Category Archives: Minnesota bridge collapse

Crisis aftershocks–what communicators can anticipate

OK, I think I spotted a trend here. Most of you probably noted it already but I tend to be a little slow. I’m calling it the “crisis aftershock.” We’ve seen it clearly in the Virginia Tech situation and now in the Minnesota bridge tragedy. Everyone in a similar position to the organizations involved are facing questions by local or regional media about how they would prevent such a thing happening to them or how they would respond. After Virginia Tech, virtually every university, community college or private college was asked by their local media how they would prevent the Virginia Tech tragedy from happening, how they would notify students, and if they would have made a similar decision to delay in notifying. This public scrutiny of their preparation is largely what has spurred many universities to suddenly act in buy notification systems. I wish that the driver for this was only the need to communicate re safety information. The reality is the embarrassment of not having a good answer to those question is what is driving a lot of very foolish purchases right now.

Everyone responsible for bridges is now having to answer the same question. This article highlights the demand for accountability–now focused on bridges that share a similar design. Communicators and leaders from every state and local transportation authority are facing questions about how can they assure that the bridges under their control won’t all of a sudden collapse. They’re in a tough spot.

So, the point is–each high profile crisis creates a series of mini-crises for anyone in the same or related business. If you make grow organic spinach and some organic spinach gets tainted with e.coli, you will be asked if yours is, how do you know, and what you are doing to prevent it. If you make baby widgets like six other manufacturers and one of your competitor’s baby widgets blows up and hurts a baby, you will be asked how you can assure your customers that yours won’t blow up.

The interesting thing is that we prepare for crises where we may be directly involved. But we don’t necessarily prepare for crises that others similar to us are involved. We prepare for the quake, but not the aftershock and it is the aftershock that may hurt us. So, add one more thing to your list of crisis preparation items.

Joint Information Center trials and tribulations

If you’ve been in a Joint Information Center (JIC) you know that the concept is one thing, reality is another. For those who are JIC-less, a Joint Information Center is the communication function of the Incident Command System, which since 2003, is the federally mandated management system used to respond to all crises and emergency events where there is more than one agency or group responding. The response team responds with the operations, planning, logistics, finance and administration while the Joint Information Center provides the eyes, ears and mouth for the operation communicating with the media and stakeholders.

The JIC concept is very solid and has proven its value in multiple major events. It provides a single voice for the response despite there being multiple agencies involved, and makes it possible to exercise communication discipline under the leadership of the Incident Command. For example, if you have several different government agencies responding, from a large federal agency such as the EPA, to a local department of Emergency Management, plus some state ecology or transportation or health departments, the media would naturally contact any and all agencies involved in the response. The Minnesota bridge collapse provides a good example. If you were a reporter, who would approach to get the best, fastest, most accurate, most colorful information? You would try multiple sources, of course. With a JIC, there is only one place to go. One phone number (or set of numbers), one website, one email address, one set of facts, one PIO (public information officer) and one Incident Command (made up of commanders from the different agencies). One voice. It saves lots of time, it makes it more efficient, it helps make certain the information provided is as accurate as it can be, and it assures that those most responsible have control over what is being said about the response. Like I said, a great idea.

I am about to head out to another large-scale Joint Information Center operation. I am supposed to be the PIO as I have been for the past 8 years. But I won’t be. The simple reason is politics. The rules of ICS and JIC have been designed specifically to avoid politicizing and in-fighting, but that’s what gets me to my original comment. If any of you have been involved in JIC or ICS operations you know that it is dang near impossible to keep the politics and in-fighting out of just about anything. And so it goes. But, as in all things in life, you do your best to get along and go along and as far as it is possible be at peace with all others. If even if it means sitting back and watching a process that is important to you fall apart. I’ll let you know how it goes. No doubt I will learn important new lessons and that is what it is all about.

Minnesota bridge collapse tragedy–initial observations on communication

First, as other bloggers have done, I must express my sorrow and condolences to those impacted by the tragedy in Minnesota. My interest here is commenting on the efforts of the responders to communicate with the public about this and the way this incident is covered by the news media, blogs, etc. A few quick observations:

I watched the press conference last night covered by FOX News that featured the fire chief predominantly. Overall, he did a very good job and was/is and effective spokesperson. He got into a bit of dangerous territory in my mind when he highlighted to a fairly high degree his assessment of the outstanding response. Some information was very good and helpful like how many fire trucks they have and how many were on scene in what length of time, as well as the mutual aid response. But (and this is only minor criticism) there was a bit too much of sense of satisfaction of a plan that was working rather than a sense of what a great tragedy lay before them and feelings for the families of the victims. It is very important to communicate positively about the response effort, but you do not want families to be thinking: “Good for you, you all got there soon, but my son or daughter is laying in that cold river water so don’t be too satisfied just yet.”

Some of the other spokepeople who were involved in the press conference were much less effective. The shorter woman involved in traffic information (I believe) was ineffective in part because personal appearance issues dominated. A good point for those planning press conferences. During the conference, and on live or recorded national television, the questions from reporters could not usually be heard. Effective spokespersons such as the chief, made it clear in their answers what the question was. Ineffective ones gave quick little short yes or no type answers and you had no idea what they were responding to.

It seemed there was no PIO (Public Information Officer) managing the conference. It came to a ragged end where you really couldn’t tell if it was over or not but the cameras were still rolling. There was no apparent person in charge except the chief and when he ceded the floor to others, it kind of fell apart. The lesson–the PIO has to be in charge, has to make certain spokespeople can be heard and that they are communicating to the tv audience while answering the questions. He or she has to be aware of what is on camera and keeping the conference moving along, and then they need to create a definitive end with information as to where people can get additional information.

And here is the main and important criticism I have: website. During the conference a young woman got up to explain that additional information about traffic impacts would be available on the city website. She then gave a long string of characters and dots that no one could possibly have caught. And then she said that they should not look tonight for more information but tomorrow morning when new information would be posted. I’m sorry Fire Chief, your response team may be performing very well, your information team doesn’t appear to get it. Here’s why:

– a Joint Information Center operation such as this is needs a response-only dedicated website in which all agencies that are part of Unified Command need to participate in. A note on a city website doesn’t cut it today.

– information on that site needs to be constantly updated because that JIC site needs to be the voice for the response. That is where you want people going for information. It is the morning after the tragedy and I did several google searches looking for information. I find lots of outdated information on news websites, I find more up to date information on blog sites, and I can’t even find the response site anywhere. There is none. There is no official voice for the information apparently. I found the Minneapolis city website but only through a specific search for that and the only reason I knew to do that was I heard a quick mention of finding more info on the city website. Because I work with lots of different government agencies and leading companies on Joint Information Center operations, I can tell you for certain that this is not best practice.

I don’t mean to be hard on people who no doubt are doing their very best in very trying circumstances, but people in emergency management and crisis management need to be continually reminded that a good response poorly communicated is still a reputation disaster. I’m not saying there is a reputation disaster here. I’m just saying that like a lot of other first responder organizations, it appears at this time to me, that Minnesota has done a great job of drilling and preparing to respond effectively to a large scale disaster (congratulations are in order), but have done an inadequate job of preparing to communicate effectively, particularly through a JIC response-specific website.

Another note– from a quick read of blogs commenting on this I note the cynicism of blog commenters about the role of politicians and media in an event like this. They are really picking up on two things I continually talk about–the propensity of the media to immediately engage in the blame game, and the propensity of opportunistic politicians to jump on the bandwagon following such a tragedy with a whole new level of regulations and expensive government programs designed to protect us all. I say, God protect us from the blame game and heavy-handed politicians. And may God be with the families.