Tag Archives: Joint Information Center

NanoNews—understanding the new news environment

Struggling with what comes after “instant news,” I’ve tried to come up with a way of describing the dramatic change in real time information sharing that was powerfully demonstrated in the Boston manhunt. For better or worse, I’m using “NanoNews” to describe it.

I created a video in lieu of an in-person presentation I was invited to make at the National Capital Region’s Social Media in Emergencies conference. That presentation was just concluded so now I’m sharing this with you.

In 2001, when I wrote the first version of “Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News” I used the term instant news to help communicate that news cycles were gone, that as fast as news helicopters could get overhead the news of your event or disaster would be live on the air. I was thinking of the ubiquitous breaking news as well as the already emerging trend of sharing information via the Internet—at that time primarily through email.

But compared to the “instant news” we have today, “breaking news” corresponds more to snail mail. It’s practically dead and gone, and not just through over-use. When millions are tuned into the police scanner chatter broadcast live through Ustream or converted into a Reddit thread using websites like Broadcastify or scanner apps like 5_0 Scan, it’s obvious that breaking news can’t keep pace. By the time even the fastest news crews get the information from such sources, and relay it, it will be minutes old—and minutes old is unacceptable when you could have real time information.

Nano News is almost certain to grow. Mobile smartphone use continues to grow. Over one billion worldwide and a hundred million in the US.  That number will grow. And though they are called “smartphones” telephone use is actually quite small and diminishing—this report shows how these devices are actually used.

In the video I suggest that this widespread use of mobile devices to access events of interest constitutes a form of teleportation. Your senses, your ability to experience, is transported to the scene through the ever increasing use of real time information sharing usually from the “crowd” or non-professional sources.

The implications for emergency and crisis communications are immense. I was quite surprised to see a new study from PwC, which according to a press release of August 8: “more than half of the respondents – 57 percent – do not officially use social media as a crisis management resource.  For companies that have begun integrating social media into their crisis management efforts – Facebook and Twitter cited the most often – not all are seeing improvement in their capabilities. Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents are modestly leveraging it as a tool, but not necessarily seeing improvements in their capabilities, whereas eight percent of respondents believe that social media has become an enabler for their organization to proactively identify and respond to crisis events. “

That is quite stunning to me—raises a question as to whom within the organization the questions are addressed—IT?

In the video I made several observations which generated some comment and discussion with the group gathered in DC. One is that today in crisis communication you can NOT be fast enough. Only if facts or details are completely hidden (almost impossible these days) can you really control what goes out and when. If you can’t provide the relevant information what can you do? You can make sure what is said and gets traction is correct. Rumor management is job one. And it requires great speed, which means that Twitter is the numero uno media management tool. It’s not the only tool to use to be sure. But if you want the media and most informed public to know the truth, you better know what is being said and be very quick in correcting false information.

It seems the biggest issue confronting communicators is approvals. We had some valuable discussion about that during the conference and I was quite pleased to see that the separation of incident/response facts from organizational messages seems to be taking hold. Not everything to be released needs the same level of approval. As one pointed out, it requires trust in the PIO—but also a clear understanding prior to the event about releasable facts vs. key messages requiring approval—and the vast gray area between.

The experiment in presenting and discussing with a crowd across the country through Hangout went very well I thought (I’ll have to hear from those who were there). I think this will be far more common in the future. As is the case with these events it was helpful for me to learn from those who are practicing this stuff every day. But the discussion only confirmed that NanoNews is a vital reality and it is one that progressive communicators and emergency management leaders are coming to grips with—and that is good news.

 

Joint Information Center–Arkansas pipeline spill adds to uncertainty about government response communications

Most government communicators who need to respond to emergencies need to understand the Joint Information Center (JIC)concept. Private companies,  particularly those likely to collaborate with government response organizations should (but often don’t) know about the JIC (pronounced JICK). As an adjunct to the National Incident Management System and the Incident Command System, the JIC has become standard procedure for coordinating public information when multiple agencies or entities are involved.

But, this well-honed and highly effective system was undermined first in the aftermath of Katrina when the Department of Homeland Security came out with Emergency Support Function 15 for External Affairs. Without going into details, as a structure for coordinating communications among multiple agencies, this was a complete joke. As a means to allow the White House to assume complete control of the communications in a disaster, it was and is highly effective.

