Tag Archives: crisis communication

A Fire Chief asks: Does ICS stand for "Information Communications Standstill"?

I’ve know Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd for almost ten years–ever since we worked together on the Olympic Pipeline explosion, the event that got me into this crisis communication business. Since then I’ve not only come to respect him for his leadership skills and Incident Command capabilities, but for his deep and personal experience with managing information in this instant news/social media world. Bill was a Public Information Officer before he became chief, but more than that as Chief he has set some high standards for effective public information management including during the H1N1 crisis and the massive floods last year in the Pacific Northwest.

I asked Bill to speak Incident Commander to Incident Commander about the realities of today’s information environment. I hope advice, earned through hard experience, will be passed on to every Incident Commander, executive, fire chief, police chief and anyone else who will make decisions during a major event. (By the way, for those not familiar with ICS, it stands for Incident Command System, otherwise now known as NIMS or National Incident Management System. It requires Command approval of all information before release and consequently can substantially slow information distribution without taking Bill’s advice.)
Chief Bill Boyd:

Does ICS stand for “Information Communications Standstill”?

As I am typing this my Twitter monitoring site is logging messages by the second about the huge earthquake off the coast of Chile.  I am looking at pictures and comments from earthquake survivors, their relatives and others monitoring this disaster within seconds of being posted.  The speed and amount of information being disseminated right now is staggering, and I am contributing to this situation by relaying pertinent information to my followers through Facebook, Twitter and PIER Systems (which also posts immediately to my city’s internet news web site).

This unfolding and widespread crisis highlights the importance of strategic agility, speed and accuracy in disseminating information during a high visibility emergency event.  As a Fire Chief and Incident Commander for a regional incident management team, I recognize the need to immediately implement and use all available information tools and resources to push accurate information out to the public. How many of you with Incident Commander responsibility understand this?

The days of  a Public Information Officer (PIO) sitting down at a computer and generating a two paragraph media release a couple of times a day, and an interview here and there are gone.   If you still think this is all the PIO really has to do then you might as well give them an old typewriter and carbon paper. As an IC, I “define the box” the PIO will operate within (giving them the flexibility and boundaries to immediately release information without me having to approve it).  The IC needs to immediately set policy, validate key real time message concepts and then do the most important thing- let the PIO loose to do their job.  As an IC in this day and age, I can ill afford to get further behind the information dissemination curve (assuming we are already behind thanks to social media, camera cell phones, etc…).

This also means PIOs must be skilled in creating short messages, and relaying them in the most succinct way (how would you relay an evacuation order on Twitter?).  In the major events I have been involved with over the years, this type of messaging was not available.  Now, it is the preferred method of communication by many.  Yet, it remains foreign to many in the emergency response community.

IC’s need to wake up and realize the impact of the explosive growth of social media and the resulting expectation for immediate and accurate information.  If the public does not get it from Incident Command they will get it from somewhere else, relay inaccurate information and/or undermine your authority by venting their frustrations about lack of information.

Hey PIOs! How prepared are you in quickly shaping and distributing messages during a dynamic crisis event?  If you are still using the “media release” tool as your primary method of distributing information, I suggest signing up for a free social media site and see how people are really communicating news and information.  It is time for those of us with incident command authority to not only recognize the power of these tools and the resulting culture change, but more importantly take the steps to establish policy, secure training, and prepare to quickly deploy these tools during a crisis event.

The smartphone–the most disruptive technology?

In discussing or contemplating the future of crisis communication, the focus inevitably turns to the mobile phone. Sort of what Bill Gates said a few years ago about technology. If you look ahead the next year won’t look like a lot of change, but in five years it will hardly be recognizable. Of course, that’s a probably inaccurate paraphrase. But it is clear that the smart phone has resulted in more change than almost anything else, certainly since the introduction of the PC and the internet.

Thanks to frequent crisisblogger reader William, here’s a great summary of the changes brought about by the smartphone. It has already transformed crisis communication. Here’s one quick example. The question often posed for us involved in web-based communication was, what happens in large scale events where power and infrastructure is destroyed. In Hurricane Ike, Houston and region was without power for a long time–some areas for 2 weeks. Yet, during this time and especially during the worst of the storm, internet use was extremely high. The crisis sites we hosted for 12 different organizations took over 14 million hits in a few days. Why? Smartphones. Our staff in Houston, like many others, were using smartphones as their primary communication device. Certainly calling when cell service was available. But texting, and accessing the internet continuously. When the batteries died, they went to their cars and charged them up.

