Monday, December 27, 2010

New entry in our online project to advance crisis and emergency comms

Amazingly, i'm still finding time to work on my online project with my colleague Barry Radford.
It's for an online community called PTSC-Online and our work can be found in the forums section.

This one is on the growing importance of monitoring social media during emergencies. For emergency managers and BCP professionals but also for traditional media.

Here's an excerpt.  Hopefully that will stimulate some conversations!

Because both the public and traditional media outlets now turn to social media during a disaster, Barry and I would even go so far as to say that the news release as the main emergency information tool is now almost irrelevant. If you can tweet, post Facebooik updates, blog, offer video feeds, audio and video clip and present a truly multimedia offering on your website, why would you need a release? 
The social media platforms will drive people to your website as well as serve as key emergency and crisis communications tools by themselves.
The news release is dead ... especially if you have to wait two or three hours for approvals before you can send it out ... the world in online and mobile ... if your crisis communications planning does not take this into account will fail.
 Therefore, two questions come to mind.
  1. Are your web people available to you on a 24/7 basis and do they have the capability and authority to post critical emergency information for your residents or customers?
  2. Does your organization have the policies in place to make the above happen? 
If the answer to both questions is no, then you will fail in this brave new world.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Having lots of fun sharing!

My colleague Barry Radford and I have embarked on an ambitious project "to advance crisis and emergency communications practices" on the web-based community PTSC-Online.  PTSC stands for Partnership Towards Safer Communities and is a great resources for emergency managers and business continuity planners from Canada and beyond.

Our project has a strong focus on the integration of social media ... not only in terms of delivering emergency information but in all facets of the broader emergency management field.

Those of you who follow what I share from my Google Reader account know that there is a lot of very interesting material out there. Here's the link if you want to see what I normally share:

As I organize my thoughts for our project and really take in the impact of social media on crisis communications and the provision of emergency information ... the following graphic equation comes to mind:

if you adopt this attitude regarding social media ...
 you'll be perceived as this:

But, if you put all the pieces together ... including social media ...
 everything will fall into place ...
 and you'll look like:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

First entry into our project to advance crisis and emergency communications practices

Hello Everyone! My colleague Barry Radford and I have posted our first entry related to our ongoing online project on PTSC-Online.

This online community is a fantastic knowledge sharing platform and I have previously written about it.

Barry and I are honoured that our project to share crisis communications and emergency information resources and planning tips, has been selected for support by the PTSC-Online steering committee.

We hope to be able to stimulate exchanges of views and experiences related to the provision of emergency information during a disaster or crisis. Our target audiences are emergency management officials, municipal leaders, first responders and business continuity planners.

We hope you'll visit the site as we populate it with the results of our collective thinking.

The first entry can be found here:

Thanks and we're really looking forward to your comments.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Some lessons learned

Hello Everyone !  I've been reading sections of the DHS Inspector General on FEMA's overall state of preparedness as it relates to Emergency Support Functions ... While this applies to our colleagues to the South ... Some points are interesting and merit attention here.

I particularly like the highlights below ...

In January 2009, ESF-15 began implementing a mandatory,
agency-wide credentialing initiative to ensure that deployed
employees are qualified to perform specific duties in response to a
disaster. ESF-15 has developed a credentialing plan for 46
external affairs positions.  The external affairs cadre is typed and
credentialed at four levels:  trainee, basically qualified, fully
qualified, and expert. The goal is to have 85% of the external
affairs cadre attain basically qualified credentialing standards and
15% attain fully qualified within the first year.
FEMA has adopted several recent technologies to optimize the
dissemination of incident response information to the public.
FEMA uses nationwide social media sites such as Facebook,
YouTube, and Twitter to provide information related to disaster
preparedness, response and recovery.  FEMA has also procured
three Emergency Communication Kits.  These kits are the size of a
medium suitcase and can be carried by a single person, so they are
deployable anywhere people can reside.  These kits are specialized
units with the capability to connect to remote resources while in
the field under adverse circumstances.  The user can establish
satellite or cellular communications that can be used to set up a
mobile office with a scanner, printer, webcam, and laptop.  Other
key technological updates include Deployable Satellite Uplink
Units and a Ready Room, which allows full connectivity for 12
users to field mobile devices

So in three key areas: training, the use of social media and providing the right technology support so the most modern comms channels can be used ... they're making progress ...

I think a similar approach here would work .... train people the Ontario government to the same level of proficiency to ensure they could function effectively whenever called to fill the role of PIO. Ensure that we have common approaches and standards in the use of social media in emergencies and ensure we have the right kit and technology access to do our job !

