Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Using social media to be heard during a crisis or disaster

The recent storms in the central US have proven devastating. They also have showcased the extraordinary resiliency of communities that have been affected. In some cases, social media is a key recovery and response factor.

But a critical point is the inclusion of SM in your emergency information capabilities. From warning/alerting to volunteer and donation coordination. How do you ensure you can be heard?

I believe you have to be engaged in the full continuum of communications activities, using social networks and your website. Building a presence, prior to any incident, and being able to capitalize on it. By engaging (in particular key influencers ...) you become a credible source of info (another key is not to use your SM platforms for inane/political messaging ...)

Doing this allows you to occupy the public space immediately at the onset of an incident. That is critical in a world where expectations from your audiences are for YOU to communicate with them within minutes! That means having a full crisis communications plan in place for your EM program with a strong focus on SM.

During the response phase, you need the ability to monitor SM in real time and ensure any valuable info is shared throughout your EOC and command. Second, you need to use your online influence and your credibility (built up prior to the incident) to quickly dispel any unfounded rumours and falsehoods. More than ever, this is a crucial component of your activities during that phase because the public perception of your response is now shaped within a matter of minutes. You no longer have the luxury of waiting for the next "news cycle" (if there is still such a thing ... and I don't think there is ...) before acting.

Ignoring social media is a sure way to fail in today's world. We are now in an environment where the distinction between traditional and social media is becoming blurry. A good read from Gerald Baron on this topic. A solution exists in looking at your emergency info/PIO function as broadcast enterprise where you use the web, social media, streaming videos, chats and other means, to get YOUR messaging out among the multitude of ongoing conversations taking place as your disaster unfolds.

Oh! and by the way, forget about any notion of controlling that message. All you can hope for is that it will resonate and prove relevant to your audiences. Jim Garrow posted an interesting outlook on this.

If you do all of this right, you can actually improve your organization's and your community's resilience. Social networks provide a fantastic outlet for a collective wave of empathy that surges from all around the country and the world during a disaster. Surf that wave, take advantage of it and use these channels to give out official info on donation, rebuilding and volunteer coordination for example.

That contribution of social media during the recovery phase has been noted by legacy media outlets.

I hope you can see the pattern here: by engaging on SM platforms before any incident, you can better use these tools during the response and recovery phases. In fact, any late entry into the SM world (in other words, when the stuff hits the fan) would have a great probability of failure because people would not necessarily be looking for your info if they haven't heard from you on Twitter or Facebook before.

The last words belong to Gerald Baron and Chief Bill Boyd, both avid proponents of the use of SM in EM and crisis communications.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Emergency Information: the preparedness paradox

I've taken part in a many exercises and a few real-life incidents. One thing that seems consistent in the hotwash and debrief following each of those is this: communications (meaning emergency info) could have been better.

So after each one of those, we go through the same thing: lessons learned, corrective action plan, etc.
But in reality, there seems to be very little change, I'm wondering if that's because emergency information (EI) and PIOs are kind of tolerated in a disaster, seen more like a nuisance.

I'm overstating this sentiment of course, but while most people do subscribe to the big role played by comms in relations to preparedness, still very few emergency management plans or programs have broad and comprehensive crisis communications/emergency info components to them. Why is that, particularly in the age of social convergence where people expect to be informed within minutes?

The recent event in Slave Lake where wildfires have basically wipe nearly half the town and chased its residents out, is a good case in point. I don't pretend to know everything that happened there but with lots of media coverage, a certain picture emerges in my mind at least. Here are a couple of excerpts from a recent story in the National Post.

“Learning about evacuation routes, learning about predicting where the winds might blow and who needs to evacuate and what kind of structures should be allowable in the path of these things and educating the public beforehand about what to do if such and such happens, I think are all lessons to be applied." 
Brian Schwartz, director of emergency management support at the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion.

You can easily see in the quote above that it's important to do risk communications before any incidents as part of your EM program and preparedness initiatives. But does that translate to effective EI planning during a crisis?  Another quote from the same article:

“Communication is one of the primary things that is required in order for the emergency management plan to be flawless, and it never is.”
 Richard Kinchlea,  director of operations at the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness

I believe that things have moved so far in the recent years that public alerting, warning systems and emergency information planning need to be integrated fully between the ops people and the PIOs. Things move that fast nowadays: you have minutes to follow up on initial alerts/warnings with info, primarily through social media.