For crisis communicators it is essential to understand that if it is not true already it will soon be true that most will get the info you want to get to them by their smartphones. That’s why text messaging and text-to-voice automated calling have become so important today. Audiences will also interact with you by phone–not just by email, but by text and especially by their preferred social media platforms which are now the most popular apps on smartphones. That’s how they want to communicate with you and they don’t really give a rat’s behind about how you prefer to communicate with them–it’s the nature of audiences and customers. As Burger King taught us, they want it their way.

As important as communicating via smartphones is the need to be able to control your communications via smartphone. Can you access all your contacts via your smartphone? Can you track who is asking questions? Can you develop and send releases? Can you manage your web content and your social media channels via your smart phone? These technologies are now available or soon to be available and if you are not using them, you will find once again that Now is too late.

Top PR Blunders Involve Social Media and the Internet

Fineman PR out of San Francisco has published its top ten list of PR blunders for 2009. I did some analysis of some of the items on the list at emergencymgmt.com, but I just read this interview with Fineman PR head Michael Fineman and his advice is definitely worth passing on.

Here are a couple of gems: “Social media and the whole online space have changed the dynamics of communications. In our society today, you have to understand that anything you say on the record can go out millions instantly. You can’t underestimate the power of that—and you have to understand that you need your own communications to help offset any negativity you experience on the Internet.”

On the importance of Googling: Fineman says that, too often, “The only way people look for your business is by Googling you. If they come up with negative links, it’s not good.” This is the exact reason, Fineman says, that “organizations have to tell their story well on the Web.”

What’s the biggest mistake in social media use in crises?

“Slow response time. In the case of Dominoes, for example, you can’t allow a video that ugly to go on for two days without responding. Ultimately, Dominoes eventually handled it effectively. But the images they allowed to run online for two days without any response did a lot of damage. They underestimated the power and impact of YouTube.”

The only area I disagreed with Fineman was in his reference to having a webmaster as part of your crisis team. The webmasters for the most part come from IT and respond only to IT managers. For the most part in my experience they do not have the sense of urgency, the chain of command, or the mentality to truly be part of a crisis response team that has minutes to respond, not weeks. Communication technologies are very available today to give non-tech savvy communicators the full power of the internet, including managing content instantly, distribution of content in multiple modes, managing interactions and inquiries, and monitoring everything out there in traditional and social media. Communicators should demand nothing less because it is essential to meet the demands that Fineman so eloquently expresses.

What YouTube Direct means for the post-media world

The movement toward a true post-mainstream media world took another big leap forward with the announcement last week of YouTube Direct. There’s been lots of talk, including on this blog, about how the 300 million plus people walking around with smartphones are the electronic newsgathering network of today. And how the news outlets such as CNN and CBS and trying increasingly hard to tap into this network of citizen journalists. YouTube brilliantly just made it a lot easier. While I confess I haven’t looked at it in detail it looks a bit like combining YouTube downloading capability with some HARO (Help a Reporter Out) functionality. So someone with a cell video camera can capture something stunning like Tom Cruise jumping on a couch over his new love or houses floating by on a flooded river and immediately post that to YouTube, where it can the be easily accessed by media, bloggers or anyone else to share. Also, those looking for video on specific topics can request it or search and those with them can submit directly. That seems to be the idea as I understand it.

What this means of course is more access by anyone who is interested to the videos and information they want.  The implications for crisis and emergency management professionals is significant. Now more than ever when you respond, the story will be told already. The chances of getting the first word in are remote–unless you completely control the exposure, such as if you are David Letterman and decide you will reveal the sordid facts and not leave it to someone else. If you don’t control the first hint of what is going on, then by the time you can respond, the world–at least those most interested–will be already receiving a stream of relevant info. The real question for crisis managers and emergency responders is how do you manage an event when everyone who cares very well knows more than you do? That to me is the big question that we will be struggling with in the coming years.

Crisis management–putting your ears to work

I’ve been talking for some time about the rapidly growing role of monitoring as a critical part of crisis communication. Also been saying in presentations that social media and the online conversation is where so many people are going to get their information. That crisis communicators need to understand at best they will participate and the days of control over the information flow are over.

Being involved in a fairly major event in the past week has brought these lessons home. We are using a variety of means to monitor what is going on–everything from PIER MediaTools to view and clip media including broadcast, to Google Alerts, to Twitscoop.

A few quick observations.