What do you think ?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks Hit By Powerful Internet-Based Cyberattack CBS New York – News, Sports, Weather, Traffic and the Best of NY

I guess you can expect some retribution if you embarrass the most powerful country in the world and many other international leaders.

However, who's really to blame in this mess? WikiLeaks or the people who wrote the memos and cables?

WikiLeaks Hit By Powerful Internet-Based Cyberattack CBS New York – News, Sports, Weather, Traffic and the Best of NY

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sharing knowledge and its benefits

Hi there!  I'm back home after spending most of last week as a guest instructor and coach at the Canadian Emergency Management College in Ottawa. I was there to do the PIO component of the Emergency Ops Centre (EOC) and Incident Site Management courses.

It was a real blast with a fantastic bunch of candidates on the course and very experienced and knowledgeable instructors. I always feel privileged to be asked to go back and share my own modest expertise.

I believe that the instructor often learns as much as the students in this kind of course. Although it was very demanding ... the rewards are numerous.

First, it's something I like doing ... talking about something that motivates me: crisis communications and emergency information ... how PIOs work with command both in the EOC and the incident CP. There's nothing more rewarding then witnessing the sudden understanding dawn in the mind of an experienced senior firefighter who's been afraid of media for years.

I spent a few minutes talking with a fairly senior firefighter from a major city in Québec. He had a bad experience with media a few years back and has never done another interview since ... always referring reporters to some other officials within his department ...

I took a few minutes to outline the message mapping crisis communications technique with him ... how it makes for an easily usable and very visual representation of key messages. After a while ... he said that he now had a much clearer understanding that things don't have to be complicated ... you focus on a couple/few key messages ... well crafted and supported by some key facts visualize them in/on a message map and it's easy to relay the information. That was a highlight of my week. I literally saw the light go on in his mind!

Second, interacting with experienced senior officials from police services, fire departments, EMS, public works and others ... is a good way of validating what we've been trying to impart for years. Does what we believe in and teach or talk about in presentations and seminars, relate to the daily experiences on the ground? To my immense relief, the answer seems to be yes.

Finally, you do learn a great many things about the work of first responders, city engineers and others and how they prepare for emergencies in their communities. That's extremely valuable in itself and provides you with a greater and more accurate perspective on what communications support they might need, what crisis communications planning is most appropriate for them and how they see the role of the PIOs in their EM functions.

All in all it was a great week. Looking forward to the next time already. The only hiccup ... i missed my wife and kids while i was in Ottawa!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

An interesting online community

In the last few weeks I have been involved with a new community whose objective is to foster emergency management and business continuity online.

PTSC stands for Partnership Toward Safer Communities and is supported financially by the Canadian government and sponsored by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.

Here's the link:

I enjoin you to take a look. I believe it's a very worthwhile project.
In fact, a colleague of mine (Barry Radford) and I have decided to put together an initiative to advance crisis and emergency communications practices.

Here's a brief outline of what we propose to do:

It's really an open source initiative and we're really hoping to get a lot of input, comments, suggestions and even criticism (if warranted !!! ) in order to foster debate and general contributions.

Hope we'll hear from you!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What better endorsement for being prepared?

The BP Gulf Spill almost brought down that industrial giant. Now, the head of the company at the time admits they were totally caught off guard by the accident itself ... but also the intense media and public scrutiny that followed.

Here's a quote that sums it up rather nicely:

"Embarrassingly we found ourselves having to improvise on prime-time TV and slap bang in the middle of the glare of the global media. Our efforts involved amazing feats of engineering – tasks completed in days that would normally take months, numerous major innovations with lasting benefits.
But because every move was scrutinised around the world, what the public thought they saw was fumbling and incompetence."

That's Tony Hayward, the former head of BP.
full story here:

There's really nothing else to say.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

If there ever was a time to ...

OK ... you've heard this many times but apparently some people still don't get it. In a world of instantaneous sharing ... the need for an immediate response is no longer a desirable feature of your crisis management plan ... it's become an absolute necessity.

Case in point: the Quantas airline near-disaster this week: see this post from Gerald Baron on it:

a couple of quick thoughts:
  1. if something bad happens ... get in front of it ... don't wait hours or say that nothing's going on
  2. always assume that people, your audiences know ...
  3. if you're using social media for marketing and PR ... why not use it as an emergency info channel too?
Things will never be the same again ... we're in the era of the "human network". It doesn't matter if the actual platforms (facebook, twitter, others) come and go ... most of us like to have the ability to communicate instantly what we're experiencing ... to share our feelings ... good or bad ... that cat ain't going back in the bag!

In a way, we're in an ultra-post-McLuhan world ... the medium is more than just the message ... the media (or platform) is now the user ... more on that a little later.

