Category Archives: US Coast Guard

The New FEMA Public Information Officer Guide

FEMA has recently published a new guide for Public Information Officers. Thanks to JimmyJazz of Break Glass blog, I have a copy and just finished reviewing it.


Frankly, I’m very impressed and very pleased. It is clear, concise, well-organized, well written and very helpful. Unlike ESF 15, FEMAs’ own guide for how it will handle public communication, this clearly is based on real life experience and not driven by higher political requirements.

Here’s my quick take on what is good, not so good, and ugly.

The Good:

– clear, concise and appropriate level of ICS familiarity and role of PIO and JIC in that.

– role and use of websites
– inclusion of blogs and social media as part of the mix
– reference (though not enough) to the PIO as the source of both internal and external communication
– comprehensive list of dissemination methods
– inclusion of the Virtual JIC concept (but with serious faults)

The Bad

– Media centric–assumes basic communication is very media focused and does not take into consideration that information is moving more and more direct. While websites are considered, it still seems clear that they are seen primarily as a means of communicating with main stream media, and no consideration is given to prepare key audience contact info in advance for direct communication, nor capturing contact info for those who want to get updates directly. A major problem.

– Clarity around the Joint Information System vs. Joint Information Center. I don’t think this is the manual writer’s fault because DHS introduced this confusion very early on and has never really clarified it. I think this manual actually goes a long way to helping clear some confusion in that the JIS is focused on procedures by the JIC is a physical location. Even that gets muddy with the concept of Virtual JIC.

– Virtual JIC–while it was good that it was mentioned, it seems clear that there is little understanding of the concept nor experience in dealing with virtual JICs. There is an appropriate reference to using a Virtual JIC in a pandemic (we find it ironic that most agencies plan to gather PIOs together in one room so they can communicate to the rest of the world the stupidity of such a move). It is clear that the basic planning construct of FEMA and the PIOs they are trying to advise is to put together a Joint Information Center– a physical location for communicators from various agencies. This will all but assure the communication failures they experienced in the past. Major events are covered in minutes and hours–but JICS take days to fully staff and equip. I heard one FEMA PIO talk proudly about how they set up all these JICs for Katrina in the first week of the event. Yeah, but by the time they got them established, the news media had experienced a huge vacuum of information and decided that FEMA wasn’t doing squat. So when FEMA said, OK, now we are ready to tell you all the good things we are doing, the media story line had been sold and there wasn’t any going back. Too little too late, and this non-virtual based plan will only continue the policy of too little too late.

The Ugly

There are two areas where I think this goes seriously wrong:

1) lack of recognition of the need for speed (covered in my discussion about virtual JICs)

2) attempt at connecting up with ESF 15.

ESF 15 is the document prepared by DHS that outlines how the agency will respond in a major event. Clearly it was done post-Katrina and is an attempt to deal with the problems the agency encountered. It seems that the single lesson learned was that DHS and its member agencies are part of an administration that has been pummeled by the political opposition and the liberal media and therefore they see the information response as primarily an exercise in political messaging and control. That is a friggin disaster for transparent government emergency communication. And the contrast between the essential goodness and rightness of the PIO manual combined with the political directiveness of the ESF 15 manual makes the point even clearer.

A couple of key examples: In ESF 15, the JIC is all but gutted. The only role for the JIC, indeed the definition of the JIC, is media response. All other communication functions go elsewhere. That means all stakeholder, government, liaison, tribal, local community, public-direct, victim, state and local agency–all this communication is managed outside of the JIC. Now, if you understand that the JIC was set up to coordinate communication among multiple response agencies you see that this completely undermines the idea of mutual support and cooperation.

Where do these functions go? Well, for example, there is a new group called Production and Planning. These people are responsible for “message strategy.” Here’s a clue. Why do you need message strategists when the purpose of the PIO is to provide fast, transparent, accurate information about what is happening in the incident and what the responders are doing about it.

That’s enough for this post, but the degree of politicization I see in the public information function coming out of DHS is positively frightening. Then, when I see it played out in real life in situations such as the unreasonable pressure on for a press conference in California, the response to the problems with that conference, and even more for the firing of a respected commander of the Coast Guard for an inaccurate initial spill volume report in the Cosco Busan San FranciscoBay spill, I see there is something very, very wrong here.

