Aftermath of Boston bombing and news: a call for silence

It was a week to remember–the bombings, the ricin letters, the horrific tragedy in West, Texas. I reflected on one important aspect of public information coming out of the Boston bombings on Crisis Comm on and won’t repeat myself here.

But I’ve thought much about the dilemma forced on us by the now easy access to police scanners almost anywhere in the world and the resulting ability to share that almost more than real-time information through Reddit, 4chan and any social media channel. This is radical transparency that present profound new dangers to public safety through the remarkable ease of sharing inside information and misinformation.

Mike Anany published on Nieman Lab provides some very useful perspective on the terrible mistakes made by major news outlets and the good and bad of social media use during the bombing aftermath and the hunt for the bombers.

Everyone who uses social media during events like this–officially and unofficially–should pay close heed to the virtue of silence. Truthfully, I think official voices cannot be silent but they must be active continually during an event even if that activity is to say we have no new confirmed information but will provide it as soon as possible. The Boston Police Department’s use of Twitter was one of the brightest spots (this article on mashable provides the critical lessons to be learned). But while official voices cannot and should not be silent, they should be aware of the critically important role they play in providing the best and most accurate information. That entails knowing the inaccurate information that is being spread and being diligent and fast in correcting it. Given what is at stake and the assured spread of damaging or devastating rumors, this role becomes one not of “good to to” or even “should to do” but of true moral obligation.

But for us who have unofficial voices, the call for silence is to be heeded. The quotation from Gandhi that leads Anany’s thoughtful article is great to remember, not just in horrific events, but each and every day:

“Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”



Royal Bank of Canada facing social media uproar, boycott–outsourced jobs at issue

I put this one in the category of engagement fail. Another in the long line of social media crises caused by what used to be normal business decisions gaining a firestorm of protest online. Any business decision today is subject to online criticism with the potential of gaining serious momentum. Today it is happening to Royal Bank of Canada and a decision to replace 45 employees with outsourced (ie. “foreign”) workers.

But what I’d like to focus on is how RBC has attempted to quell the storm. Their response was to put their HR leader, Zabeen Hirji on TV to explain the position. The resulting video (view the interview through this link) provides a great case study in the importance of clear, concise communication and good media training.

The interview is mostly a failure, in my mind. No doubt Ms Hirji is a very talented executive or she would not rise to a position like this. But to quell a firestorm like this more was needed than she could provide. Here’s where I would fault her performance:

– non-verbal language — we all know how important this is. From the over-gestures, to the somewhat severe expression, to the overall tenor she does not communicate the care, concern and strength needed to be successful

– lack of clarity–what is her message? It is very confusing. The problem is that the official line of the company is confusing because here is the specific language used by the CEO Gordon Nixon in a memo to employees about this:

I would like to provide you with some context about this story and assure you that RBC has not hired temporary foreign workers to take over the job functions of these employees.

In this case, we have a contract with a vendor to support specific technology requirements, which impacts approximately 45 employees.

In keeping with standard business practices, when transitioning activities, our vendor has temporarily assigned a number of their employees onsite at RBC to affect this transition with a small number remaining on a go forward basis.

It seems quite simple: 45 people are losing their jobs (they may get transitioned to other jobs) and the work they were doing is now coming under a contract with a vendor. They could have said that much more clearly and simply. Instead, they come across as trying to “spin” (God, I hate that word) and put some lipstick on a pig. Just say it.

– Justification. Ms. Hirji does try to justify the decision in terms of productivity. But, in the process she says some very strange things (at least to me):

“productivity improvements are something that happen as much in the private sector as in the public sector.”

Now, maybe that’s Canada and not the US but to refer to productivity improvements in the government sector in the US is going to generate at least a few wry smiles if not outright guffaws. I just don’t know what she was trying to say here.

This comment was made in response to a question about the profits the bank is making and why the bank would be cutting employees when it is making so much money.

The point of all this is that communication matters. Clear, effective communication is still critical. Without knowing the situation more, I would venture some advice that may be helpful to others when facing this.

1. I would not have put Ms. Hirji in that position, at least not without some very intense media training focused on her non-verbal communication.

2) Anyone put on camera would need to focus on key messages and be trained to stay with those.

3) Key messages:

1) We have 57,000 employees and that means evaluating, reassigning, retraining is part of our every day work.

