Tag Archives: Public Information Officer

Valuable lessons learned from the I-5 bridge collapse PIO

So you are picking your kid up from a soccer match, driving down Interstate 5. Suddenly, the bridge you are about to drive over, like you’ve done a thousand times, falls into the river. There are cars and people in the river. But, you are a communicator, a member of the incident management team. You find the just-established command post, the Incident Commander recognizes you and suddenly you find yourself the official PIO for the biggest news story of the moment.

Something quite like this happened to Marcus Deyerin. I had high interest in this story because, as I explained in my posts on emergencymgmt.com, this is MY bridge–I only live five miles away and cross it nearly every day. Like 71,000 others. And I have known Marcus for several years as a communicator for a local government agency. So it was with strong interest I followed this story even though I was in California when the bridge went down.

Marcus is sharing his very important lessons learned about being the initial PIO for this event in two blog posts on Jim Garrow’s terrific blog “The Face of the Matter.” (Here’s the link to the second post.)

If you are a communicator and could find yourself in this kind of situation where suddenly you are tapped to be the voice of a response a good part of the world is tuning in to, you may want to pay close attention to Marcus’ lessons learned.

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.

Leaving heads in the dust–one impact of Twitter and Social Media on public information

I just returned from a whirlwind trip to San Francisco and Atlanta, speaking to and working with Public Information Officers (PIO) from federal agencies to small town fire departments.  There is widespread recognition among many (but not nearly all) communicators of the tremendous change in public information management caused by increased use of social media and particularly Twitter. I am surprised and encouraged by the number of agencies who are already adopting and using Twitter and other forms of social media. But there is one universal obstacle and problem: the chiefs, the heads of agencies, the old guys at the top (hey, I’m an old guy so I can say that).

For the most part they continue to live in a world where they see the job of the PIO as sending out a press release to local media and answering a few questions. If it is a big enough event, the PIOs job is to organize a press conference so the head of the agency can stand on the courthouse steps and tell the world that he/she is in complete control.

While many in public information management are still struggling with how to adapt to the rapid changes themselves, they are quite honestly completely lost when it comes to bringing their superiors into this brave new world of light speed public information.

I don’t know how to solve it for them. I know people like me have to be speaking to the heads of agencies directly rather than expecting the PIOs to carry the message. But since we don’t often get invited to speak to the heads of agencies, PIOs and public affairs managers have to carry the water on this.

Here are key message points:

– Communicate fast or what you say won’t matter.

– The press release is dead and gone forever.

– Short, continuous bursts of information have replaced the well-crafted press release as the most vital form of public information.

– The website may be a far more important source of information than the press conference.

– Direct communication with key audiences is rapidly replacing messages sent through media “partners”

– The public will know about an event through Twitter and through the media (who use Twitter as a scanner) perhaps faster than the agency heads themselves

– Rumor management is becoming perhaps the primary job of the PIO and Joint Information Center rather than the initial or primary source of information

– Incident commanders, agency heads, elected officials who have their heads in the sand will probably only wake up after they have been through a major event in which they discover all these important points themselves.

Here’s my plea: take this list into your supervisor, your agency head, your incident commander and sit down right now and talk with him or her about this list. See if they agree or disagree. If they disagree, hash it out. If they agree, make sure you are putting the plans and steps in place to meet their expectations for speed from you.

Another new crisis risk–fake twitter accounts

Imagine this: you are the Public Information Officer for a large government agency and you have formed a Joint Information Center for a freeway overpass collapse. You are struggling to get the information flow going and you get reports from citizens and the news media of facts coming out of the JIC that you haven’t provided. Your team investigates and finds someone has set up a twitter account with “interstatebridgecollapse” on the account.

It is some eyewitness who is reporting what is going on, but with an obvious ax to grind. And everyone is treating this guy as the official source of information about the response.

Am I using scare tactics and making this stuff up? No, it is already happening. Fake twitter accounts are already becoming a problem according to this article from PR Tactics. The Dalai Lama was one innocent victim.

Bottom line–if you aren’t operating at Twitter speed, how can you immediately blunt the impact of these significant threats. But how can you operate at Twitter speed when you have a whole organization to set up and manage? Wow, it keeps getting tougher.

JIC Performance Standards–a little help please

I commented not long ago on the depressing performance of a JIC (Joint Information Center–part of Incident Command System and National Incident Management System) involving a large government crisis exercise. But it led to the question–is there a standard out there for JIC performance? Do PIOs (public information officers) have any resource they can go that says–here is what your JIC should be able to do, by when, and these are the standards by which you will be measured?

If anyone knows of such a standard, please let me know–because it will save me a ton of work. There being none as far as I know, I am setting about creating one. I’m convinced that perhaps the biggest problem of public information management today–both on the part of public and private communicators–is not understanding how the demands have escalated. The media, stakeholders and impacted publics have much greater expectations and demands than even 5 years ago. That means the bar keeps moving. What might have been a successful JIC ten years ago would be an abysmal failure today. But how do you show people who care about these things what is expected? I believe a JIC evaluation method which reflects current expectations of those impacted by an event is the best tool.

If I am right, the best thinking should be consolidated by some government consulting firm, then distilled into a JIC Evaluation Form and distributed to every jurisdiction in the country. After all, if DHS can mandate use of the JIC as part of NIMS, it ought to be able to publish standards of performance that the JICs it helps fund can use to determine if they are operating properly.

So, if you know of any JIC performance standards document somewhere in the bowels of bureaucracy, please let me know. If not, please contribute your thoughts about how JICs should be evaluated and what the performance criteria ought to be. And now, excuse me, I’ve got a lot of work to do.