Tag Archives: Virtual Joint Information Center

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.

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.

Swine Flu–now it gets serious

As I write this, Mexico has just announced 149 deaths to swine flu. And, a few minutes ago, that city was rocked by a 6.0 earthquake. 40 cases of swine flu now reported in US. World Heath Organization on brink of declaring a pandemic, elevating the status to 4 or 5. Travel advisories going out.

And I’m trying to write a new presentation for the emergency management group of one very large federal agency on the importance of Virtual Joint Information Centers .

Social media is absolutely abuzz with talk of swine flu. Here are a few resources that I am using to track and you might find useful as well:

twitter.com/breakingnews

gizmodo–map showing new cases (actually using google map tracking service)

http://twitter.com/CDCEmergency

twitscoop

Some good advice from a communications professional: BrianMcDaniel

Now a word about Virtual JICs:

A JIC is a Joint Information Center. The MANDATORY (under National Incident Management System) assemblage of Public Information Officers from responding agencies to gather in a physical location to work together to communicate about the response. So if the event is a pandemic, the communicators are ordered to get together in a room so they can get the message out to everyone else to not do as they are doing. Sorry, doesn’t make sense to me. Especially since it has been very well established in major events including Hurricane Katrina that a dispersed communication team can operate very effectively using appropriate web technology. What is appropriate web technology? Go here.

Entering the new age of virtual response

It seems that this one idea whose time has about finally come. It was identified at the Booz Allen Hamilton conference last November as one of the important emerging trends in risk and crisis communications. What is virtual response? It simply means that the idea of a response team including communicators coming together in a physical location to do their work of crisis communicaiton is no longer tenable. Actually hasn’t been for some time because we have been in the era of instant news for going on a decade now. But most in crisis communication and emergency management are continuing to fight today’s battles with yesterday’s thinking and technologies. Does the idea of a Gatling gun in the Civil War ring anyone’s bell?

Twitter is one example of both instant news and instant response. Problem is, it is a one man band. It’s great if you are the one completely in charge and have full authority to say whatever you want about what is going on. Tweet away. But most people I know in crisis communication perform as part of a team, and how do you harness Twitter to a team?

I’ve been dealing with this topic of virtual response since 1999 when I first was thown headlong into the world of mass scale crisis communication and instant news with the Olympic Pipeline disaster. My baptism by fire you might say. That’s where the idea of virtual response and particularly a Virtual Joint Information Center capability started. Since then a great many organizations have adopted it and it has been proven in numerous incidents in the last few years–kind of starting with the G8 Summit of June 2004 in Georgia.

But while progressive organizations like the Coast Guard, BP and LA Dept of Water and Power have experienced the benefits of virtual response, most in this business still respond to the idea with “hunh?”I guess that is the challenge ahead. Any help you can give me would be appreciated.