Tag Archives: instant news world

Incorporating social media into communication drills and exercises

Drills and exercises are at the core of almost anyone’s crisis response preparations–as they should be. I’ve been involved recently in preparing communication drills and exercises (usually JIC or Joint Information Center drills). I’m finding a lot of PIOs and communicators need real help in this area.

I blogged about this yesterday at my new blog on www.emergencymgmt, so you might want to check that out. But here are a few more observations about this important topic.

1) Incident commanders, communication heads (PIOs in the public world) and drill planners typically want to stay away from social media in drills and exercises. Very good reason for this–it is a strange new world and the last thing you want to do is embarrass yourself in front of a bunch of other people who are looking to you as the expert. Why throw in what is seen as an unnecessary complication when you have enough stuff to deal with that will test you and the participants to the max?

2) Social media drives communication. That’s why it must be included because no drill today will be at all realistic if it doesn’t include a strong social media element. Many will be shocked by the statement that social media drives communication. That’s because they are still living in an old world where they think the media will be waiting on them for hours to tell them what is happening so they can tell the world. The reality is, the cellphone camera eyewitnesses, tweeters, bloggers and facebook pagerers (OK I’m making up words again) will be telling the world every little detail of what they see and know or speculate. And the media will be following them avidly and reporting what they are saying because after all, they are not social media nerds, they are eyewitnesses. Why wouldn’t the media report their observations? If you have any doubt, look at media coverage of the Flight 1549 (airliner in Hudson) accident.

3) Monitoring and rumor management are now a primary if not THE primary role of the JIC. Another controversial statement I will stand behind all day long. That’s because the JIC will NEVER beat all those citizen journalists with the news. Heck, the New York Times with news alerts can’t even come close, nor can any legit news channel. Can’t be done. Add the complication of setting up a JIC, getting it operational, gathering info, getting it approved and getting it distributed. Nope, the instant news will come via cellphones and tweets. BUT, a lot of that will be wrong, or incomplete, or inaccurate (Actually turns out to surprisingly accurate but I’ll save that for another blog). That means that the JIC needs to know continuously what is being said, not just in the media, but in the social media world in order to very quickly get on top of it and correct misinformation. Fast, efficient rumor management is the real name of the game, and it starts with effective monitoring.

4) Drill injects must include social media. Since social media will undoubtedly be very involved in any major crisis or event, it simply is not realistic to plan a communication exercise without it. Drill injects need to include how the JIC will deal with phony Twitter accounts (a very real problem–see blog here about MobilExxonCorp). It needs to deal with bloggers with agendas and willing to challenge credibility of the JIC. It needs to deal with the reality of instant info that is evolving much faster than approvals within Command but that are true and verifiable. It needs to deal with innocent but incorrect and potentially harmful information–the most common real problem. That means that those planning the JIC element of the exercise must be knowledgeable about these new realities and how they play out in real events.

5) The JIC should use social media for distribution. This gets tricky because it is a drill afterall. But you want to replicate as much as possible the process of distributing instant updates via Twitter, posting videos to YouTube, images to Flickr and updating a JIC facebook page. For PIER users this is pretty easy since PIER is now set up to treat all these channels as another point of distribution–the only thing you change is not complete the last step of making the actual RSS connection–but this is getting too technical. Give me a call if you want more details on how to effectively replicate social media use in a drill with PIER or without.

No crisis preparation can be complete without a good drill. But, no drill today is complete without the social media element. I suspect some drill planners, ICs and PIOs are going to be very unhappy with me for saying this. Just the truth.

The JIC and Snopes

I’ve got a few friends who keep sending these jokes and internet messages–you know, the kind that say send this to five gazillion of your friends or something really bad will happen to you. Very often the messages include urban legends–like the one I got the other day about cell phones causing popcorn to pop. Very convincing. Had links to videos showing these people putting three or four cell phones aimed at a few kernels of popcorn. They made the phones ring and wait, wait, yes! the corn started popping. Of course, the comments on the email trail sounded very concerned–if this is the kind of radiation these things put out, no wonder people are dying of brain tumors from cell phones!

Well, I went to snopes to check it out and sure enough, along with the legend of cell phone cooking eggs, there was the legend of popcorn. False. Snopes is a wonderful thing. I advised my friend who sent this to me, as I have advised several others, before passing these things on it is good to check them with snopes. Saves some real embarrassment.

What does this have to do with the JIC?

I’m up to my eyeballs in writing EPIA (Emergency Public Information Annex) including detailed JIC plans. If anybody believes in the JIC and its value I do. But I am concluding that as much as we try to put in place the processes that will allow the JIC to put out emergency information to the public very fast, it will never be fast enough in this world. The media and the informed public will ALWAYS go to the most immediate information. That’s exactly why Twitter is so popular right now. Nothing beats the immediacy of someone who just saw a plane crash and is tweeting and twitpicing the image. Even the fastest JIC can’t beat an eyewitness with a text message or a video. So if you can’t beat or even meet the speed of news about an incident, and the mass media and a good part of the public will go to whoever has the most up to date information, will the JIC even survive? As I have said repeatedly recently to clients and in presentations–be fast or be irrelevant. Is the JIC destined to irrelevancy because it can’t match the speed?