For people in crisis communications planning, the expectations are now clear ... it's do or die ... and do it PDQ ...

So, we come back to the four Ps: Plans (or procedures), People, Preparation, Practice ...

  1. Plan and Procedures: who does what? Who do we involve? Do we have enough latitude and delegation of authority to respond immediately? If not, you've failed!  Today, that means total integration of the different channels you might use to respond ... from social media to web to traditional media ...
  2. People: ... it's zero-dark thirty ... your guy is asleep ... or the B or C (or Z team) is on duty ... are they trained to know what to do? do they have the basic knowledge of crisis comms and crisis response to fill in the templates (see below) to get the ball rolling?  if not, you've failed again!
  3. Preparation: you know what risks your business or organization faces ... well do you?  you don't ?  you've failed ....and if you do ... have you prepared pre-scripted response that tell your audiences that you know what's going on and you have a plan to address the issue/deal with the incident? you don't ... you've failed yet again .... it's not rocket science ... a simple HIRA or risk analysis will guide you ... My colleague Barry Radford and I have been proponents of the message mapping technique to prepare our crisis communications response ... it's simple and offers a multitude of uses once approved ... more here from a recent post by Barry:     .... you should have a whole compendium of such message maps or related templates ... ready to be filled out and used to effect an immediate response: we're aware of the incident and have implemented our response plan, we're investigating ... but our first priority is the safety and well being of ... yadda yadda ... you get the point ... again, if I can figure it out ... the complete theory of relativity it ain't ...
  4. Practice ... it's all and well to have all three elements above ... but if your plans sit on dusty shelf ... if your people have left or rotated out of their normal jobs ... or have been trained ages ago ... if your message maps haven't been updated ... you'll fail again ... so practice ... run exercises as often as you can ... involve as many of the business functions in your organizations as you can ... you can never have enough alternates and back up ... and there might be some real talent available to you there as well ...
those FOUR Ps sum up a crisis communications plan/crisis management plan ... and because technology and social media are changing our world .... I would now add a fifth P .... P for Platform ... that is social media ...

Because of the growing evolution of social media, its interdependencies with all other means of communications, and its growing involvement in all aspects of our lives ... the use of social media platforms ... those used by millions/billions of people ... is now a MUST for any comms response plan.

You must therefore integrate social media in all aspects of the plan:
  • from your procedures: who posts? who has access to the accounts on the platforms you'll be using?
  • are your people familiar with social media? with the conversational aspect of the many platforms? the ongoing exchange of info and ideas and how to use crisis communications practices in SM ?
  • Preparation: why not have tweets ready to go? facebook posts and blogs?
  • Practice: ensure that your key people have accounts on these platforms and can use them effectively ...
Hope this makes some sort of sense ... I know the obstacles are numerous: from policy, to misunderstanding of social media at the top or just paralysis caused by a blind application of the Incident Management System ... well, today, there's no time for inaction when the public's perception on your response is firmed up in a matter of minutes ...

Thanks and I look forward to your comments yet again!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Crisis Commons and Random Hacks of Kindness

Hey folks ! These are good people doing good work !

See below some info on Crisis Commons and Random Hacks of Kindness.

If you can help, please do so

Random Hacks of Kindness 2.0 (RHoK)

is in Toronto on December 4 - 5, 2010. This is the first Canadian RHoK event and the 3rd global event.

Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) is a community of developers, geeks and tech-savvy do-gooders around the world, working to develop software solutions that respond to the challenges facing humanity today. RHoK is all about using technology to make the world a better place by building a community of innovation. RHoK brings software engineers together with disaster relief experts to identify critical global challenges, and develop software to respond to them. A RHoK Hackathon event brings together the best and the brightest hackers from around the world, who volunteer their time to solve real-world problems.

Last June I had the awesome honour to participate in RHoK 1.0 -Sydney, Australia. It was amazing to support and promote their efforts. Check out a RHoK 1.0 video from the event

Calling all Brains

We will need Hackers, storytellers, software engineers, programmers, university students, marketers, web content creators, emergency planners,international policy and development students, teachers, librarians, videographers, event planners, organizers, project managers and YOU. Creating humanitarian software in a hackathon is a very special collective collaboration.

Participants can select from a number of problem definitions. (These will be posted in the new few weeks.)

Video screens and online tools like IRC, blogs, wikis and more tools will connect the world. You could be collaborating with any of these countries to solve problems and brainstorm. Yes, there is even some healthy competition in store.

Help us make this global event RHoK. RHoK 2.0 is happening in Toronto (Canada), Chicago (USA), Berlin (Germany), Bangalore(India), Mexico City(Mexico), New York(New York), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Aarhus (Denmark), Nairobi (Kenya) and Lusaka (Zambia).