For 20 years, after ExxonValdez, the oil industry and Coast Guard practiced the JIC procedures in annual drills. So when Deepwater Horizon occurred in April 2010, it was natural that a JIC was established with all parties including BP. At the end of May that year, everything changed. Media and political pressure on the White House threatened another Katrina-like political blowback and they responded with implementing ESF 15 and threw BP out of the communications. Ever since then, the status of the JIC has been uncertain and those needing to know how the feds will organize communications when they are involved in responding has been confusing.

Now the Arkansas Mayflower pipeline spill is adding to the confusion. Not everyone may be interested in the JIC, its future, and how to coordinate communications among multiple government agencies, but if you are, I suggest you have a close look at what is going on. Lots of questions raised, and since I blogged on it over at Emergency Management, I won’t repeat myself.

The good thing here is that ExxonMobil (a former client and user of PIER) appears to be doing an exceptionally thorough job of communicating. But, the position taken (or not taken) by members of Unified Command in the JIC which appears to be completely led by ExxonMobil is what is causing confusion.

The point to me is this: what creates public trust? Does a JIC led by the Responsible Party create trust? No, not when the government is seen as second tier player. Does the JIC led by the government and where the Responsible Party is thrown under the bus lead to trust? No. The only thing that really contributes to trust is good, fast, accurate honest information coming from a collaborative team that reiterates “we are in this together.”

I hope the old JIC concept comes back and sooner than later.

Blending of comms into response–what should it look like?

In my eleven issues for 2011 post, one of the items referred to what I see as the inevitable coming together of external communication and operational response. This triggered this thoughtful blog from James Garrow, who until today I only knew as “Jimmy Jazz.” Have greatly enjoyed the interaction with “Jimmy” on this blog and appreciate his insight on these issues of real importance to the future of NIMS, ICS and response management.

For those not jumping to his blog post (which you should), here is a relevant comment:

I advance the idea that today’s media environment is completely different than the media environment that ICS was developed in. Aside from increasing capacity (see: incorporation of the Joint Information Center, media center and ESF 15), there has been no fundamental change in how PIOs act within the ICS structure. I wonder if the change in how the world interacts with the public information component of modern organized response should necessitate changes in how modern organized response creates and disseminates public information. Has public information become part of operational response?

I’ve talked with colleagues at the local and federal level about this idea, (start ICS) about moving public information out of the Command staff and placing them under the Operations Chief (end ICS). No one thought it was a good idea. They felt that the direct relationship between the Incident Commander (IC) and PIO was vital to speed information releases. But I find that there is already talk in social media circles about how getting social media messages approved by the IC is too slow, so I don’t see how that relationship will continue to be sacred.

For my part I tend to agree with Patrice Cloutier who commented on Garrow’s post that the fear would be loss of PIO influence over Command decisions. If anything, that influence is almost certain to expand. However, I completely agree with James’ observation that the world in which ICS was created does not resemble the world we currently live in regarding public information. Public and political sentiment already is substantially impacting response decisions and will only grow in the future. Communication in this world is not one way linear flow of bare facts. It is a complex interaction, a conversation occurring at multiple levels. That conversation needs to become embedded not just in Command or Operations, but in every element of the response. How to do that will be the big challenge for influential response professionals and policy makers.

Pre-emptive strike regarding upcoming blog story

I’ve been interviewed by a major political blog about the Gulf Spill communications and have become a little nervous about how the story as it evolves keeps taking unexpected twists. So this is a sort of public pre-emptive strike in case I feel that I have been misquoted or that I might have mis-communicated my intentions.

The issue is about the growing independence of BP in the communications about the event. It is now quite common knowledge that BP was uninvited from an active role in the Joint Information Center and since about June 4, it has not participated in joint press conferences. In fact, there aren’t joint press conferences. There are BP press briefings but Admiral Allen stands alone on the podium for Unified Command press conferences. I understand the reasons for this and they may be valid and this may be necessary and I won’t judge whether it is good or bad.

And let’s be clear–Unified Command continues on, the partnership exists in the response. It just no longer exists in the public communication about the response.

But my point is this–what does this mean for the National Incident Management System that still mandates collaborative response? What does this do for OPA 90 where ICS and the JIC were a requirement for an effective response and effective communication? Will the Gulf Spill mean that agencies won’t cooperate–particularly when the media blame game is as rampant as it is here and the political reaction is to throw anyone else under the bus? BP is doing nothing wrong, illegal, or unexpected. The first variance away from the JIC came from federal agencies, not BP. They began aggressive and independent communication about the spill and response long before BP started going its own way. But when every JIC release is primarily about the antagonism between the federal government and BP, it is both right, fair and understandable for the JIC to no longer operate as it has for 20 years.