1) Media monitoring shows a tremendous amount of media activity but a lot of it is from the fact that media are now major players in social media with their news websites. All print media as well as broadcast use their news sites heavily which makes for a lot of traffic, frequent updates, and a tremendous amount of linking by interested viewers via their blogs and Twitter accounts.

2) Local is global. This is a fairly localized event with only a smattering of national media attention, but the conversation is global. Those interested (or passionate) about topics involved are going to be jumping into the conversation heavily and will keep it going as long as it of interest.

3) People learn from each other. It’s fascinating watching the online conversation and see many of the same news stories or comments showing up over and over on different sites. It’s one of the reasons this monitoring is so important because invariably some get the facts wrong and unless the correct information is readily available or the wrong info is quickly challenged, it does not take long for it to become accepted. The only saying about a lie repeated often enough becoming the truth takes on new urgency in the viral world of social media because it can be repeated a hundred or thousand times in mere minutes or hours.

4) The conversation was always there–but now you can hear it. That is something that really strikes me about a big change in communications and crisis management. All major events stirred lots of conversation–dinner table, office chat, in bars and restaurants, wherever people gather. Except now they don’t gather to have conversations, they do it by text, tweets, blogs, comments, all kinds of social media. And that means you can listen in on a lot of those conversations. Sometimes it seems its like the roar of too much conversation in an overcrowded bar. But if you focus in a little, you can hear fascinating things. And these can give you great insight into how things are turning, what the concerns are, what questions need to be answered, what information is going sideways, etc. In other words, the conversation will drive the communication response as much or maybe more in some cases than the events of the response itself.

5) Participate–not control. It’s is still very difficult for most response leaders and those who have been in public communication for a long time to really grasp this. In this world of heightened conversation, you don’t control the information. At best, you participate. But you do this by providing a continuous feed of of relevant, up to date information about what is going on. You can’t participate if you insist on sticking to a one press release a day strategy. And you can’t participate by putting all your eggs in the press conference basket–as important as it is. You participate by being the best, most reliable source for what is really happening. Then, you will find, as did in this incident, that soon your website will be given shortened url and sent around the twittersphere and blogosphere as the fastest, most relevant source of what is going on.

How social media is changing emergency and crisis communication

I blogged on this at emergencymgmt.com which is my blog more focused on government communication and emergency management. But, it may be of more general interest to those involved in crisis communication so, here it is. It’s my crisis management take-off on an excellent post by Soren Gordhamer on the five ways social media has changed our lives.

Comments on Peter Shankman's Comments

Peter Shankman is a “rockstar” in the social media world. By that I mean he is one of the few celebrity speakers to emerge (and I’m tweaking him because he begged not to be called a rockstar anymore). I’m in Houston speaking at the PRSA Houston conference and this is the second time in a year my presentation has immediately followed Mr. Shankman’s. The first was in Las Vegas last March at the Ragan/PRSA Social Media conference.

First, I want to say that he was a keynoter on both of these and I was a lowly breakout speaker–so I don’t want anyone to interpret my comments as bitterness, not one little bit, well, maybe. Fact is, Peter is a very entertaining, highly energetic speaker with some serious social media pioneering chops (one of first to work for AOL for example) and he says some important and intriguing things about social media and where things are going.

(By the way, I’m a fan of HARO and think he did a brilliant and good thing for reporters and PR people alike.)

The fundamental things he talks about (I think, since he talks so fast that a lot of older people like me have a hard time following even though in this case I was only a few feet away from him) I agree with when it comes to analysis of social media and where it is going. But on almost everything else of importance I disagree.

For example, social media is not mostly about getting dates, nor is life mostly about searching for your next girlfriend. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion listening to him (and I’ve heard him twice now give essentially the same presentation) that his life revolves around sitting on airplanes (320,000 air miles this year? Yikes, I agree with your then girlfriend Peter who said get a life!) and finding his next conquest. And its hard not to conclude that for him that’s where social media is largely focused–the examples he provided whether defining advertising vs, public relations or how the emerging “one network” idea all lend credence to this focus.

I also fundamentally and strongly disagree with him that if you are not tweeting a thousand times during his presentation you obviously don’t give a crap about building your brand, or if you don’t have 15,000 fans on your facebook page and you’re not spending the early hours of every morning sending happy birthday messages to everyone you know, you have no clue what social media is all about. Peter, not everyone is a worldclass connector like you are, not everyone has time for this kind of activity and some of us treasure quality time with a few longtime friends rather than trying to build connections with strangers all over the planet.