Register for RHoK Toronto

Date: December 4, 2010: 9:00am - December 5, 2010 8pm. ALL NIGHT

Location: University of Toronto, 100 St. George Ave. Sid Smith, Rooms 2015,2016,2019,2020

Tshirts and stickers will be provided.


We are looking for food and beverage sponsors for the RHOK 2.0 event. We will need food and drinks for 30-50 volunteers for 6 meals.

Please contact Heather AT or @heatherleson

Thank you to University of Toronto, Idee Inc, TinEYE and HackTO for sponsoring the event.

Heather Leson

Twitter: HeatherLeson


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Social Media Beat

A new social media resource or link ... this one from the International Association of Chiefs of Police ///

The Social Media Beat

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Drought may threaten much of globe within decades

This story is very much related to my post of last Friday on the theme of "WATER" for world blogging day.

Drought may threaten much of globe within decades: "

The food we eat

A new study, based on twenty-two computer climate models and a comprehensive index of drought conditions, as well as analyses of previously published studies, finds that most of the Western Hemisphere, along with large parts of Eurasia, Africa, and Australia, will be at risk of extreme drought this century; in contrast, higher-latitude regions from Alaska to Scandinavia are likely to become more moist

The United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decades, according to a new study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientist Aiguo Dai.


read more


Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog action day: water scarcity and impact for EM planners

Hello everyone! Today is Blog Action Day which is an annual event held every October 15 that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking a global discussion and driving collective action. This year's topic is water.

This will explain why water is the subject of this year's actions:

For emergency managers, the concept of water scarcity and its impact on our North American society might be difficult to grasp because the problem is not yet an acute one. But how soon before it becomes so?

There have already been some heated discussions between states in the Southern US on water supply. and many issues related to the Klamath River water system in the Northwest ... and many Californians have felt the effects of water shortages at different times over the last few years.

By all accounts, these situations are only going to get worse.

What does this mean for EM planners? What are the implications in terms of public policy and public safety? Could we face internal mass migration toward areas where it's perceived there is more water? 

Would the Great Lakes area be flooded by American or Canadian refugees? 

It's often very difficult for EM planners to look at long time hazards/risks and engage in efficient mitigation and preparedness practices. In this case, I'd say that this is a topic that cannot be ignored. Large segments of the North American continent would not be able to sustain the population levels that are projected for 2050. Where will these people go? what will be the pressures on other states and on the relationship between the US and Canada? 

As climate change slowly affects all of our lives, many scientists and observers think that its impact will become more and more apparent on our demographics and geography. People will move where there is water, where crops can grow. Large swaths of territory (i'm thinking Vegas and Phoenix in particular, but also many areas of Texas, the central plains, Alberta and Saskatchewan, even northern Florida) will be severely impacted. 

How do you plan for a population displacement on such a scale? 

Yeah, I know. It's still some 40 years away but my children and their children will need water ...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Viva Chile!

Now ... the whole scene down on the Atacama desert floor was unbelievable! A great success story all around. Made for some of the most gripping TV in history. Everyone loves a happy ending but that was one for the ages.

A few observations from a PIO perspective:

  1. The rescuers did a fantastic job! and so did the people handling the communications response to the incident and rescue efforts.
  2. It was all about the rescue and the miners ... not much else got traction once the decision to close the mine after the rescue was made.
  3. the decision to provide live feeds from the surface ... but also from down in the cavern where the miners were trapped once the rescue got underway was pure genius ...
  4. I read that someone said that the world was interested in this story because all humans share the fear of being buried alive ... While we all share that fear ... that's not what made this story so gripping ... this sort of mining accident happens all too frequently in places like China, the Ukraine or Russia ... What made it special ... is TV and social media ... we could all see it, live it ... that's why the world watched ...again the live feeds were genius ...
  5. the set up at the top of the shaft was also great: you had the shots of the family members waiting in turns: their joy, expectations for all the world to see ... yes it was staged ... but very well staged ... didn't lose any humanity ... again, it allowed the media and the world to focus on the "human" aspect of this ...
  6. Having the President of Chile there too, was good ... not for grandstanding ... but the guy became the "cheerleader-in-chief" ... and provided a "fatherly" figure to everyone involved ... you could see genuineness in his emotions as he greeted the emerging miners ...
  7. The live feed on top also showed the determination and spirit of the rescue workers culminated with the singing of the Chilean anthem, led by El Presidente, once the 33rd miner came out of the capsule.
  8. in the middle of all the engineering and technology involved in the rescue ... whoever came up with the hand-drawn sort of gauge that indicated how far from the surface the rescue capsule was... is a genius ... this anachronistic bit of old wisdom brought another element of humanity to the whole story ... the shots of the families, rescue workers ... were often only made more poignant as spectators and viewers could share in the anticipation whenever shots of the gauge appeared ... brilliant !
some lessons: 
  • If you can provide a live feed (and it's advisable to do it)... do it 
  • the whole world is watching ...every incident is local AND global, global AND local ...
  • it's not just about the technology ... the people are the heart of the story ... your crisis comms plan should reflect that and guide your response ...
  • if the top guy is going to show up (whether corporate or political/elected) he's got to be one of the guys ... his appearance has got to fit: clothing, demeanor, showing compassion and enthusiasm ... is your guy prepared ? does he or she have what it takes ?
  • don't forget about families ... their reactions will play a key role in shaping public perceptions of your response ... involve them as much as possible ...
Another observation: did you see all the miners coming out wearing those sunglasses ? 
did you see all the stories in today's papers about the manufacturer who donated a couple of dozens of these sunglasses so the minors' eyes wouldn't be damaged?  

