Thursday, November 26, 2009

Toronto Emergency Management Symposium, Day Two

Another interesting day at the Old Mill Inn ...

Started with a keynote from Peter Power, a major player in emergency management and biz continuity planning from the UK ... ex-copper ...with lots of experience in crisis management (he co-invented the gold - silver - bronze command structure ) ... very entertaining speaker ... lots of jokes and anecdotes ... a big hit with the crowd ... perhaps a bit light on actual concrete learning ... but not the best forum for that ...

As surprising (and refreshing ... see post from yesterday) outlook on the use of social media from a member of the Toronto Police Service. Tim Burrows is at the forefront of the effective use of new tools to reach new audiences by police routine communications as well as in time of crisis. He's got a good degree of latitude from his superiors on how to do that ... find him on LinkedIn ... and here's his blog:

Speaking right after lunch was Toronto's Medical Officer of Health, Dr David McKeown. He reflected, among other things, on the communications challenges around H1N1 ... first, how you communicate about risks ... and obviously, the difficulties in putting out uniform messaging when many levels of government are involved (municipal, provincial and federal) ... his observations on the fight against the current flu pandemic somewhat restored my faith in the ability of public health officials and agencies to communicate effectively. He also gave a pretty thorough update on the pandemic situation and the efforts to immunize the population.

Some highlights:
  1. herd immunity concept ... don't need to force everyone to get immunized
  2. Toronto public health has had more than 800 meetings with groups of stakeholders since the pandemic began ... that's great outreach
  3. they undertook largest immunization campaign in their history
  4. talked about revising pandemic planning ... always had been focused on "worst case scenario" and what that entails re: school closures,workplace issues ... critical infrastructure ... but what do you do when you deal with the "best case scenario" in a not-so-virulent pandemic such as the current one? how do you revise your plans on the fly ? Jimmy Jazz has blogged on this ...
  5. it was hard to calibrate messaging ... one day ... lukewarm interest in immunization but after the deaths of two teens in Ontario ... sudden outpouring of concern and stress resulting in huge lineups to get the flu shots ... how do you adjust your messaging ?

Finally, a very illuminating presentation by a Toronto Police Service officer specializing in intel and anti/counter-terrorism. Lots of experience across the planet ... including with the NYPD ...

Some scary stuff out there ... really drove home the point about not being too complacent here in Canada about the risk/threat of terrorism ... it's here and some groups are very active ... with the G8 and G20 summits coming to Ontario next year ... that's a challenge for us at the Integrated Security Unit.

He noted some particular challenges in interoperability and cooperation between different agencies ...

It was informative and somewhat comforting to see that police and security agenc`ies are "on the ball" ! A big thanks to all of you guys and girls !

Teaching in Second Life Part I: Emergency Management

Teaching in Second Life Part I: Emergency Management

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Here's a very good resource ...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Toronto Emergency Management Symposium, Take 2

In the afternoon, there was a session on the impact of new tools (social media among them) on the media ... We had reporters/editors from key media outlets in Toronto ... one each from print, radio and TV.

I found it very interesting that they were a bit dismissive of the news gathering and informative aspects of social media ... they even suggested that emergency management and first responders organizations only accredit members of traditional media and not bloggers and the such ... stating lack of professional standards and ethics ...

They obviously overlook the major impact that some bloggers and online writers have in very specific domains, some of them have thousands and tens of thousands readers ... some of them are acknowledged as very credible and are sought after by traditional media and corporations about whose products they write about ...

I thought I was hearing the last roars of dinosaurs !!!

As a former reporter (nearly 10 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio-Canada) ... I can tell you that there is generally a high level of ethical conduct in most Canadian media outlets but by the same token, everyone these days is subject to the "Get it First" ... mentality where "getting it right" is often a secondary consideration in tough media markets ... where conglomerates squeeze the last ounce out of any newsroom.

So as far as ethics go ... mainstream media don't have that solid a leg to stand on ... I found their position very surprising because more and more traditional media themselves are using social media platforms as KEY sources of information and news gathering elements... more than a few report what's being posted on social media sites WITHOUT verification ...

Again ... that kind of exchange made this first day of the symposium a very interesting and successful proposition ... I'll write about the second day tomorrow evening ... until then, your comments and opinions are welcome!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Very nice conference today

Really a small meeting of about 20 communicators from the federal and provincial government who'd play a role during an emergency. It was a very valuable initiative from a colleague of mine and his counterpart at the federal level.

We had a presentation on critical infrastructure and interdependencies among all sectors ... the whole "system of systems" approach. Another one on crisis communications from a former Canadian naval public affairs officer ... punctuated with lots of anecdotes and examples. A very entertaining and instructive affair ...

And I gave an update on G8 security and communications planning for the 2010 meeting in Huntsville, Ontario. Overall, a very good get-together.

a couple of observations:
1- these kinds of meetings are essential building blocks for good cooperation during emergencies ... after all, what we do is all based on relationships ... a crisis is not the time to start exchanging business cards ... you need to be able to pick up the phone, talk to a connection and say: we need this or that ... can you help ? can you run this by your people real quick?

2- it's critical to get people from different levels of government used to each other's way of doing things ... goes a long way in managing expectations and establishing solid liaison protocols ...

Now a question: how often do you hold these meetings? do you involve people from other jurisdictions or levels of government? other agencies? and even the private sector (if you're dealing with critical infrastructure. their presence is essential ...)

Let me know !

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 ?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

competing trends?

