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Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola ... a crisis communications primer.

It's absolutely fascinating to see how "fearbola" is gripping North America. In both Canada and the US, the divide between actual risk and the public's perception is of, well, continental proportion. Just look at this piece (actually scary ..) to judge for yourself.

But why is that? More people have died from the EV68 outbreak ... ICUs in many hospitals are overwhelmed with mostly kids affected by the particular virus ... and meanwhile, the media and the public is left in a state of high anxiety from fear of a disease that has much chance of spanning the next pandemic as I have of singing Il Paliacci at the Metropolitan Opera. 

Just think, thousands of people are going to die from the flu this winter ... and yet, no panic about that ... a sense of perspective is largely absent from the public debate.

So how can organizations bridge the gap? How can they conduct effective risk and crisis communications related to the ebola scare?

I'd humbly suggest that the answer lays in three main areas: 

  1. occupying the public space effectively
  2. addressing key concerns
  3. monitoring social networks and engaging
These three areas apply to all types of organizations trying to combat "fearbola":
  • hospitals
  • public health agencies
  • governments and emergency management agencies
For hospitals, the goals should be to: 
  • showcase preparedness ... demonstrate a solid front (involving doctors, nursing and other staff ... not an easy task because of labour relations/occupational safety issues) ... here's how one hospital did it in Canada ... small hospitals, those in smaller towns like Brockville or on Martha's Vineyard are usually pretty well connected to their community, so that engagement might come more easily.  But larger ones can still be successful: a hospital (Sibley Memorial in Washington DC) is using its Youtube channel to showcase it's preparations and how staff are protected:
  • have a public face ... someone to help audiences connect with ... doesn't have to be the CEO or president ... but maybe a respected virologist .. or a nurse ... or a combination ... ( a good question to ask: who's got the most solid "trust capital"?especially online ) it's critical because tough questions are being asked:

  • Be ready to respond to communications issues ... that means being prepared with the right crisis comms planning ... because if you're not ... and things go bad operationally and then on a comms perspective ... you might have to hire a PR agency ... and that could become a story in itself ... just ask the hospital executives in Dallas ...
  • And as important as anything else ... engage with your employees ... internal communications are a make or break aspect of your efforts ... there will be dissent (especially in an unionized environment ) but everyone in your organization should be aware of the strategic goals and some basic messages.

For public health agencies, the focus should be on: 

For government and emergency management agencies, the priorities should include:
  • reinforcing the message about preparedness ... from healthcare, public health and even from a broader perspective. This should be done at the municipal level .... at the state or provincial level ... and by federal governments in Canada and the US (and whether your appoint an "ebola czar" or not ...) ... that's very important, especially when dissenting voices arise (see this from Canadian nurses orgs)
  • using all government channels to amplify public health messaging 
  • monitoring social networks to identify gaps in the crisis comms and rumour management response
In other words, in the current "fearbola" outbreak ... focus should be on eradicating that particular form of mass hysteria.

Doing other things that differ from these key priorities might actually be detrimental. Experts might tell us that the public worry is over the top, but comms professionals cannot let anything get in the way of dispelling rumours and addressing the concerns of Canadians and Americans.

I just pray that Ebola does NOT turn out to be airborne ! (then a wholesale message reset will become necessary ...) 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hardware stores and Ebola

Yesterday, i helped organize a media event in our national capital. The location was a kind of mom-and-pop hardware store in a trendy part of Ottawa. Far from the suburbs and their imposing and shiny big box stores like Home Depot or Lowe's ... 

However, on this tranquil Tuesday morning, there were lots of people that came in off the streets in the couple of hours I helped set up the news conference. This got me thinking.

I focus a lot of my attention on social convergence ... the marriage of social networks and mobile technology. Hey, don't get me wrong! I still believe it's changed how people need to communicate during crises and how agencies need to manage emergencies. 

What i was thinking yesterday though, is that the old ways still have value. The old human approach ... interacting with people who know their stuff ... 

So if the "big box" types like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are the new shinning tools in the EM tool box ... they might unfortunately take some luster off of some proven techniques.  In the current Ebola scare in the US and the rest of the western world, social networks are playing a big role in the spread of misinformation and the countering info put out by official agencies. 

And that's great! To combat rumours ,,,one needs to be on the very platform where they are being spread. The trick though is to not leave anyone behind and that's where the older approaches might present real value.

Think of the mom-and-pop store quality of brochures ... especially printed in various languages ... languages spoken by at-risk segments of the population ... the same applies to radio PSAs. 