That kind of good will and positive reaction cannot be bought ... another master stroke there ...

This brings me to a final point: in incidents today, how you deal with volunteers, people who want to help, whether directly or indirectly ... and donations ... is a critical aspect of emergency management ... should be a factor in communications planning and stakeholder engagement.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Musings on PIOs, the IMS and ESF-15

I had the occasion last week to take part in a webinar on how the communications response to the Deepwater Horizon incident was conducted. As always, Gerald Baron from PIERSystems did a masterful job of leading the debrief on how the Joint Information Centre (JIC) used their particular piece of technology to communicate with all their audiences.
(see here for a full report: )

Our world is moving so fast that it's becoming harder and harder for those who plan the delivery of emergency information (EI) to keep up. Gerald told us about the popularity of live feeds (streaming) and other resource-intensive tools that they used to great success. Our audiences now expect us to go above and beyond the traditional release or old, stale ways of providing EI.

But where do we draw the line between doing all we can and cost efficiency? That's a question for another day perhaps.

From a distant (and distinctly Canadian perspective), I think, overall, the whole response of the JIC during the Deepwater Horizon incident was handled magnificently on a technical standpoint. The people running the JIC made wonderful use of a wide variety of tools and channels, through a great piece of kit.

What proved to be more difficult was the actual continued integration of all the key partners into the Unified Command (UC), especially in the latter stage of the response. To be blunt, and to reflect the general thinking, the UC worked well as long as the politicians stayed away and refrained from commenting on operational issues or focusing on responsibility and distancing themselves from other key partners involved in the response.

It's a fact, the professionals assembled by BP, the Coast Guard and many others, did a great job to coordinate a vast response and do what had to be done. That was also reflected in the operations of the JIC ... the "mouthpiece" of the UC.
This made the job of delivering EI a bit easier .... although there were always going to be great difficulties because of the nature of this specific incident.

Things started to go awry when messaging with political overtones became more and more present ... often originating from the federal government ... on behalf of whom the Coast Guard was coordinating the UC. When the blame game became more important than operational solutions (although there's no denying BP's responsibility in the incident) ... the whole concept of the JIC was threatened and the UC as well.

When BP was the subject of a sustained "us versus them approach" by the other key partner in the UC ... messaging drew more and more garbled or misleading ...

How are we supposed to keep messages coordinated and uniform while key partners in the response are being drawn into an ever growing battle to have their side of the story heard?

That lesson about the critical functions of the IMS (NIMS) and coordination was not lost on the man Washington put in charge of the incident. Admiral Allen from the Coast Guard had his own conclusions:

When the UC and the JIC become fractured ... what's the outlook for the IMS?

I'm positive that this lack of a unified voice played a large role in shaping the vastly negative perception of the response ... If the powers that are, abandon or don't understand the value/concept of the IMS, UC and the JIC, how will professional emergency managers and communicators be able to do their job in a coherent and collaborative manner?

I believe the time may have come to separate some functions normally associated with Public Information Officers (PIOs) under the IMS/ICS and some of the responsibilities that fall under ESF-15.

On large-scale events/incidents, often involving the creation of a UC, different orders of government, multiple agencies and the private sector, shouldn't the PIO and the JIC focus on EI? ... That is, providing operationally-oriented information for audiences affected by the incident (evac orders, ops update, etc.) ?

In such large-scale incidents, the more stakeholder/liaison-oriented functions (often outlined in ESF-15) ... what could be described as "selling" the response .... the PR component ... Does this side of the PIO's work need to be given to someone else?