When you have agencies that need the public to trust them to be effective, such as FEMA and the Coast Guard who then get reduced to political weapons (both by those supporting them and those attacking them) it is no wonder that we in the public get cynical and apathetic.

What happens when oil spill responders mix it up with the media?

That’s what Tod Lyons, with ACT Environmental, and I wanted to find out. I’m at the Clean Gulf Conference in Tampa and just finished the workshop that Tod and I lead called “Working with the Media in an Emergency Response.” Well, if you want to know how to work with the media effectively, how about asking them? So the four hour workshop was structured with three members of the media present to actively engage with the workshop participants on how they would do their job. We presented a complex oil spill scenario and talked though each phase of the incident to understand what the media would be looking for and how to best respond.

The media were represented by Joey West of Bay9 television in Tampa, John Sepulvado of NPR and WUSF, and Tommy Duncan, representing blog media who blogs in Tampa with Also on the panel was Chief Warrant Officer Adam Wine who is the chief spokesperson for the Coast Guard in the Texas region. Adam did a great job of explaining the Joint Information Center and giving some hints as to why the Coast Guard has earned a great reputation for fast, open communication.

It was a lively discussion and I don’t have time to recap all the nuances. But here are a few of my impressions.

It is important not to put all media in the same category or brush them with too broad a brush as I am apt to do. There are major differences, and the differences between NPR as public media without any real concern about pursuing ratings and commercial broadcasters or print who need to work hard to attract the biggest audiences possible was vividly on display. It was fascinating to see on display how broadcasters–public and not–and bloggers would approach the same story in very different ways.

A major point of discussion was about relationships. Is it possible and even a good idea to establish relationships (even friendships) with members of the media if you represent a company or a government agency? Absolutely. That was very clear. It was surprising how much of the discussion came down to discussing the value of building a relationship of trust in advance of any major story. At the same time, the necessary distance and independence was also discussed. It comes down to, as Tod commented, “trust and verify.”

I also found the discussion about how much the public–particularly the younger public–distrusts companies and government very interesting. While there was some discussion about whether this was actually distrust or more a healthy skepticism, it became clear to me that there is a very fine line. When asked if the company provided detailed information about the toxic nature of substances released to the environment would the reporters trust that info, the answer was, only if it was verified by someone else I trust.

Obviously there was a lot more discussed and I think there is general agreement that the task of getting information out to the public to meet the incredible demands of instant information is daunting. But, this kind of session I think is very helpful to understand that we are all just people trying to do the very best job we can. Thanks to all who participated.

OK, Tommy, now let’s see what you have to say about this session.

How the media contributes to a "state of fear" following a national tragedy

Here’s an interesting blog post from Dennis McDonald, reporting on a study of social attitudes following the Virginia Tech tragedy. The vodcast with Dr. Jim Breckinridge highlights how the media–both MSM and new media–contribute to fear and anxiety.

I haven’t viewed the vodcast yet, but what I find interesting is the comment about how the fears resulting from this spill over to other agencies such as the US Coast Guard.

It also raises the question I am most intrigued with which is social responsibility of those influencing others whether MSM or new media. When the goal is attracting an audience to sell ads via broadcast or google ads, how much does social responsibility come into play in making decisions as to how events like this are covered. My suggestion is very little. But the alternative of legislating moral or social responsibility is repugnant to me. How do we get people to care when they have the power to build audiences?

Government Procurement article on Katrina communications

Some time ago I wrote an article on how the US Coast Guard used PIER, the online communication management tool I created and my company provides, to facilitate communication during Hurricane Katrina. That article was published in the October issue of Government Procurement Journal. Read the article.
Here’s a quote from the article:

It’s fair to say that the world is shifting under the feet of today’s Public Information Officer and, for that matter, today’s Incident Commander (IC), both of whom need to understand the demands each faces if he or she is to make informed decisions. Experienced ICs know that their efforts are judged positively by the public only if two things occur: the response is handled well, and the public is kept adequately informed. A poorly communicated public response, no matter how effective it originally may have been, is nonetheless a disaster.

YouTube, Michael De Kort, and the new whistleblower phenomenon

Wow, talk about getting legs. Yesterday I blogged (based on a lawyer’s blog) about the latest whistleblower strategy using YouTube. Today it is in Time Magazine.