Moreover, going door-to-door, chatting with people to calm their fears will often have the impact of a thousand tweets. The same goes with town hall meetings and group interactions focused on the community. 

Are they risky? Yes. All things can happen at those but good public health communicators and emergency managers shouldn't be afraid of a debate with the people they serve. 

So, yeah, I believe in socially convergent methods ... but I've said in many presentations and seminars ... the old adage still carries weight: all channels, all audiences ... 

It's just that SM allows for fast interactions in a world moving at the speed of the Twitter news ticker ... but even sprinters sometimes like to just stroll and take in the scenery. 

So big box or mom-and-pop, all destinations can serve a purpose ... a good thing to remember when thinking about risk and crisis communications.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ebola: making the case for operational social media listening in a crisis/incident

I've written in the past about the importance of social media monitoring or listening during crises. It's something that key organizations across the globe are learning every day. In many instances, public health agencies lead the way. That's the case with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. I had the opportunity to take part in implementing a great social media monitoring training program for them.

The need for social listening is made all the more relevant now that Ebola has reached our shores

So, let's look at the five reasons why agencies need to monitor social media in the context of this deadly outbreak.

Embedded image permalink

The first reason: validate emergency info ... and identifying key "voices" that can amplify/reinforce your messaging. The first part is finding out if the behaviours you're suggesting (isolation, quarantine, proper care of patients/deceased) are being followed. 

Finding out is key ... people will share their fears and how they intend to either abide by or disregard the advice/orders of public health officials ... This tweet might be relevant: 

ALERT: Children living in the apartment with Infected Ebola Patient Thomas Duncan broke and attended school today.

ebola on social media - the influencersThe second part of the first reason is also very important ... finding "social allies" ... reputable sources that will either reinforce/validate your own messaging or amplify it: 

The second reason why you should conduct a social listening operation is detecting rumours and false information that could put public health/safety at risk. And we know for a fact that fear is rampant in Western Africa and now in Texas,

It's hard to counter an online rumour if you're not even listening ... 

And to be effective in countering rumours ... you have to be active on the very same platforms where they are being spread. 

That's something the CDC in the US is very good at ...In fact, they have been a sterling example of what to do right in communicating strong info and fighting rumors at the same time.

The third reason why you need to listen to social networks during an emergency or crisis is to detect calls for help/assistance that will come through these channels. We saw that during Hurricane Sandy and many other disasters ...people will use mobile devices and social networks to call for help ... 

How are you prepared to detect these calls and route them through the appropriate people/organizations? 

The fourth reason any organization needs to conduct a sound social listening operation is to identify early reputational threats that could jeopardize your ability to respond to the ongoing situation. There are influential people out there who may not share your views and be very active in undermining your efforts ... either on purpose or just because they are misinformed (Say Hello Donald Trump ) ... 

Finally, the fifth and final reason to monitor social networks is to enhance your situational awareness ... social data offers a lot to help better your comprehension of how an incident evolves and the consequences that follow.

Data that combines social and mobile (social convergence) can offer much in the comprehension of population movement during outbreaks for example: 

It's not all roses though ... some doubt remain about validating "big data" and finding the best way to present the info in such a manner that it supports efficient decision making. However, in place like Africa where mobile prevails ... the available info can be very valuable and bring the seriousness of the problem/outbreak home in a very real way.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Crisis (mis)Communications Ferguson Police Style

I still can't figure out the thought process behind the people leading communications for the law enforcement authorities in the Ferguson area. 

My latest post dealt with the wrong tone adopted by the St Louis County PD AFTER the crisis had subsided somewhat. And, today, things got worse when the Chief of the Ferguson PD issued an apology to Michael Brown's family via video ... 

Let's dissect this latest misstep ... the "art of the apology" (you can listen to a podcast on what makes a good apology here) is something hard to master and I guess we could give some leeway to the Chief ... However, his department and others in the St Louis area have shown so much incompetence throughout this whole ordeal ...I'm not really inclined to cut them any slack. 

Let's get started ... 

First, the apology comes weeks too late (you can view the whole video here) ... it's something almost universally noted by PR pros and news organizations

Second, if you're going to apologize to a victim's family ...I'd suggest you do it IN PERSON ... not through a video ... seems like the family hasn't seen it ... Now, if you want to apologize to a community ... MAYBE a video is a good idea ... not sure in this case.

Third, the style of the video is wrong ... not sure about the appearance of sincerity ... very slick production ... which might detract from the sentiment ... a little more of the PD and a little less of the PR firm's grip on this would have been better ...