And I most clearly disagree with him about David Letterman and Governor Sanford. His view, and he professes to speak for all of New York on this, is that no one will think ill of Mr. Letterman’s or Mr. Sanford’s behavior and since Letterman did such an admirable job of honestly and transparently dealing with his creepiness (Letterman’s words, not mine) that the world will rush to forgive him. Also that the entire public relations community should look at this as a wonderful example of crisis communication.

I blogged on this on emergencymgmt.com and I couldn’t disagree more. There are some like Peter whose moral values include the view that it is not only not wrong to sleep with anyone who consents, that there is something honorable about it. And that includes those who have made promises to their spouses in an ancient and clearly outdated institution called marriage. As I recall, the wedding vows still state that faithfulness and commitment are a pretty normal part of this arrangement. It also appears in New York or in Shankman’s view of it, that it perfectly appropriate for a superior in an organization to use that position to influence the “consent.” Even if you take a different view of morality than me, it is hard in this age where sexual harassment is illegal and broadly defined, that Mr. Letterman is going to escape some very reasonable accusations here. But to Shankman, all this is normal, reasonable, expected and I sense even honorable.

I asked the group I presented to right after Mr. Shankman finished what they thought of his presentation. They were enthralled–such is his attraction as a presenter (and why he gets the keynote invitations). But when I mentioned that I didn’t see eye to eye with him on the issues I just raised and mentioned that I have been gratefully married to the same beautiful woman for 36 years and hope to continue on the rest of my life, I received warm applause.

So I suspect there are more than a few fuddy duddies like me who think that Letterman is a very funny and talented creep. And that social media has more to offer society than the fast hookup.

Note–after posting this I noted the pingback on my earlier blog about Letterman’s future. I agree and wish I could have said it so creatively.

E.coli, Polanksi, Letterman, Lewis and more

Too many interesting things going on to focus on one.

1. E.coli in hamburger. I suspect food borne illness has decreased dramatically in the last 50 years. I grew up on a dairy farm where we grew and ate most of our own food, including meat from old cows. The town butcher would show up and mom would cut up and can the meat. I remember her even making head cheese. But this article in the New York Times about e.coli in hamburger is a sign of the times. Note the style–an attractive young woman shown to have her life threatened and harmed. Another innocent young girl spending nine weeks in a coma. Reference the death of four children–15 years ago. Then show how companies are cutting costs for profit. Then show how lax regulations are and our government is allowing the industry to police itself. This is classic white hat black hat reporting. I do not say this to diminish the risks of e.coli at all, nor to downplay the horrific suffering of those who have been victims of it. And I also fully support all efforts to improve our food safety. My only point is this–if you are in the food business you should be aware that we are entering a time of unprecedented focus and transparency. I’ve seen too many examples (Food, Inc. production for example) where the those producing our food think they can hide and prevent the public’s prying eyes from seeing. Those days are gone. Open up your doors and windows and if there is anything you are doing you can’t defend, then change it. I ask this for the sake of continuing the great blessing of affordable, healthy food that has enabled billions on this planet to eat well, and too many to eat way too well.

2) Hollywood shows it colors in Polanksi affair. Hmm, let me ask you something. If a prominent clergyman was convicted of having sex with a 13 year old, what would the Hollywood biggies think about it. They’d hang him from the highest tree and do it with the greatest glee (sorry about that). But what do they do when one of the high priests caught is one of their own. Forgive and honor. Not only do I find this outrageously hypocritical, it is disgusting. But part of my is glad for this because in such action you can see the true colors of those folks. I only hope for a few prominent leaders in Hollywood to call these people on it. As for the rest of us, this shows too clearly the moral compass or lack of it among those people who define so much of our culture for us and for the rest of the world.

3) Ken Lewis and $53 million retirement. Trust in business and major institutions is one of my missions and goals. I want business to earn public trust and not have the public trust business more because government is stepping in to regulate and control it. However, public trust will likely take a huge black eye with this retirement package. For those in the media and the public jumping on these things, I think there should be a continual reminder that in the height of the financial crisis, these banks were not given a choice about accepting government money. With the money came  different set of expectations and extraordinary levels of government control and public say. The kind of criticism that will come from this is both understandable and unfortunate–in part because they resisted being put in this position.