While the PR game is on (or is that the blame game?) the PIO should concentrate on operational requirements ...

Frankly I'm not too sure how to handle this. Who should do this PR job?
Do we need another position in the UC structure?

When does an incident become complex or large enough to warrant such a measure? I'm not naive enough to think we can eliminate all political considerations as part of our jobs as PIOs. There will always be such a component.

I believe it's up to emergency management professionals to "educate" the political class on the tenets of the IMS/ICS. Involve them in exercises and planning activities. Build up some familiarity with the doctrine, the plans and the people ... so that when an incident occurs ... the politicians (and their staff) will know where they stand ...

As always, I'm very interested in hearing from you. Thanks!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Providing emergency information beyond social media

OK ... We have clearly established that most PIOs can integrate technology and social media to provide emergency information. Now what happens when elements of our critical infrastructure (CI) become unavailable?

With the perceived threats to our CI (electrical grids, worms/viruses affecting SCADA, DNS attacks, etc...) how prudent is it to put all our eggs (mostly!) on Internet-based communications channels? Or even to think there will be a reliable electrical supply?

We will have to turn to traditional media again to relay critical information. But will they, themselves, be able to deliver?

I often wonder how we'd reach many of our most vulnerable populations (in their own language? in remote areas?) following a large-scale disaster when communications become spotty.

Are our broadcasters ready to take up the slack if we can't use our websites or social media platforms?

In the US, they've prepared for that kind of contingency. Competing media conglomerates are working together, shepherded by the FCC and FEMA, to ensure continuity of operations in the provision of emergency information.

And the FCC, has just adopted new Public Alerting standards in the US.

But where are we in Canada? Some networks have done very good work, both in the public alerting field and the resiliency aspect ... Others, well ....

Some stakeholders are promoting a stronger national public alerting system for Canada but we're lagging behind ... both in public alerting and ensuring media reliability/resiliency during a disaster.

So I ask: how long can we wait?

Social media as emergency preparedness and risk communications tools

Hello Everyone!

You've heard me often say that I believe social media is now an essential tool to communicate with our audiences during a disaster/crisis. That's widely accepted although some die-hards are still out there who believe SM is a fad.

I'm now wondering on some measurement factors when you use SM as emergency preparedness and risk communications tools well BEFORE any incident.

I've found a few articles or blog posts on this issue but would be very interested to hear from practitioners out there.

I know there's been some analytical work done by Public Safety Canada on their 72-hours emergency preparedness campaign using social media ...

I think it's time to look into measurement and see how best we can tweak our use of social media to increase preparedness in our communities.

Suggestions? Thoughts ?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Message mapping

Hello everyone ! I've had a few requests for the video presentation by Dr. Vincent Covello on message mapping ...

I've referred to message mapping often and it's slowly being adopted by many in the Ontario government.

So here's the video ... enjoy !

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Of the IMS, emergency information and social media

There have been a few blog posts and stories recently on the importance of social media in emergencies ... such as this one:

I've also enjoyed reading about the limitations of the Joint Information Centre and the political aspects of the emergency info work done on the Gulf oil spill by Gerald Baron:

This had me thinking ... especially after my latest experience planning communications for the security group that helped ensure safe and secure G8 and G20 summits in Ontario in June. The use of social media was a key feature of our plans:

These might appear a bit disjointed but really reflect emerging realities. I believe the whole central tenet of the IMS doctrine is being shaken by social media and, more importantly, by the changing expectations of the public and our audiences.

To sum it up ... while the IMS is based on a fairly hierarchical approach with scalable and flexible structure's still pretty vertical ... When it comes down to providing emergency information, it does not reflect the growing nature of how people communicate with each other today.

Increasingly, communications is done on a diffused, distributed basis. That's certainly true for social media ... It's not top down but horizontal, vertical and diagonal, all at once. There are multiple conversations going on at the same time ... No one stops to listen to someone preaching from the pulpit anymore.

That's even becoming true from traditional media as well ... the consumer can now fashion how he or she gets their news:

That's more and more parallel to the social media model. Now, how do you reconcile that with the top down, very structured model embodied in the IMS?

In the domain of emergency information where PIOs have to run everything by the incident command ... how can you keep up with the constant demand for immediate and relevant conversations?

These don't only begin once an incident or disaster occurs but way before when you need to do sound risk communications ... It's not about preaching anymore but convincing ... taking part in people's lives in a productive and effective manner. If you make valid points, provide valuable and implementable info and do so using the right tone ... there's a better chance that your audience will adopt the behaviour your desire them to adopt.

