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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Challenges for PIOs

I've responded to a post by Jimmy Jazz ... raises some interesting points about emergency plans and the need for flexibility.

I also enjoyed reading Ike Piggot's response:
Coming from a background in TV news, this is familiar territory. You plan for 45 minutes in an editorial meeting, and 15 minutes into the day you scrap it.
The proper mindset is to never assume your plan will actually execute. In fact, I started a tradition of leaving the conference room loudly pronouncing “There goes Plan C.” Because if nothing else happens, we’ll have a plan to fill the newscasts — and once new events start chipping away at the Plan C resources, Plan B and Plan A start to reveal themselves.
Fortunately, the exercise of building Plan C means you’ve already accounted for resources, and weighted the risks and rewards of the coming demands. The prioritization is done, and Plan B and Plan A don’t require as much deliberation. What they DO require is someone to take responsibility for making a judgment and living with it, instead of safely hiding behind that plan.

Here was my own response to the post:

Hello Jimmy … a good analysis … I think that something that emergency management professionals and even public health officials tend to overlook or underestimate, is the extent of “political considerations” that come into play. Not only in terms of electoral issues but also in terms of the understanding by elected officials and senior civil servants of the emerging issue.
At the highest levels, plans are often a mere guide and are overlooked in favour of current considerations that may vary: public perception, key among them. In the end, public health officials often get caught up in these considerations as well, especially in situations where many jurisdictions are involved.
To conclude, plans are essential but not the end-all … there’s an absolute need for public health officials and emergency managers to clearly understand the expectations of the political class and clearly communicate scientific and technical objectives. These are not always easy tasks.

To expand on Ike's and my own response ... I totally agree with Ike (and coming from a similar background in broadcasting) ... some very good plans don't survive "contact with the enemy" to employ a military phrase ... hence the need for flexibility and scalability in our actual response to the crisis or incident, including on the communications side ... too many emergency managers and senior officials are "married" to plans and are reluctant to adapt ...

Now, if you read my own reply to the original post, you'll see that i practically say the opposite: that in times of crisis ... decision-makers often disregard planning and put too much weight on "political considerations" ...

two faces of the same coin really ... when do you follow your plan ? when do you need to deviate from it? when does public perception and communication necessities play a role in the process ?

From my point of view, perception (from stakeholders, the public, media) IS reality ... to ignore that and stick to a planned position or response is plain silly ... might have worked in autocratic regimes decades ago ... but doesn't in a world where sources of information abound ...

Comes down to built-in flexibility in your plan with gradual comms responses and scenario-based messaging ... you need a playbook but sometimes you need to call an "audible" ...

Thoughts ?


  1. Patrice, you nailed it.

    The preparation is important, because it is going to inform your heat-of-the-moment judgments. Those decisions are not random and capricious, but are possible because of the work it took to identify resources and priorities. Once you do all the legwork, the rest falls into place.

    Let's not forget about the importance of maintaining grace under pressure - which is a natural byproduct of being prepared. (Even when you've ditched the plan.)

  2. I think often the higher an administrator in the emergency services goes up the food chain, the easier it is to forget basics like how regular training prepares you to handle a personal-safety crisis.

    Police, firefighters and EMTs all go (or should go!) through regular in-service hands-on training, which has been shown to "reprogram" their brains. During a crisis that training kicks into gear, and even though not every fight or fire or trauma will go "according to plan," training should have prepared the individual responder to make associations.

    I would imagine that communication can be trained for in much the same way, so that it is enough like past experience that communicators can respond "the same way they were trained."