis consultants saying in effect: we can help protect you against the stupid mistakes that BP, Toyota, Bank of America, Lowes and others have made. Yes, there are some examples of PR mis-steps. But the reality is that the reputation challenges faced by organizations, including government agencies and elected officials or those seeking office, are a direct result of the way the media presents these stories.

The contrast between how US media treated the Fukushima disaster vs. how mainstream Japanese media treated it is telling. Unfortunately, as I discuss on Crisis Comm, neither approach did much for the credibility of the media. The natural and understandable tendency of media in a fiercely competitive business is to heighten fear, emotional levels and uncertainty. Without understanding and accepting that reality, it is hard for me to see how organizations can prepare appropriately to respond to crises.


J&J takes apologies to a whole new level

Apologizing has become one of the standard practices of crisis communication and reputation management. The problem is, they are all starting to sound alike. “We deeply regret the impact this event is having on our valued [whatevers].”

Johnson & Johnson had a rather rough 2010 with millions of products recalled including infant Tylenol. Then in January, 2011 its popular ob tampons quietly disappeared from shelves. The products loyal fans went nuts on social media and J&J, without apparently explaining the reasons for pulling the product, decided to bring it back.

I suspect that their marketing and public affairs staff got a little tired of the standard apology that they had to drag out over and over with the recalls. So they got creative, and in the process I think have set the standard for apologies.

Here is their apology–turn up your speakers and make sure you put in your first name.


Rumor management–a startling infographic shows how rumors grow on Twitter

One of the huge changes in crisis and emergency communications is the emergence of rumor management as job one. Yes, job one. I used to say, repeating the Coast Guard policy, your job was to be the “first and best source” of the news regarding the crisis, incident or emergency. Now you can’t be. Social media and the internet will beat you every time unless the event is completely contained from any unofficial observers.

As the “official” source of information about an event, you should be the one to continually monitor what is being said about and be very fast to correct it with the facts. That means, we in crisis and emergency communication, need to fully understand the dynamics of rumors and how they gain traction. To that end, the Guardian newspaper in the UK, in conjunction with the London School of Economics, has done us a huge favor. They studied 2.6 million tweets related to the riots in London and tracked how the rumors started, emerged and were corrected. I admit, being a visual person, I love infographics and this is one of the most compelling ones I have ever seen.

The rumors tracked include wild animals set free from the zoo, rioters cooking their own food at McDonalds, the London Eye (giant ferris wheel) set on fire, and possibly the most dangerous, how a police beating of a 16 year old girl started the riots.

I’ve never quite understood the London riots as I have never quite understood the Occupy movement. But I’m beginning to think these events are more closely related to the emergence of social media than to any real motivation behind them. Could something similar be said of the Arab uprising? Is it possible that because it so remarkably easy to organize people for flash mobs and for spontaneous gatherings that we simply want to do that? That these gatherings exist more because we can do them rather than any real rationale or motivation? What restless, unemployed, hyperglandular young person wouldn’t thrill to be part of a huge, noisy gathering–just because it is there? Certainly beats being hunkered down behind their video games or lazying around watching sports all the time. But, that’s social commentary, rather than crisis communication, so I’ll stop there.


Update on Virginia Tech

The situation appears to be heading toward resolution, so it is time for armchair quarterbacking. First, my thoughts and prayers go to everyone at VT for having to endure another nightmare and particularly to the family of the slain officer.

Here are some topline comments I provided Ragan for their story on this event:

– clearly VT learned much about communications from its earlier tragedy and overall seemed well prepared to deal with this.
– Do not know how the campus alert system worked but understand it worked fine.
– They immediately had a website with specific info about the event which replaced their normal website when you hit–a very strong improvement
– The NY Times in their first alert about the event noted that they got the info off the VT website–a remarkable indication of the value of having that info available so soon after the event
– Unfortunately, the website often loaded very slowly and at critical times was down–the supplier of the system did not demonstrate crisis capability for an event of this magnitude
– Website was down during a time of critical rumor management when a message went out from @collegiatetimes that said VT was saying the shooting was a rumor–however the website was up soon after and no doubt the info on that helped quickly quell that rumor. See graphic below of the tweet with the rumor.
– VT also provided web access to the news conference they held soon after the shooting–the timing of the news conference, the tone, the message from the president were all appropriate and effective

Bottom line–the story of this event was told largely on social media as this Mashable story makes clear, including initial tweets by USA Today. But VT, with the exception of a shaky web platform, from my perspective did a good job of providing the information they had in very rapid and continuous fashion.