I just hope the blog writing on this gets it right.

Not Sure How the Joint Information Center Can Survive This


I do not see how the Joint Information Center (JIC), as it has been conceived and implemented the past ten years, will be able to survive the Deepwater Horizon event. If I am right, this will have very significant consequences for how major environmental events are managed in the future as well as how NIMS (National Incident Management System) will be implemented in the future.

To understand the very serious implications of what is happening today, we have to go back to the Incident Command System and how it developed, particularly in the oil industry. ICS began in the early 1970s with the fire services on the West Coast. When a number of fire of agencies came together to fight a fire they found the coordination pretty difficult. Who was in charge? Who was deciding what trucks and resources should be deployed where? How and where did the critical event information come in? What do you do when one battalion chief in a podunk department won’t take orders from someone of lower rank who has been given authority in the combined response? And how does everyone know what responsibilities go with each job?

From a media and public communication standpoint, the problem was also serious. Who has the authoritative information? What is the public to think when one fire department PIO says the fire is 200 acres and another says it is 2000 acres?

The answer to this was the Incident Command System with it single command structure incorporating multiple agencies, its standardized jobs and job descriptions, its management principles such as span of control, and its insistence that rank or position outside of the response mean nothing when it relates to making assignments and reporting structure. It was brilliant and effective and has proven so in multiple responses since then. For communication, the same approach applied. The Joint Information Center, made up of PIOs from various agencies participating, established its own organization structure and information flows with the idea being to provide the single point of information, the single voice for the response. It too was effective and incredibly helpful in getting information out–relatively quickly, accurately, and without conflict or confusion.

When the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed after the ExxonValdez event in 1989, the Incident Command System along with the Joint Information Center was mandated for the oil industry. From that point on, the government agencies involved in a response–federal, state, local and tribal–would work in close collaboration with the Responsible Party–legally defined as the owner of the oil, not the one who caused the problem–under the Unified Command structure. Ultimately, it was the federal agency in the response, the Coast Guard for on the water events and EPA for on the land events, that held the trump card because they and only they had the option of “federalizing,” the event, that is pushing everyone else aside and taking direct control of all response activities.

OPA 90 further mandated that each company with facilities or vessels at risk of major incidences had to practice an ICS event, and every three years a “worst case scenario” event. I have been involved in planning, managing and evaluating many of these over the past ten years. The industry has spent hundreds of millions, perhaps several billion, in training, drilling, creating plans and driving this system deep into their organizations. As a result of all this work, industry response professionals and agency response managers learned to work together side-by-side in close collaboration. Extensive technology was developed to support the complex operations, technologies aimed at managing the ICS process with all its forms and procedures as well as managing the Joint Information Center and all its processes and requirements. That was the system I created, called PIER for Public Information Emergency Response. The Joint Information Center proved very effective in providing a coordinated information response enabling the media (and increasingly the public directly through incident websites) to get the best possible information, as quickly as possible from a single authoritative source.

Of course, that “single voice” didn’t necessarily play to the media’s interest in the blame game they inevitably must play. Here were the key players all standing side-by-side, providing the same information, not pointing fingers, not accusing the others, but working in concert in the public’s interest to get the job done.

In 2004 the Department of Homeland Security, under a presidential directive to create a national response structure, implemented the Incident Command System as that national response plan. It was one of the smarter things government has done. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, instead used something that was working exceptionally well and that many federal, state, local agencies and a few private companies had adopted and trained on already. DHS has invested billions in making this system effective and making certain that agencies at all levels use this system and prepare their responders to work in it effectively.

So far, so good. So why is it threatened?

The Deepwater Horizon event (that is what it was officially named by Unified Command at the beginning and all events require an official and single name), began as a typical NIMS/ICS event. BP, as the largest shareholder of the well with three owners, was named the Responsible Party. That means they were responsible for paying the bill and participating in the Unified Command structure. Unified Command was formed with the Federal On-Scene Coordinator as the Coast Guard and other agencies participating in accordance with OPA 90 and NIMs. A National Incident Commander was named as this was the first Spill of National Significance since that was designated again as part of OPA 90.

