Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Of leaders, language and crises

So your boss is from Europe ... relatively new in the job ... and bang ... you're in the middle of the largest environmental disaster in the history of the US.

The leader of the free world makes your company his favourite daily target ... the oil gushes on and bad press floods the airwaves ...

Oh ... and you try to "control" the message by having private security firms block reporters from accessing the people you're hiring to help you clean up?

What's gone wrong?

The perception (see my response to this blog post by Gerald Baron is that everything has gone wrong ... starting with the crisis communications response.

I'm usually a big proponent of bringing the top guy to the front when a crisis occurs. It shows leadership, responsiveness and very often helps to establish some sort of emotional connection. That's the theory at least.

However, you need to do that early in the game ... after it's gone on long enough ... it looks more like an emperor deigning to address his subjects ... and if you're going to do it ... and if he's going to do it ... ensure he stays on message and uses the wright words ... I know there might have been a language barrier issue with the BP Chair of the Board ... but the key PR people should have seen it coming ...

It would have been much better if, earlier in the game, they had identified a key BP leader, preferably from the affected area ... who could talk with some conviction and emotion about their response ... say: we're sorry and look like they mean it ...

Seems to me that the "small people" are those working at BP's PR shop ...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Is it possible to do everything right during a crisis and still fail to attain your communications goals?

This quick post to ask: can you do everything right? Follow all principles of crisis management and communications, and still not get your message across?

I believe we're witnessing a prime example of that with the Deepwater Horizon spill. One of the key leaders in the field of crisis communications is involved with the Unified Command response to this incident and he's getting big doubts about the whole concept despite his belief that they are doing everything according to NIMS/IMS.

When do you shift from a reputation management oriented effort to one that's more like a salvage operation?

How do you step back and analyze the outcomes? Can you identify the gaps, the persisting negative perception among your audiences ... even though you are technically doing a good job because you're fully involved in the Unified Command and tapping into all the inherent strengths of the incident management system?

How can you operate as a PIO within the UC if the different command elements (and especially their own superiors) pay lip service to the whole concept of Unified Command.

When does organizational preservation take precedence over the integrated approach?

I'd submit that in the end ... the strength of the UC is strongly linked to the alignment of objectives by each participant. If that changes, the focus could get lost and the messaging could stop being uniform, coordinated and reflective of a collective effort.

In an era where public perception is critical (for better or worse) to the success of any crisis management endeavour, losing or appearing to lose the confidence of one of the key elements of the unified command, is a death blow.

Can you really continue to work together well at the operational level while the people way up the food chain are engaged in a public battle to lay the blame as far away from their front yard as possible?

That seems to be the case with BP and the Obama administration ... the two key players in the Deepwater Horizon UC ... how long before the discord reaches down to the ops planners ... and incident commanders?

How long can they remain unaffected by the constant bombardment of negative coverage and public perception?

It will be an interesting debrief one day from those involved...

That's assuming that well ever gets capped !

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On unified command, emergency info and social media

Hello everyone! It's been insanely busy at work planning for the security around the G8 and G20 summits later this month. I'll have more to say on that after they're done. Learning lots and gaining critical experience in the meantime.

What I'd like to bring up today are the challenges brought about by the very nature of unified command in regards to providing emergency information, especially using social media.

We've seen how unified command can be totally out of the grasp of most people. How the concept seems foreign to the large electorate who want to be assured that the top guy is in charge.

First question: how do you adjust the public's perception with reality? How best explain what unified command is? As the emergency management family grows, when private sector entities play a larger role, where does the authority of government lay, particularly for elected officials?

That dynamic of a collegial decision-making and responsibility sharing is hard to comprehend for most. It might be very convenient (as we have seen in the BP Gulf oil disaster) to pretend there is a political leader or element in charge ( at the very top) whereas, in reality, public sector entities are working hand in hand with private firms that play a key role (if not the primary role).

Secondly, within unified command ... where does the approval chain for comms and emergency info products begin? Who's in charge? Do all the members of the UC have to approve everything? How does that work if you're using social media tools? Establishing protocols for doing just that is essential in the operations of the UC.

And how do you integrate different public affairs/communications teams into your crisis communication or incident communication response activities? Different organizations have different cultures. Sore are open to the wide use of social media ... others not so much ... who judges what the best comms approach may be? the best channels to use?

Finally, a third subject for some thinking. We already know the difficulties posed by the incident management system doctrine vis-à-vis social media. Where the doctrine says that all public documents have to be approved by the incident commander.

How compounded is that problem when you're involved in a unified command structure? In an environment where speed and accuracy are critical ... a unified command structure presents some risks on both fronts:

a) do you have many incident commanders that have to approve the materials? Is that going to slow things to a crawl?
b) with many organizations and agencies involved, how do you ensure consistency of messaging and the accuracy of information made available to you by ops people from many fields, in many locations?

Now, that's a lot to think about ! Hopefully, this will generate some comments.

Hope to hear from you soon.