Patrice Cloutier collected many good stories about this including this summary from mashable about how social media told the story of this, starting from the first tweet from USA Today.

And if you want to know what it feels like to be in a lockdown at VT during a frightening incident like this, thanks Doug, here is a link to a video on YouTube as presented on Patch.
It’s now becoming familiar:

– news is told primarily by social media
– news media use SM and (thanks to fast work) VT website for info (see previous post for word cloud on twitscoop going crazy with this incident)
– rumor management is job one
– broadcast your own press conference rather than let the media select only the portions they want



New VT shooting reveals changes

It’s just now happening, but a few interesting notes:

– breaking news alerts–near immediate widespread news distributions from major outlets like NYTimes and LATimes

– news website–NYTimes reported on breaking news they got the immediate info from VT website. What a change from previous incident when no info was there. Now first info is there and news outlets using that.

-Twitter gone wild. Here’s the word cloud for Twitter as of a few minutes ago (10:50am PT)

How [not] to explain a failure to communicate

During the evening of Nov. 30, the Los Angeles area experienced the worst windstorm in most resident’s memory. My wife and I were there and from our fourth floor hotel room in Pasadena, which had some of the worst damage, we saw and felt the ferocious wind. The next day we were awestruck by the wind’s power seeing hundreds of massive trees toppled on houses, cars and streets. Miraculously, there were no reported injuries or fatalities.

From a crisis communication standpoint, this was primarily about power outages. Well over 300,000 people in the area were without power. Power is provided by Southern California Edison, a private utility, and Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP), the nation’s largest public utility serving about 4 million customers. DWP is my client and I was in LA, coincidentally, to work with them on message mapping for large events–such as windstorms with large scale power outages.

I’ve commented on about the incredible work done by dedicated public officials. Since I was assisting DWP, I was also able to be a part of the first-ever city-wide activation of Los Angeles’ magnificent new Emergency Operations Center. The coordination was impressive.

In the aftermath of this event, Southern California Edison is finding itself very much on the defensive regarding its communication. There is much to learn from this event about communication in a large scale power outage and I’ll be commenting more about some things I learned while working this event–both successes and failures. But right now I want to point out what not to say when you are being accused of failing to communicate as SoCalEdison is.

In this unfortunate presentation captured on video and presented on Patch, a SoCalEdison executive explains that one of the reasons the company did not effectively communicate with its customers is that they placed a priority on getting the power back on. Oops, big mistake. It is similar to the shipping company who after a big spill from one of their ships put a message on their website asking people not to bother them with questions as they were very busy cleaning up the spill. Sorry, organizations like shipping companies and massive public utilities today are expected to have the resources to BOTH do their jobs and tell people what is going on. So rule one: DON’T ever use the preoccupation with responding as an excuse for not communicating effectively.

After this little problem, SoCalEdison has found itself the target of elected officials in the region complaining about their communication failures. This is not at all unusual for elected officials to jump on and amplify the complaints of their constituents, and of course, this is great fodder for journalists. Personally, as I monitored SoCalEdison’s activities during the early stages of the outage disaster, I was impressed with much of their communication. I do think it went downhill after a good start. Nevertheless, what LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich pointed out as reported in this LA Times website story is quite correct:

But, Antonovich said, “You really need direct contact with those neighbors. … The media only works if you have electricity. They need to turn on the television. So that’s stupid.”
Even if people had cellphone service initially, “after a period of time, those batteries ran out.”
“When were you able to dispense information to the public [about] when the power would come back on?” Antonovich said.
He was also dismayed to hear from a resident who remained without power Tuesday, and another who said the utility didn’t know that her power was out because she did not have a “smart” electrical meter. For those homes, Edison relies on phone calls and patrols to determine what areas are without power, Gutierrez said.
Antonovich questioned how customers would have known to call. And those who did call in dealt with slow operators, Antonovich said. In addition, he said, Edison’s website failed to provide accurate updated information.

Direct communication. That should be the mantra of everyone in crisis communication today–and especially in power outages. There continues to be far, far, far too much reliance on media communication in an era when increasingly more get their news directly via internet. Major events in the past have proven that not only is the internet the most resilient form, that even in power outages people use their smartphones recharged from car batteries to maintain communication. But, if your focus is on providing the broadcasters with the latest and you are not using Twitter, your website, email distributions, text messaging to get the information out, you will fail. And you will have to answer to Supervisor Antonovich.