As is called for in all the plans, a Joint Information Center was set up as soon as Unified Command was formed. All the agencies came together, including BP, to unify the communications operation using PIER as the communication system that all would operate on. the years of experience that the Coast Guard and BP had with the system was a strong benefit in getting the JIC off to a strong start. Under NIMS and ICS rules, Unified Command has the final authority over all information released. No one involved in the response–no government agency, no private party, no contractor, no research vessel, no one — is to communicate outside of that structure. It is the only way of insuring a “single voice” and maintaining information discipline. The Sago Mine disaster was one example of where the loss of information discipline was exceedingly painful and caused unnecessary distress when JIC rules were broken. On the PIER JIC website, the logos of all the response agencies were displayed along with BP as the Responsible Party (RP in ICS lingo).

That is, until Sec. Napolitano arrived a couple of days into the event. Suddenly all agency logos were removed, the event was renamed the BP Oil Spill, and the messaging from Unified Command starting taking on a strategic intent to innoculate any federal agency from any blame and to focus all media scrutiny and public outrage on BP. While the logos returned a few hours later, I’m assuming after the Secretary was informed of how the National Incident Management System that her agency promulgates is supposed to work, and the original incident name response, the use of Unified Command for political messaging has never stopped from that point.

As I pointed out earlier, this messaging has gone through a couple of phases. First, the administration tried to avoid any blame by saying it was all on BP and it was the administration’s job to hold them accountable and put a boot on their neck. This was in direct opposition to the reality on the ground which was a Unified Command response all along, under the direct control of the coordinated federal agencies. But not a single reporter picked up on this. This shows how hopelessly out of touch the media are with the realities of NIMS and what Unified Command means. No one, none, challenge this strategy by even asking what the National Incident Commander was there for or asking what the role of a Federal On-Scene Coordinator was. Nor did they seem able to put two and two together to ask a question that if BP was doing everything, why are so many people in uniform so visible?

But what the administration apparently didn’t anticipate, aside from the fundamental dishonesty of this message, is that the calls would increase for the federal government to take over the response. Why are they letting BP run this thing when it clearly is failing? Why isn’t Obama stepping in to take charge. The pressure mounted until on May 28 at a press conference the president announced that well, actually, the federal government was in charge all along. Oh, said the press corp. The first question (and one of the first insightful ones) was if that is the case, why did the EPA send the letter to BP asking them to find different dispersants if the federal government was managing the response, including the use of dispersants all along? Exactly.

In the days since May 28, BP has been pushed from the scene publicly as far as communication is concerned. Now the federal government stands alone in the media appearances. And Unified Command messages have become more and more political in tone even while they continue to do their best to get the relevant information out about the event and the response activities. What do I mean by taking over the Unified Command messaging? Here is the primary release from the Unified Command on June 4:

Speaking alongside federal officials and Gulf Coast governors, the President sharply criticized BP for spending money on a public relations campaign.
“I don’t have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations,” the President said. “But I want BP to be very clear—they’ve got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf for the damage that has been done. And what I don’t want to hear is, when they’re spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they’re nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time.”

I have no objection whatsoever to this kind of messaging being issued by the White House media machine–it is perfectly appropriate for the president to say whatever he wants. But to use Unified Command as an adjunct to the White House communication operation means that Unified Command will likely never again be trusted by any private company or public agency that does want its reputation to reside in the hands of the administration.

What makes this doubly troublesome is the fact that BP has been very aggressive in claims management and a Unified Command release a day or two before this reported that BP had to date paid every claim it had been able to process. Not a single claim was denied and the announcement had just been made that BP had agreed to additional loss of income payments going forward. The accusation about nickling and diming was unfair and inappropriate if done from the Rose Garden, but to be done using the communication machinery of Unified Command will likely have long term devastating consequences.

Further, BP’s so-called PR campaign is to focus attention on the response website. While the media has been playing the administration’s game in lockstep, even while desperately seeking every day for a scoop to further inflame public outrage, those who get their information from the response website do have a substantially different picture of the response than those who get their information only from the media. I discovered this anecdotally when discussing the response. If someone was entirely negative about BP and the response, I asked if they had been to the website or subscribed to the updates. Those who had been to the site regularly were more critical of the media coverage, and those who had not were only critical of the response. Why wouldn’t BP in those circumstances want the public to know about this information source. The media was not pointing people to the site. Why would the administration find it a problem to want people to get their information directly rather than filtered through the media whose job is to get eyes on their screen every day on this story? And especially when the administration has highjacked the Joint Information Center and is using it for their political messages?