There are so many things to comment about this. This one I can’t avoid. James Bruni made the point that PR folks should be refocusing on mainstream media and admit they can’t control the blogosphere. He’s right about no control, but here is an example of a whistleblower’s probably unwarranted complaints suddenly making big time news via the MSM. And it came about through the new social media of the video site YouTube, plus probably the blog discussion. You simply can’t draw lines like that, Mr. Bruni. It is all important, and the blogworld and social media world is getting every more important.

Note what the Lockheed spokesperson says about not trusting what people put on YouTube. And then the comment from the reporter–“‘Anybody with a webcam and something to say, regardless of whether it’s true or not, can say it on YouTube,'” complained a Lockheed spokeswoman. This is, of course, the same charge leveled against bloggers and other amateur newsgatherers; and one could argue that is precisely the point.”

Crisis communicators–ever more vigilance is needed. You need eyes on all sides of your heads and not up your backside. What is said in one presumably obscure corner of the vast global conversation can find its way into Time and the front page of newspapers in mere moments. Is this an instant news world?

How to do crisis communications–follow the Coasties

There is probably no better organization in the world at managing crisis communications than the US Coast Guard. They demonstrated it in Hurricane Katrina and they demonstrate it almost daily in their “routine” work of saving lives and keeping our coastlines safe. Today was just another day and another example of outstanding rescue work and outstanding communications about the rescue work. The Coast Guard uses their virtual communication center technology to great effect including aggressively posting videos and images. In the case of today’s rescue of 23 crew members from a nearly capsized auto cargo ship in Alaskan waters, their communication style, approach and technology are on full display.

CG rescues 23 from Cougar Ace

Congratulations men and women of the Coast Guard and another great job!

To see for yourself how the Alaska (District 17) Coast Guard communicated about last night’s rescue, go to their public information site. 

Crisis communication planning made easy

Meeting with a client shortly to put a simple crisis plan in place. He’s a contractor with sizeable projects in multiple states. So this is kind of help me prep for that.

Every crisis consultant does things differently no doubt, but here is my approach with a client like this.

1) What are your goals? How do you define winning in a crisis? The answer usually comes down to wanting to minimize damage. I will remind him of the Chinese character for crisis which can be read as “risk” and “opportunity.” A crisis represents a great risk of damaging or destroying reputation and potentially the enterprise, but it also represents opportunity to enhance that reputation according to how the crisis was handled and communicated. What do we need to do in a crisis to help people think of us more positively?

2) Who will speak? Identifying spokespersons and making certain they are properly trained and prepared is essential. Also, preparing those who are not spokespeople to understand the policy and to learn how to “refer and defer” is also very important.

3) Who are the people whose opinion of you is most important to your future? That helps identify and prioritize stakeholders. Reporters are important, but their opinion is not the only one that counts. Key managers, employees, customers, suppliers, bankers, subcontractors, neighbors, potential opponents, industry influencers, government officials, etc. Know them, prioritize, and build lists to enable you to phone and/or email very quickly. I usually create lists of Level 1, 2 and 3. Level 1s get phone calls. Level 2 get emails and letters. Level 3 get more general emails and direct to website.

4) How will you communicate? Through media only? Big mistake. Prepare to manage message development and distribution to multiple critical audiences. And prepare to do it from wherever and when you’re entire IT infrastructure is down. This need is what led to the development of PIER, still the only web-based crisis communication control center. It is the reason why the US Coast Guard was able to continue to communicate non-stop during Hurricane Katrina despite having a distributed team and all IT resources under water.

In this, don’t forget your website. It is just about your most important asset for communications in a crisis. If you can completely control it without having to do go through some ridiculous chain of command and IT management process, you are flat out dead in the water.

5) How will you respond to and manage inquiries? Who will do it? Are they capable? Do you know where the inquiries will come in? How will email inquiries be managed? Who will prioritize and make sure of the responses and speed of response. Again, this daunting problem is why we created PIER which also fully integrates and manages the inquiry function.

6) Remember, now is too late. To try to put these pieces in place during an event means you will not communicate in time. It’s an instant news world and that means virtually instantaneous response. That can only be done through appropriate preparation.