Tag Archives: Encyclopedia Britannica

Is there a future for crisis communication?

That may seem a very strange question, but hold on. The answer may not be as obvious as you think.

Let me ask the question this way: is there a future for encyclopedia writers in the age of wikipedia? It used to be that encyclopedia publishers would engage the skills and knowledge of verified experts to provide the content for everything from how quarks work to the history of the bowling ball.  They needed those experts because there was a demand for the kind of arcane or specialized knowledge that only a few people held and there was economic value in providing a summation of all that kind of knowledge. But, I don’t think there are very many people employed today in writing The World Book (I grew up on that great encyclopedia!) or the Britannica. In part because the knowledge that people seek is so readily available through the internet, and in part because the new form of encyclopedia, wikipedia, has engaged the assistance of millions and millions of experts rather than just a few. Of course, they don’t pay those experts.

If you are quick to say, yes, but the Britannica is to be trusted but wikipedia is not, I’m afraid you are wrong. What this new form of knowledge sharing has demonstrated is something now called “collective intelligence” where individual people may make mistakes, but if enough people participate those mistakes are most often quickly rooted out and corrected. So wikipedia has been demonstrated to be as credible as “professional” encyclopedias.

What does this have to do with the future of public information management or crisis communication? A crisis communicator was needed because crisis events typically involve vital information only available to a few. For example, an industrial accident happens and a whole lot of people want to know who was injured or killed, what the current status of the event is, who is to blame, what is being done to protect people now, etc. There are certainly some events, maybe a lot of them, where much of the vital information is behind closed doors. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that in one way or another, those witnessing the event have access to much if not most of the vital information. And now, for the first time in history, they have the capability and clear willingness to share in what they know. They do it instantly and it is spread and shared instantly.

So, a flood hits the county. Where is hitting, how bad, how high is the water, is it rising, etc. All that info used to come from the emergency response folks. Now it comes from social media–from all those tweeters sharing info about the event from their own little perspective. A broad survey of hundreds or thousands of eye witnesses will pretty soon give you a pretty accurate picture of what is going on. In the meantime, what are the officials doing to get the information? They are busy on their cell phones and radios talking to the people in the field who had to be called from their homes, get in their pickups, try to get to the scene, call in, report, gather the info, prepare it for public release, get approval to release, send it to the media, who broadcasts it to the homes–about four hours after everyone has already gotten everything from the tweeters.

The poor Public Information Officer or crisis communicator thinks he/she is the encyclopedia writer with everyone breathlessly waiting for the latest release. What they don’t seem to realize is that by the time they get their release out, everyone who doesn’t have a smart phone has been talking to those who do and four different information cycles have already been completed in the time it took to get that one release out. Information is like a flashflood. It will take the route of least resistance. The first water to get there is what matters if you are caught in one. The millions of gallons that my wash over you an hour later is pretty darn irrelevant.

I do believe we are already in an era when the vast majority of vital information of interest to the public is going to come through non-official channels. That includes reputation crises as well as emergency communications. Those of us in crisis communication who think that we are encyclopedia writers and that the world desperately needs our well-crafted and fully approved releases, will soon find that the mountain simply will not come to Mohammed. The wikipedia process of collective intelligence and willing sharing of first hand information will diminish our significance. Will we be unemployed? Not ready to go there yet. But I know what I would say to an encyclopedia writer about his or her future prospects.