Yes, I am deeply disturbed about the future of the National Incident Management System, ICS, and the JIC. Since I am personally involved right now in writing plans for several of the major urban areas of the nation for how they come together in a major event to communicate in a coordinated way, it is a very relevant issue. What do I say to the Mayor’s office of a major city when they realize that if it is in the current administration’s best interest to focus the media’ blame game on them to avoid any blame falling on the administration, how can I convince them that they should stay within the information discipline bounds of NIMS? Since I’m also writing plans for other major oil companies, how can those plans be focused on participation in the JIC when it is most likely in a major event for that very tool to be used to an extreme degree against them and even used to criticize their own efforts to communicate how they are responding?

If there are others working on such plans and wondering what this means for your agencies,your regions or your company’s crisis communication plans under the National Incident Management System, I’d like to hear from you. Hopefully you can reassure me that it is not a significant issue, that I am reading this wrong, that once the “BP Spill” is over that life under NIMS will return to normal. However, if you are also concerned perhaps we can begin the discussion at some senior policy levels as to how to prevent this catastrophe (not talking about the spill here) from happening again.

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.

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.

Internet traffic–Jackson tests the limits

One question that ought to be always on the minds of crisis managers is how much traffic can your website take? As it becomes more clear the critical role that the internet plays in emergency public information (such as Hurricane Ike), understanding the traffic limits on the internet is of great importance to emergency response planners. So, how much can it take and how can we know?

The Michael Jackson death will serve as a benchmark for some time to come, as 9/11 did for some time after that event. According to the article in the July 6 NYT, traffic on news websites at around 6 pm (ET) hit around 4.2 million per minute. Yes, per minute. If that traffic were sustained, that would be 250 million hits per hour. I was conducting training with a group of PIER users at our offices in Bellingham and when the first hint came out (someone was checking email during training of course) immediately everyone hit TMZ and whatever news sites we could find. It was fascinating for this group of senior communication managers to watch the events unfold (Twitter Breaking News On beat the LA Times by half an hour with the news of his death). But we were a roomful of people crowding the news sites with our smart phones and laptops.

The impact of this kind of traffic was substantial. Wikipedia broke the record for visits to a single article in a one hour period (one million, plus the quarter million who went to the misspelled entry “Micheal Jackson.”

AIM went down for 40 minutes according to the NYT article and a number of sites experienced significant slowing. Some search terms on Google News were significantly slowed.

This kind of internet traffic reminds me a little of a greeting card I saw this weekend while strolling the streets of Anacortes, Washington. It had a picture of a cruise ship on its side with the caption something like: “The captain knew it was a mistake when the cruise director announced a sighting of Elvis Presley off the starboard side.” What will it take to capsize the ship of the internet. The overall message is, it will take a lot. The resilience of the internet as a communications channel is truly remarkable owing ultimately to its fundamental design as a spider web of connections. Still, it has its limits. Almost every site has its limits, every application, every web service. Knowing those limits, preparing to deal with them–even while building capacity needs to be the concern of everyone in crisis communication or emergency response planning. While some may think the passing of a pop star is the biggest, most important thing to ever happen, I can think of a few more items that could bring even this resilient means of communication to its knees.

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.

The biggest gap in emergency response communication

I’ve been at this game of crisis management and emergency response communications for over ten years now–at least where that has been a primary focus. There is one problem that keeps coming up over and over and over. And the rapid changes in the last couple of years have only made this problem greater and the damage caused by it more significant.

The gap is simple: It is what Incident Commanders and emergency response leaders don’t know and understand about the public information environment.

Ultimately, they are the ones who make the decisions during a crisis or emergency response. They have many many important decisions to make and precious little time to make them. When lives are on the line, when minutes count in a response, it is little wonder they tend to have little patience for getting into a discussion about the pros and cons of web content and whether or not to set up a Twitter feed for the Joint Information Center.

I have to admit to being very frustrated with this problem–particularly because it is nigh unto impossible to get Incident Commanders or Crisis Team Leader or CEOs to pay any attention to this gap in advance of an incident. Participate in training? No way. And I was quite surprised and disappointed that my effort to address this topic at a major conference on oil spill management was rejected. If conference managers and presentation review panels don’t understand how important it is to help Incident Commanders understand their operating environment better, then how can the ICs be expected to pay attention.

There seems to be only one proven method of changing this–experience. Unfortunately, going through a major event and learning from that what the media, stakeholders and internal audiences expect and demand from the response leadership seems to be the only way to close that gap. As one experienced crisis communicator told me, he can tell immediately whether or not an incident commander has been through a real event. The difference in their understanding of and the need for fast, direct, transparent communication is profound.