It's even more relevant during the response phase when immediacy and relevance are critical ... Can you do that in the IMS? How easy is it to convince command, particularly a unified command structure where political aspects play a large role, that you need some latitude in what and how you communicate?

We hear many stories on the "cloud" as the way of the future. Is the IMS doomed to be replaced by a more diffused, yet collaborative and participative scheme? The emergency management family keeps growing and is no longer the exclusive domain of first responders, governments and agencies. The private sector, service organizations and increasingly, private citizens, are involved. The Crisis Commons is a good example of that.

If social media and the future of communications is about empowerment, than I think that the way authorities react to emergencies and communicate about them should also reflect a more collective approach.

Yes, there will always be a need for somebody to be in charge. But, for those who provide emergency information, it's absolutely imperative that those in charge recognize that EI is not an afterthought but a critical piece in ensuring that your response is perceived in a positive light,

The only way to do that is engage your audiences, give your PIOs carte blanche, open channels to all audiences ... even those who are critical ... and be fast ... so you can correct misconceptions ... respond to media inaccuracies and help shape public opinion...

In the current IMS, with or without a Joint Information Centre, I think there doesn't exist that ability to adapt to the diffuse and collective world that's social media today. The old way is too directive and does not inspire conversations that can help foster the right behaviour adoption.

It's imperative to get the right people together ... form a community whether based on geography or affinity. Work with them and use the pooled knowledge and expertise to get your messaging out.

Our audiences are diverse and fragmented, so should be our communications channels and philosophies.

Hope this makes sense somehow!

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.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the future of journalism, new technologies and the opportunities for PIOs

There was a recent meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters and the Radio and Television News Directors Association in the US. It represents a kind of "state of the industry" conference for people in the news biz.

One thing struck me ... a quote from a senior news leader:
"People aren't having a hard time finding what's going on ... They're having a hard time figuring what it means. I don't think the technology is helping us with that." Bob Horner, President of the NBC News Channel.

He was referring to all the mobile technology that makes citizens, viewers, listeners ... gatherers of information. As a former reporter, I can understand the anxiety that prevails in the news industry these days. Their last rampart is their desire (and that's more and more difficult) to be neutral and objective, to adhere to those notions that made journalism in North America a great defender of the Truth.

Now, as a PIO or crisis communicator, I see the Horner quote in a totally different light. If people have the information. If they know what's going on. Our role should be a little different than it traditionally has been.

We're not simply releasing information to the media anymore ... it's still important but more and more ... we have to educate as we go ... help ensure that those who are concerned by an ongoing incident that affects our organization or client, get the meaning of this information.

What the impact will be on them, their family and so on. To do that, you need an established presence on the networks/platforms where your audiences get that information. It's all linked.

That means engaging in permanent dialogues with your audiences even during routine times, pre-incident. That's how you build credibility and presence (they go hand in hand ...), so that when an incident or crisis happens and people want to interpret the information they have, they come to you ...

Many studies indicate the growing importance of online/web information tools:

People turn to whom they trust during a crisis: family and friends certainly, but also other trustworthy sources: media and others who've established credibility. That can be (and is more and more so) social media platforms ...

In other words (I'll restate my favourite phrase): Be there and occupy the public space ... if you're not, you'll be irrelevant!

Just thought I'd add this: a good resource for some crisis/risk comms tips:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On the future of crisis communications

Good evening everyone!

Just a quick post related to a good discussion started by Gerald Baron on the future of crisis communications.

Some good comments resulted ... included one from yours truly.

Now, to sum up ... I think that because organizations and businesses now have the ability to respond and engage with their diverse audiences themselves ... they need some kind of advisor to help them do it effectively.

Furthermore, to be able to respond quickly and effectively, you need a plan, trained people and procedures ... that's work for crisis comms pros.

Add to that the fact that while crisis comms consultants may no longer have to develop news releases during a crisis ... their actual work has shifted to one of coordinator, arranger or even orchestra conductor ... as we help coordinate or advise our clients/command, on the best way to proceed, the best channels to use ... the best messaging to put forward ...

In summary, we're more needed now than ever before precisely because technology has multiplied comms channels ... hard enough for us to keep track ... clients/command could quickly be overwhelmed during a crisis ... cooler heads are needed !

Crisis communicators of the world unite !

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Crisis management and moral authority

Yeah, I know it's Easter .... but with all the news and relentless coverage on the Vatican's and Catholic Church's (mis)handling of the sex abuse scandal, how not to pipe up on that topic?

As crisis communicators, consultants and advisors, we're often put in situations where we're handed tough cards to play. Executives have messed up, bad policies have been systematically implemented and followed, and you have to keep convincing the people you work for that what you're proposing is the best way forward.