When I'm short of time and have just a few seconds to describe what emergency information is, I use the following: first, it's communicating to our audiences what they need to know to protect themselves, family, property and the environment ... and second, what the authorities need to communicate to help ensure these audiences adopt the right behaviour (shelter, evacuate, prepare ...) ... that's pretty easy ... two parallel streams ... more often then not converging ...

There are trends that come and muddy the waters a bit though ... with the growing use of social media ... PIOs and organizations now engage in multiple, simultaneous "online conversations" with diverse audiences ... you have to prepare to be heard (see previous posts) but that's the broad picture ... and there's a second current trend that might appear to be in opposition to the pluralistic nature of emergency information in the social media age ...

Our friend Gerald Baron has recently reflected on this:
... sometimes you need to be very direct and adopt a "command voice" ... telling precisely (if not ordering) your audiences what to do ...

The Hurricane Ike example in Galveston is telling .... the famous "leave/evacuate or you will die" message that came from local/state and federal officials ... what impact did it have?

Are there better ways to ensure your audiences hear you?

Can those two trends ... the social media conversations ... and the more direct command ... be reconciled ?

I'd say ... use both approaches ... talk to people who'll listen to you because of an existing relationship or your organization's credibility ... but that can only get you so far ... we still can't ignore the 10 per cent of die hards who won't abide by your suggestions ...

if more direct, authoritative messaging is necessary ... use it ! ... and this type of messaging particularly plays well in traditional media (take it from a former reporter ... )

in the end, it probably won't change much ... but our collective conscience might be a bit better off !

As always, comments are welcome !

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How soon is now?

I'm the son and the heir ... of a fast changing world (sorry Morrissey !) where the need for immediate communications responses to emerging incidents and crises is overtaking many other considerations.

But how soon is too soon? In a world where an airline gets criticized (in some corners) for taking 13 minutes to respond to one of its planes landing in the Hudson River, do you still have time to take a breath and analyze things before reacting?

First, you need to be able to find yourself in that position and that means a robust social and web monitoring program ... that's just the start though. Once info starts flowing in at the onset of a crisis or incident, what guides your response? How do you determine the when and the how, or even the if?

I think all crisis communications plans should have a couple of elements built in that will help you avoid a misguided or too early of a response. The first is a quick analytical tool that will help you determine if you should respond at all.

I'm a big fan of the US Air Force's blog and social media engagement matrix

I've adapted it for our own purposes on the project I'm currently working on and it's very useful tool ... one can use it pretty quickly ... but i believe that the result of its analysis can be interpreted in many ways ...

I think the second "check" in your response scheme should be someone in your organization, either in your comms team or your executive, that can quickly validate your thinking before you go ahead and effectuate your response.

Not in an approval sense but more like a sounding board. Now, i believe that these two measures would not add much time to your response but would help ensure your organization's reaction was measured, on-target (right messages for right audiences) and effective.

I'll come back to a point I've made a few times in this blog. Social media are one set of tools for a crisis response ... they are not an end in themselves and should not overtake your capacity for a thoughtful approach despite the requirement for an immediate response.

Look forward to your comments ... thanks

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is it time to review how PIOs work and JIC structure?

I've just finished reading a couple of very interesting blog posts by some very influential bloggers:
Jonathan Bernstein
and Gerald Baron

The main takeaway: social media is creating new imperatives for crisis communications specialists, PIOs and emergency managers. In a world of instantaneous information where you audiences know as much as you do ... where there's an abundance of information (often misleading or inaccurate) ... the main function of a Joint Information Centre or PIO no longer has a long-term strategic framework behind it.

Fact is, with so much information floating around in the social media universe, being heard and recognized as a source of authoritative information becomes the primary concern. At the speed the information flows, that cannot be done through traditional media ... certainly not only through them ...

Our plans have to include capability to respond immediately to emerging incidents ... the only way to do that is with pre-approved, very specific messaging ... and the ability to get it out quickly on all sorts of platform.

Which begs the question? how do you know what's going on in the social media universe during an incident? How robust is your monitoring cell?

Do you still need as many strategists? or should you have more social media and web monitors/contributors?

As someone who's currently planning communications related to security for a huge event in June 2010 ... the largest security event next year ... those questions are very relevant to me ...

Any insights out there ?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What's going on?

Now, I'll not make it a habit of bashing public health officials ... well, not too much ... but what's going on?

Just yesterday, the province was saying that it will have immunized 2.2 million Ontarians by the week-end ... wow ! great numbers ... probably all the priority people ... right ?

Wrong, now today ... it seems we're out of the H1N1 vaccine ... and our public health officials can't even tell us how many have been or will be immunized.

Can't the messaging be consistent from day to day?
Are they listening to any risk communications experts?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

H1N1 communications ... take three

Here we go again! Years after SARS, the public perception is that of a totally unprepared, unfocused and confusing public health system in this province.

It's not so much the shortage of H1N1 vaccine that is bothering Ontarians but the confusion in the messaging still going on. For example, we now know that the shortage of the vaccine will mean that people not in priority categories won't get vaccinated for a while. Yet, there was a one-page ad in Saturday's paper from the provincial government saying that people should get the vaccine as soon as possible.

It's true that it also said that certain people would get it first but the message was clearly laid out to tout vaccination for everyone ... meanwhile, clinics are closing, people are left stranded ... and now we've run out.

Not a great confidence builder. I'm asking: where are the communication advisers to the public health experts? Are these experts listening?

Scientific and medical evidence is nice ... yes, we need to be vaccinated ... it'd be even better if the logistics were in place to make it happen a bit more smoothly ... and if messaging was adapted to reflect the current situation.

Seems to me there needs to be better coordination in messaging between the federal, provincial and local public health officials. It's been sorely lacking so far.

Thoughts anyone?