Fourth, although some might disagree, Chief Tom Jackson SHOULD HAVE WORN HIS UNIFORM in the video ... Here's my reasoning ... in the hours/days that followed the Michael Brown shooting and when the victim's reputation was being attacked ... the Chief WAS IN UNIFORM ... conveying the full authority of his function ... 

To apologize in civilian clothes minimizes the importance of the apology (and perhaps positions the apology as a personal act as opposed to an official one ...)

The Ferguson PD and the town are now relying on two PR firms to advise them ... one to handle the media ... the other to come up with the strategic comms to help them get over the crisis. That's even now part of the overall story ... and as the video illustrates ... maybe not for the better ...

My take? Things are not getting better ... the public's perception of law enforcement in the Ferguson area is not being helped by things like the bracelet worn by officers.

In the greater scheme of things though ... an apology however late it might be or too PR-slick ... is still better than shooting rubber bullets at the media ... bombarding civilians with tear gas or just plain intimidating people ... So, a good step.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

After the crisis, good communications practices are still a must

The "keystone kops awards" for incompetence in the categories of operational screw ups and communications failures ( I just created this "recognition") go to the police agencies involved in the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. I've written a couple of blog posts on the total lack of crisis/incident communications foresight and good practices throughout the protests and police operations.

You would think now, that after some reflection ( I wish ! ) and much criticism from all corners (including police organizations/leaders), that communications after the protests would improve. But no, apparently, the St Louis County PD thinks it's a beacon of solid crisis comms. Judge for yourself:

How can they get the tone so wrong? Not very far from making the whole Michael Brown incident and its aftermath a comical footnote ... Shows a complete lack of respect for the community.

Besides, from a comms professional point of view, it stinks of a long dead approach to media ...something out of the 1980s ... where reporters could be "handled" ... "corralled" ... and should always be treated with scorn or at least some antipathy ...

The outlook on media relations and how the St Louis County PD position their "media training" is blatantly outdated and borders on the plain stupid. Their misstep has not gone unnoticed.  My good friend Gerald Baron has also noted the disrespectful undertone (if not outright racism) of the whole initiative.

Truth is ... legacy media can be a powerful ally when treated as a partner ... Modern police chiefs get that ... 

Also, how can you take seriously any law enforcement organization, one that has just gone through such an intense period of scrutiny from the public and the media and one that DOES NOT mention social networks and the role they now play in incident communications?

It's the whole "head in the sand" strategy ... Twitter and Instagram, Livestream and Ustream are all going away ... right ?

There are just no words ... And frankly, what can an organization that treats media, protesters and its own citizens so poorly in front of the whole world ... possibly have anything to teach anyone ?

Maybe, they're going for a whole new way of dealing with the media ...
First, try to limit their ability to do their job .... shoot them with rubber bullets and gas them if that fails:

Second, just ignore the media ... especially when you're parading like some conquering hero down the streets you're "clearing" of the riffraff ... and if they persist (won't they learn ? ) ... just arrest them (because being asked questions when you're posturing is so annoying ... and a threat to public safety):

The third element of this new media relations strategy by police in the Ferguson area is ... if you're not sure who's media ...or just a blogger ... or some guy live tweeting or streaming your actions to safeguard democracy in the heart of America ... just threaten to shoot them ... and them tell to "eff off" when challenged on that:

The only media relations training these bozos are able to provide is " do the exact opposite of what we do and say ..."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The day ISIS thugs walk into your town's shopping mall ... a crisis comms What If and How to ...

Recent events (Ferguson protests, Napa earthquake) have once more illustrated the impact of social convergence on crisis communications. Still, many don't fully realize that the mobile and social phenomenon has forever changed how we must prepare for crises. Time is no longer a luxury ... a response must be immediate. Read this piece from my good friend Bill Boyd (@chiefb2) on the subject.

So, now, a scenario. An unlikely one (maybe) ... but certainly not impossible ... to go by recent news that would suggest Canada and the US are threatened by ISIS (the Middle Eastern terror group overrunning Iraq and Syria).

A group of terrorists ... or even a single suicide bomber ... walks into your town/city's shopping mall ... bad things start happening ... chaos ensues.

Let's look at the scenario through the lens of something I've talked about often in the past: the four imperatives of incident communications in the social convergence era:

  1. alert your audiences using mobile devices and social networks
  2. understand that your response will be scrutinized by the public/media in real-time
  3. monitor social media during all phases of the crisis 
  4. engage/maintain a dialogue with your audiences
Let's start: 


H hour: ... an explosion at the Mall of Malls ... huge blast ... many injuries ... possibly deaths ... reaction is immediate online ...why? because people have phones and share what they see ... case in point: a few seconds after a terrorist bomb explodes at an airport in Moscow:

And that's video .... posted on youtube ... it's even faster to upload a vine on Twitter (such as this one of the explosion at the Boston Marathon) ... or just upload a picture (same event). One can also live tweet events as they happen (either in Abbottabad in Pakistan during the raid that led to capture of Bin Laden or in Boston ... see below).