4) Social media policy at the Washington Post. If you are an organization leader with employees and you are not struggling with social media policies, you are probably Ken Lewis heading for a nice retirement .Everyone else has a big worry on their hands. Even those in the media–or maybe even more those in the media. Because when a reporter tweets, is he/she acting/thinking on his/her own or are they “reporting”? Since the tweeting of Post reporter Raju Narisetti raised such questions,the Washington Post has created some guidelines aimed at protecting the perception of objectivity. Yeah, uh huh. The one thing I like about the emergence of all this “citizen journalism” is raising the curtain on the pretense of objectivity. Nevertheless, the effort of pretense will go on–and there is benefit to that. But I still think that, like the DoD, the Washington Post or other media trying to control social media is like pushing on a balloon or nailing jello to  wall.

5) Letterman. There’s a strong cynical side of me that says since this was an inside job within CBS it is all a conspiracy to take the focus away from Jay Leno’s new show. But, I doubt the quest for ratings would be great enough for the news producer to be willing to take such a fall–unless of course CBS offered him $2m and a way out of his debts. Hmmm, maybe not so far-fetched. While I have read PR pundits proclaim that Letterman did a perfect job of dealing with this reputation crisis by publicly airing his apparently numerous affairs, and another news report pointed out that these affairs took place before his current marriage, there is still something rotten in Denmark in my mind. In an age when people can be fired, be fined and go to jail for telling off-color jokes in a way that someone can term sexual harassment, to allow one of our cultural icons this kind of latitude seems both incomprehensible and hypocritical. If a boss of a big company were to do this and it hit the news, wouldn’t the question arise as to the inherent coercion of a boss/employee relationship? Sure, supposedly consensual, but he is the boss and some at least would think that implies some form of coercion. There is another point that will be lost on some but not others. This kind of promiscuous behavior at some time in the distant past was looked upon with a certain amount of disfavor. It still is in some circles, including mine. In such circles, we will find it hard to laugh at or with someone who so cavalierly flaunts values we hold dear. Suddenly, I find myself finding Mr. Leno, happily married for decades, to be a very funny and honorable man.

Redskins player shows why employers fear Twitter

Dear Mr/Ms Employer: can you guarantee that all your employees will show good sense when they use Twitter or other social media? No? Then you have a substantial PR and reputation risk. Like the Washington Redskins today. They won the game against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, 9-7, but apparently some fans at the end of the game weren’t happy with their performance, so they booed them as they left the field.

That ticked off one of the benchwarmers, a rookie linebacker, who tweeted after the game and told the fans what he thought of them. He didn’t stop there but when they engaged them insulted them several times telling them he made a lot more sitting on the bench that they did and asking what they knew about football with their 9 – 5 job at McDonalds. Youch.

Chris Chase on Yahoo Sports commented: This is why the NFL would love to ban its players from Tweeting. There’s almost nothing good that can come out of sharing your thoughts in 140-character doses, but there are plenty things that can go wrong.

What happens when an employee is dismissed? What are they going to say on Twitter or Facebook? What happens when there is juicy gossip going around the office about the nightlife of a senior exec? What happens when an employee gets into a fight with a key customer? What happens when a banker throws a party at a repossessed mansion in Malibu–and a party-goer tweets about it.

It’s the age of transparency alright for good and for bad. And one thing that is certain is that not all things that go on inside companies or people minds is good, but equally certain is that in this age alot of those things will come out and be exposed for all the world to see. The NFL might try and ban Twitter, but, the genie is out of the bottle and Pandora has escaped from the box. Now it is a matter for organizations to be vigilant and prepared to deal with the consequences.

Bike riding mom turns drive-in policy around with Twitter

First, thanks to Doug Walton for pointing me at this story. I’m sure that Burgerville employee who told the mom on a bike  that should couldn’t use up the drive-in window had no idea her story would end up in USA Today. She rolled up on her bike in bike-friendly Portland, OR and was told no go. As she rode away she tweeted her unhappiness with this strange policy. It was not difficult for the USA Today reporter to find the irony in a chain that prides itself (and invests heavily) in eco-friendliness to have such a policy. It is afterall a big part of their website.

The Burgerville folks may have their head in green, but not in the sand like United Airlines (see post just before this one) so quickly apologized and either changed the highly questionable policy or communicated to their drive-in window staff to not turn mothers with four cheeseburger orders away at the window.

But, for everybody in business, the real question is obvious. What bonehead, lawyer-driven policy do we have that will be tweeted and end up in USA Today? Or even more real, what careless decision or action might be taken by one of our young, inexperienced staff that will end us up being written about in about a hundred crisis communication blogs? If you are in Public Affairs, marketing or any form of communications for almost any company these days–send this blog to your CEO or just send her a link to the USA Today article and ask: what about us?