2) To remain competitive and provide the service our customers and country expect requires vigilant focus on productivity–and that at times means making changes to improve productivity. That is what is happening here.

3) Change can be difficult and some wish to complain about that publicly. We understand that but we will continue to work with those experiencing change to minimize the impacts on their lives and careers.


Are two fatalities not enough to communicate about?

I noted on the American Petroleum Institute’s daily news email that a major oil company had suffered a West Texas wellhead blowout that killed two contractors and injured two others. In the crisis plans I prepare (for quite a number of oil companies, but not this one), I would classify such an accident as a “Red” level event. It requires proactive and aggressive communication.

I saw the news reports, which were limited to local and industry news, and saw that the company was commenting mostly appropriately expressing sorrow and offering prayers for the families and the injured. I say mostly because it seemed to me an inappropriate level of deferral onto the contractor–something the public and the courts don’t appreciate too much, at least not in BP’s case.

Curious about how the company was responding re digital communications, I was surprised (maybe dumbfounded is better to find):

– absolutely no mention on the corporate website–instead a news headline talking about their latest Health and Safety award

– They have a YouTube channel (good!) so I went there thinking they might have posted an update and perhaps further expressions of regret or sorrow. Nope.

– While I didn’t see the little tweety bird logo on their website I thought, they gotta have Twitter, and yep, sure enough, there is a Twitter account. But, the account said “no tweets yet.” Oh my.

Facebook? Yep, they got one. Despite getting 228 “likes” there is virtually no content there except they were founded in 1959. Certainly no communication about the accident.

Now, I rather expect that the position of a company like this is to do and say the minimum and hope that the event quietly goes away. I certainly am careful never to advise clients to do anything to raise the profile of a story or event. However, it seems out of respect for the victims and families and to accurately reflect the reality of the situation and the conversations going on about it, that something ought to be said. I would expect even a small recognition on their website, an official expression of condolence and sorrow, and an offer to provide additional information as it becomes available.

What do you think? Am I out to lunch here, or does this response fail to meet today’s expectations for an event of this nature?


Joint Information Center–Arkansas pipeline spill adds to uncertainty about government response communications

Most government communicators who need to respond to emergencies need to understand the Joint Information Center (JIC)concept. Private companies,  particularly those likely to collaborate with government response organizations should (but often don’t) know about the JIC (pronounced JICK). As an adjunct to the National Incident Management System and the Incident Command System, the JIC has become standard procedure for coordinating public information when multiple agencies or entities are involved.

But, this well-honed and highly effective system was undermined first in the aftermath of Katrina when the Department of Homeland Security came out with Emergency Support Function 15 for External Affairs. Without going into details, as a structure for coordinating communications among multiple agencies, this was a complete joke. As a means to allow the White House to assume complete control of the communications in a disaster, it was and is highly effective.

For 20 years, after ExxonValdez, the oil industry and Coast Guard practiced the JIC procedures in annual drills. So when Deepwater Horizon occurred in April 2010, it was natural that a JIC was established with all parties including BP. At the end of May that year, everything changed. Media and political pressure on the White House threatened another Katrina-like political blowback and they responded with implementing ESF 15 and threw BP out of the communications. Ever since then, the status of the JIC has been uncertain and those needing to know how the feds will organize communications when they are involved in responding has been confusing.

Now the Arkansas Mayflower pipeline spill is adding to the confusion. Not everyone may be interested in the JIC, its future, and how to coordinate communications among multiple government agencies, but if you are, I suggest you have a close look at what is going on. Lots of questions raised, and since I blogged on it over at Emergency Management, I won’t repeat myself.

The good thing here is that ExxonMobil (a former client and user of PIER) appears to be doing an exceptionally thorough job of communicating. But, the position taken (or not taken) by members of Unified Command in the JIC which appears to be completely led by ExxonMobil is what is causing confusion.

The point to me is this: what creates public trust? Does a JIC led by the Responsible Party create trust? No, not when the government is seen as second tier player. Does the JIC led by the government and where the Responsible Party is thrown under the bus lead to trust? No. The only thing that really contributes to trust is good, fast, accurate honest information coming from a collaborative team that reiterates “we are in this together.”

I hope the old JIC concept comes back and sooner than later.