I don’t think so. I think the answer is snopes. Crisis communicators and emergency management PIOs (Public Information Officers) have always struggled with the inherent conflicts between speed and accuracy. The conventional wisdom has always been accuracy above all. It make sense because credibility is everything–lose that and the game is up. But the public and media operate on immediacy–speed trumps all (I date this to the 2000 elections and it has only gotten worse since then). Snopes focuses on accuracy. It is THE authoritative source on urban legends. While the inaccuracy of information on the internet is generally known and accepted, sites and services like snopes exist to create some sense of security that the truth can be known. Mainstream media are struggling with this as well and while tilting toward speed, some are thankfully very concerned about maintaining their credibility.

While I think that speed is still terribly important for the JIC, accuracy should trump all. I believe that only completely verified information should be approved and released BUT in the meantime, PIOs should be communicating what is known at that time. Rumor management becomes one of the most important–and may eventually become the primary–tasks of the JIC. Because when a major incident is happening it is completely certain now that a lot of people (citizen journalists if you will) will be providing immediate information. Some of it true, some of it false. The media and the public need someplace to go to verify the facts. They need, in effect, a snopes for the response. Someplace to separate rumor from truth. Those inside the response should have access to the most relevant facts about the event and the response. That is the job of the Situation Unit.

But the process of identifying rumors, checking facts, verifying the information to be released and then getting timely approval for the release of it is critically important. Evenif the JIC is not first with the information, if there is too much a time delay between the initial faulty or unverified reports and verified information, the JIC will still quickly become irrelevant.

Speed and accuracy–still the drivers. But the dynamics of social media are definitely changing the rules of the game and how it is played.

Arlington Cemetery communicator pays price for transparency

According to the Dana Millbank column in Washington Post, Gina Gray got the boot for trying to increase media access to military funerals held at Arlington National Cemetery.

My first reaction is outrage–in this case against Robert Gates for, as the article suggests, acting just like Donald Rumsfeld. If all that there was to this story is that a PR person was not following a highly questionable procedure of restricting access to military funerals even when families allowed it, the outrage would maybe be appropriate. And outrage is clearly what the writer of this story wanted.

However, hold on, not so fast. Why do I think there is more to the story than this? Maybe it is because having personal experience with someone in high government circles who got the boot because of supposed PR bad judgment and seeing how poorly and inaccurately the real story was presented by none other than the same publication running this story. Maybe it is because the intention to grab attention and create outrage is so patently obvious. And maybe it is because reading about the interchange between Ms. Gray and her supervisor(s) leads me to believe there is a lot more to the story than is being told here.

The fact is, we know nothing about the facts based on this story. So intelligent readers should not come to any judgments relating to either Ms. Gray nor Robert Gates nor the evil supervisors involved. But that is not what the reporter intends. He has made a judgment and wants us to make one too. I suspect he judgment was made before he even found out about this whistleblower–the judment being that this administration is evil, wants to hide the dark side of the war and now this proves that Rumsfeld’s replacement is no better than he is. And Ms. Milbank’s dismissal proves his pre-judgment right.

This kind of reporting fits exactly into the “white hats” and “black hats” melodrama-styled reporting that I think is so damaging to reputations and above all the reputation of journalism itself. Is there any question who the white hats and black hats are? The reality is that reality is not so simple. Simplifying reality in this way makes for good story telling and good entertainment–which is exactly why it is done. But it does little to help inform the reader about what is really happening and why so we can make intelligent judgments.

More instant news lessons from a recent crisis

Wrapping up from a Memorial Day weekend crisis event and wanted to reflect on a few lessons learned. It’s not appropriate to go into too many details but it did involve extensive news website, newspaper and broadcast coverage in a major market.

When the event happened, the reporters either did not try or could not immediately reach the appropriate media contact person for the main company involved. But the ran a report based on comments from a spokesperson from another company involved that were completely erroneous and, if left unchanged, could have quite serious consequences for the business of the main company.

Despite the clearly erroneous report, and despite the knowledge that the information the person provided was clearly in error, the reporter would not correct the statement because it would have meant contradicting the quotation that was a lead in their story. However, we could not get approval from the authorities within the main company (our client) for our 14 hours to correct the misinformation. It seems clear in retrospect that they did not see the urgency, the communication managers involved in the company did not have the standing or willingness to push the business manager responsible for clearing the statement, and the attorney involved either was largely unavailable, unaware of the consequences or didn’t care. Not sure.

We were able to put a corrected statement out noon on Memorial Day–but we had confirmed the correct information 10 pm on Sunday night. All morning on Memorial Day all major news outlets ran the incorrect information. The corrected statement did nothing to stop the damage because by early afternoon the outlets were onto some other story.

Herein lies the problem. Approval processes, legal reviews, and complicated bureaucracies are simply not geared up for the instant news world. They apparently did not see the critical difference between getting an approved correct statement out by midnight versus noon the next day. This is old world thinking at best–when news evolved in days and hours, not minutes and seconds.

An essential problem is that even if communication managers understand the implications and risks, if those who are responsible for approving information and therefore timely release don’t understand it, communicators have little choice but to sit back in frustration and anguish while the precious time ticks by. I think this means that communication managers have a huge task in front of them to help educate their leaders to the realities of the post-media, instant news world so that they are all on the same page relating to speed.

But, in retrospect, I must admit that in this case I didn’t follow my own strong advice about being too media centric. We could have communicated privately to customers of this company (a relatively small group of industrial customers) to let them know the media reports were incorrect. We could have done this without official approval from HQ because it was very much in the purview of local management to do this communication. But, we on the communication side were so focused on the incorrect media reports, we simply didn’t recall and act on this simple but important step. One more example of crisis communicators being too media centric–in this case, me.