Are there times when there is just no silver lining? When you should just walk away?

I'd say very, very few. But with the sex abuse scandal ... it's hard to see a way out in terms of crisis communications. Here are a few considerations:
  • Leadership and authority ... when your whole legitimacy (and this also applies to government) is based on moral authority, what do you do when this becomes threatened, challenged or even disappears? In the case of the Vatican, centuries of secrecy, mythical invincibility and almost blind obedience, have created an atmosphere of denial, us-against-the-world state of mind and aloofness. How do you change that to convey a real, sincere-sounding message of regret and apology?
  • Then there's the issue of confused messaging. Church leaders from around the world (particularly in North America) have apologized many times for the behaviour of some in the clergy ... even the Vatican. But recently, it seems, the message from the top has been to kind of blame the media and blame the victims. That's simply a wrong-headed approach to dealing with a reputation crisis. Nothing positive will come out of that ... only more scrutiny on decades of cover-ups and a policy of secrecy. Anywhere else, that would border on criminality: obstruction of justice and conspiracy.
  • At what point do you have to change the face of the organization you're defending? When does your spokesperson lose his/her credibility and only helps to make matters worse? Now, the Pope is not about to resign but has he lost all his moral authority? Has the Church itself? As would suggest some high-ranking clerics from other Christian faiths? As crisis communicators, how would we handle this? If the Chair of the Board or CEO just won't see the light? Do you bail? Or stick around to work with the tools and resources you've been handed to correct the message and the public's perception of your client?
  • Finally, how much of an impact have your own personal opinions and considerations on the work you're tasked with? Recognizing and dealing with that question is an essential part of your thinking process. It will help you gauge what mental evaluation your audiences will use to judge the work you're doing. That's critical in helping you shape your reputation-saving campaign, the tools and the channels you'll use.

In conclusion ... I'd personally walk away from this one. Not a matter of faith but a simple professional evaluation. There are, sometimes, lost causes ... in my opinion this is one of them.

I'm interested in your thoughts on this issue.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

You're sorry Tiger?

Like many, I watched the "wounded tiger" show ...

Unlike most people, it left me totally unmoved. Too well scripted, too well coached ... Where was the humanity? Where was the sincerity?

Brings forward a big dilemma for those who deal with crisis management/communications and/or reputation management. Where do you find the line between heartfelt sentiment and the well-oiled PR machine?

Tiger's performance to me was way into the robot-like, well-prepared side of things. It's one think to look straight at the camera and say: I'm sorry. It's another to do it and look like an automaton.

I could almost see the notes in his speech saying: LOOK INTO CAMERA HERE ... LOOK AT AUDIENCE HERE ...

Too slick ... Tiger was in a no-win situation and didn't manage to pull a miracle ... This little exercise came way too late ...

And it gave the feeling that emotions had less to do with it than pleasing sponsors and the money people.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The other role of the PIOs

Hello Everyone! It's been a little while since my last post. Getting very busy at work preparing for the G8 and G20 summits in June.

But the recent events in Haiti have prompted me to do a lot of thinking on the many aspects of the functions of a Public Information Officer during a disaster. We all know the basics of emergency information: providing the public with what they need to know to protect themselves, their property, the environment ... and the other aspect, providing info that will help ensure that audiences adopt the behaviour emergency management professionals wish them to adopt: prepare, shelter, evacuate etc., ...

But there's also another critical function of a PIO ... put your organization's response under the best light possible. To sum up ... it's the PR aspect of the job. How many examples of bad PR associated with not-so-disastrous responses have we seen? Katrina and FEMA come to mind.

Now, with the international disaster response in Haiti, I've been doing a lot of thinking about that. Seems everything is magnified. Lots of good work is being accomplished, and despite some criticism (nothing is ever perfect!) ... the relief efforts are finally achieving results.

We see the outcome on TV, in news stories and on social media platforms .... I bet you that there are many PIOs at work in Haiti helping project their country's or their organization's response on the global scene. Fairfax County HUSAR has been referred to many times ... and the same applies for the Israeli Defense Force deployment ...

I'm sure there are all kinds of motivation for publicizing your response in international deployment to many audiences: external and internal ... I believe that it's an essential part of our jobs as PIOs. What better way to prepare to respond in your own jurisdiction, than going out and doing the real thing somewhere else ... beats every training scenario I know!

It's all about perception ... if the public and other key constituents perceive the response as flawed or ineffective, the way out of that particular problem might be a difficult one.

So I ask the question: are there ethical issues associated with that aspect of our work? Particularly in large-scale disasters such as the one we're dealing wih now, with unfathomable loss of life and suffering?

I await comments ....