Tag Archives: Austin plane crash

Behind the Scenes at the Austin Plane Crash–an exercise in virtual communication response

On the Frontline of a Virtual Communication Response—The Austin Plane Crash

For several in days in February the major news story was the crash of a small plane into a building in Austin, Texas. This is the kind of event that is discussed here on this blog all the time and I was fortunate to have a front row seat of sorts to the public communication and news coverage of this particular event.

The City of Austin, specifically the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, is a new client having recently implemented our crisis communication system. While the agency’s website was set up on this platform and ready to roll, the agency’s PIO had little experience in working with the system. To make matters worse she, like several others from the office were in San Antonio for the Homeland Security conference.

I was sitting in a meeting in Houston when I was called out and informed that there was a plane crash into a building in Austin. The initial information we received, not from the City, was that the building may have housed FBI offices. The specter of a terrorist attack was immediately raised. We made contact with the PIO who was on her way back to Austin from San Antonio. We quickly informed her of the information that was being broadcast and that was coming via Twitter. She confirmed some of the information from her sources and we placed an initial statement on the City’s OEM website—from Houston.

For the next day and half we continued in almost continual contact and pushed out a total of nine information releases. Since the city staff were out of their offices and away from their normal tools and systems, they could not push the information to their normal media lists. But we quickly built an up-to-date media list of all Austin media and distributed the releases to them. These were in addition to the almost 400 contacts of Austin area agency contacts and other officials that had been built into the platform.

There were several times during the incident that we were able to report back through the PIO new information that was emerging on Twitter. This information would quickly find its way into the news coverage which had geared up with remarkable speed.

The various agencies from the City of Austin soon formed a Joint Information Center using the OEM site as the focus of new information. News reports began to reflect a coordinated flow of information from the City. Clearly the most significant communication came from the several press conferences held at the scene of the crash and fire. But the PIO was able to maintain the relevant information on the website by calling us from the press conference and we would quickly add and update the information on the site. Plus the agency was able to very quickly and efficiently distribute updates on the fast breaking situation to the media as well as to numerous agency leaders and others in the Austin community.

I say “we” because those involved in supporting Austin remotely during this event included Kevin Boxx, VP PIER Systems and Timothy O’Leary, my colleague at O’Briens’s Response Management. Direct support was also provided by Sandra Salazar, PIER’s Project Manager located in Houston who was at a different location than we were. Geoff Baron at PIER’s HQ in Bellingham, WA also provided direct assistance.

Some key learnings from this event:

–       Austin Police and Fire have received some strong kudos for their fast and effective crisis communication during this event—both from people within the community and from experts outside observing.

–       Virtual communication operation, or the Virtual JIC, does indeed work as has been demonstrated in other events. But this event was particularly telling because of the speed of information flow between the PIO and those on the scene and those operating remotely to keep the updates going.

–       Twitter and other social media are no doubt driving the information about an event of this nature. Reports coming from Twitter were almost concurrent with the event as some early “tweets” were from people witnessing the event as it occurred.

–       Major media use Twitter and other social media as primary sources of news. When you see “reports” or “eye witness reports” in the media coverage do not think it is that they have talked to someone directly but are likely getting it from the many tweets or posts on the internet.

–       The initial reports are virtually certain to be wrong—that is the nature of the internet and witnesses commenting from their perspective and speculating. But it is quite amazing to see how the online community sorts things out and gets to the facts faster than you would imagine.

–       Where it used to be that official sources would be the primary focus of the media’s interest a quick review of the media coverage will show that a primary interest of the media is to talk to eyewitnesses—often those same people who are reporting what they see or know (or speculations) via the internet.

–       PIOs and public officials have to scramble very, very hard to keep up with, let alone try to get ahead of, this kind of instant information coming from so many sources. As the official source of the news about the event, their primary role becomes rumor management—correct false information as it emerges—rather than focusing on being the first with the news.

Congratulations are due to Candice Wade and the team at Austin for a job well done in very difficult circumstances.

Tiger, Toyota, Austin Plane Crash, Olympics–too much to discuss

There’s just so much going on to talk about and so little time–particularly with a brutal travel schedule lately. But, some of this stuff is just too good to pass up. So here are some quick takes.

Tiger. Rich Lerner of The Golf Channel did a great job of reviewing how the media covered the Tiger’s story and apology. The coverage, punditry, comments end up saying more about us as a culture and our media environment than Tiger. For my part, the criticism against Tiger for so tightly controlling the circumstances is stupid. Throwing himself into the rough and tumble of the kind of questions he would get, now that would be stupid. I think he did well, but as I saw in  a comment from Nick Faldo, it’s all about the actions now. He’s got a long way to earn back what he has lost. Like every major crisis, he and the golf world will never be the same for this. But, one hopes and prays, that a new Tiger will emerge that will earn and deserve our admiration and respect. Time will tell.

Toyota. More headlines of problems–now steering it seems. It causes one to wonder how a company that for many years made cars that were above average in safety and reliability could in one or two months go completely in the toilet. 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 our problems than anyone else on earth? I still am amazed that the media has not focused more on the inherent problems of mixing the roles of corporate ownership and protector of the public interest. That continues to me to be the fascinating undercurrent in this Toyota saga. (I note that Washington Post included a reference to this conflict but in the context of a story about Toyota spending money to buy off Congress–sometimes these guys just can’t get off the tried and true story lines. Tiresome.)

Austin plane crash. I will be sharing more details soon of direct involvement in the communication around this event. But what was most fascinating is seeing the way in which Twitter in this case drove the mainstream news as well as the situation awareness of the responders. Instant news is no longer about reputation management. Instant news via the internet and the latest incarnation of internet use we call social media is forever changing the game of response management. I blogged on this on emergencymgmt.com about how DHS was monitoring social media around the Olympics in fulfilling its mandate to provide a common operating picture and situational awareness. It was absolutely fascinating to watch this story unfold, particularly being part of the process.