View image on Twitter
A tweet from Boston moments after the first explosion

Truth is: the story is now told in real time on social networks ...meaning if you're going to alert your audiences about what's going on and what you're doing about the incident, YOU BETTER DO IT FAST! As in, within minutes ...

What you do:
H hour + no more than 5 minutes:
  • start using whatever mass notification platform you may have at your disposal(as long as it's accessible via mobile devices) .. or even your Twitter account to let people know  you're aware of what's going on ... something like:



 A simple enough step that will buy you some time, show you're on the ball ... perhaps even draw more people to you as a trusted source of info. Here are the basics to be able to achieve that:

  • verify the info with relevant first responders/authority (don't fall victim of a hoax)
  • have a plan in place with some basic pre-written tweets 
  • have the authority under the plan to issue them fast
  • have a twitter account ! 
This first step is really in the domain of the first responders or a municipal EOC. If you're in a state/provincial/national EOC, your first tweets are going to be a little more strategic (but they still need to be informative and relevant = quick after the fact):

H Hour + no more than 15 minutes

So, you let your audiences know what's going on ... as best as you can:
There has been a confirmed shooting at the Columbia mall. a PIO will be on scene shortly. No updates or new details yet.

A good example above, here, from Howard County PD ... but it implies that the PIO will go on scene ... as if the main audience is still the media ... but is that right? You've got to talk to the reporters, of course, but social convergence allow you to tell  your own story, without intermediaries ... to become your own broadcasters. Multi-channels for multi-audiences .... 


Folks are attracted to unusual events ... flashing lights, equipment and personnel being rushed to the scene ... and guess what? They'll film it and send it out ... they might even live stream your response (think of the Ferguson protests ... and the pressures it put on police ...) Are you prepared for that? Is your staff trained to be under the spotlight? If they wear your uniform or your company logo, carry your badge or ID ... THEY ARE YOUR SPOKESPERSONS/REPRESENTATIVES ... to the media ... the public ...the world really.

Now, the crowd might even record and live tweet or live stream your tactical movements and even the moment you move in.

That's why, sometimes, police send out these kinds of messages:
Shooter near Pinehurst subdivision - #Codiac #RCMPNB ask public to not give out information on police operation/location over social media.
: WARNING - Do Not Compromise Officer Safety/Tactics by Broadcasting Live Video of Officers While Approaching Search Locations

It's simple really ... if the bad guys are doing it ... why aren't you?

You monitor social networks for 5 key reasons during an incident: 
  1. ensure your messaging is being acted upon
  2. detect rumours/false info that could threaten public safety/health
  3. isolate/route calls for help through right channels 
  4. identify reputational threats that could impede your ability to respond
  5. gather additional situational awareness
Yes, people will call for help on SM ... they might even be encouraged to do so.

If you CAN'T get through to 911 please send a message to us through Facebook or Twitter.

So listening, is an operational necessity.
A greatly improved tool to conduct instant monitoring when incidents occur is Geofeedia:

In the not too distant future, first responders and emergency managers will have devices with them that will allow for instant and ongoing monitoring capability. It's another tool in the tool belt to help make the best decision in allocating resources during incidents.

This ongoing social listening activity lasts as long as the incident does all its phases.

One of the reason you should monitor SM during an incident goes back to the 2nd imperative: do you know what's being said/shared about your response OP-SEC compromised ? 

To find out ... you need to be listening ! 

it's great to alert, respond and monitor ... but if all of a sudden you stop communicating, your audiences won't flock to you as a trusted source of info. Going dark is NEVER a good idea. You at least have to say WHY you can't reveal much.

When you keep up the dialogue ... good things happen ... as is revealed by a recent report from the JFK School of Government at Harvard on the Boston PD response to the Marathon bombing:

"BPD successfully used Twitter to keep the public informed about the status of the investigation, to calm nerves and request assistance, to correct mistaken information reported by the press, and to ask for public restraint in the tweeting of information from police scanners," the report's introduction read.
A bit of a timeline here to illustrate the point: 

  • from the first few moments: 

Boston Police confirming explosion at marathon finish line with injuries. via @CherylFiandaca

  •  To the immediate aftermath: 

Updates to follow. Please clear area around marathon finish line via @CherylFiandaca