So what happened in Slave Lake? There seems to have been a lot of confusion between municipal and provincial leaders. Confusion that led to delays in evacuations, false rumours flying about and limited public alerting leading to an outraged citizenry. Here's a telling segment of that article:

As the fire sparked over the weekend, Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee waited hours for the province to step in; when that didn't happen she called for the evacuation order herself. By that time, flames had consumed the local radio station and phone lines began to drop, making it harder to notify residents. The province is defending its late response, saying it couldn't utilize the public warning system because Lake FM's broadcast feed was down.

Let's look at what appears to be wrong here:

  1. local official waiting for province to step in: is that in your plan? Isn't EM from the municipal level up in Canada?
  2. Evacuation was delayed: what protocols are in place for such an eventuality? Do residents know what to do? Where to go? Shouldn't that be in the plan?
  3. Province said their late response was due to the town's radio station burning down and not being able to fulfill its role in the alerting process/system: why is it that in 2011, governments and agencies still rely primarily on the media as emergency info channels? Never heard of Twitter? Facebook? at the official level? 
The employees of the burned down radio station certainly took SM to heart when they couldn't broadcast and turned to Facebook and the Web to help their listeners. Good work!

Really, in the end, it comes down to leadership. Leadership means looking at all components of EM planning and ensuring they're synchronized. What is important to avoid is confusion and sadly, that seems to be a general conclusion from the Slave Lake disaster.

Alberta’s top emergency agency now says it told Slave Lake’s mayor to evacuate the town, although fires had already closed the highways.That statement represents an about-face for the province on a disaster that left hundreds of families homeless and raises questions about whether key recommendations, made in the aftermath of the region’s last major fire, have been implemented.
So, perhaps, a couple of suggestions are in order. First, to all officials: social networks allow you to communicate directly with your audiences, bypassing media. It's really important where as many as 40 per cent of people don't read newspapers, don't watch TV news or listen to radio newscasts. They get their info on the web and through SM.
(image courtesy of Gerald Baron)
Second, emergency managers need to educate elected officials on what their role is in regards to the provision of EI. Some shine under the spotlight and relish the opportunity to demonstrate leadership publicly. Others show their leadership behind the scenes and let specialists handle most EI duties.
Both styles can be effective. Here's an example of a local mayor who used social media effectively during a similar disaster. Of course, that can be risky too. The official EI products and messages coming out of the PIO or JIC/EIC have to say the same thing that elected officials are saying on their own, and vice versa. That could be a challenge but what better hook to get senior officials interested in your plans than to build on their enthusiasm for SM and communications in general? 
I look forward to your comments on this.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Capability Based Planning: the Canadian perspective and my reaction.

I've been extremely busy at work and so I have been less diligent in coming up with new posts. Well, here's a couple of quick ideas I'd like to share...

First, I did post a blog entry on PTSC-Online (check out the site if you haven't already). My post reflected by profound dismay at a document I found on a Canadian federal government website. It deals with our version of Target Capabilities List or Capability Based Planning.

One of the section (tab 28) deals with emergency information and warning. Although it's a very thorough document, it seems to have been written for another age with nary a mention of social media. In fact, the whole thing sounds like it could have been written 20 or more years ago.

An example, it still talks about correcting false rumours in the next news cycle. Well, as we all know, in the age of social convergence ... that might as well be an eternity ... Truth is, social networks and 24/7 news channels have made news cycles irrelevant ... if they still exist at all.

The most recent and telling example is having the President of the US forced to make a major announcement late on a Sunday night on the killing of Usama Bin Laden, because the news had first broken on Twitter and journalists had picked it up. Normally, a few years ago, the announcement would have been "packaged" and positioned overnight and delivered some time the next day. Does anyone still believe we have the luxury to still think like that or wait three or four hours before we communicate when an incident occurs?

I'll make this statement I've made before ... the news release is dead as an emergency information tool. It's now relegated to the PR component of any emergency management organization's response where you need to "manage" the public perception of your intervention. More on that from a post by my friend Kim Stephens.

The only way to counter falsehood and dispel rumours today is through the use of social media. That means that every EOC or EIC/JIC absolutely need to integrate SM monitoring it its procedures and operations. This document is totally silent on that.

Section 28 is also irrelevant in a world where more and more emergency management organizations realize that SM should now be part of any emergency information channels used at the onset of incidents. In fact, I'd contend that they should be the first such channels used, alongside any mass notification process/tools, because of their capability to offer immediacy in your communications response. As an added bonus, all media organizations now monitor SM platforms for breaking news, especially from government and emergency management agencies.

I keep hearing arguments such as: we need to have policies, we need to study the impact on our IT, we need more money, training and resources. These are all true but while you're doing your pilots, studies and "strategizing" ... the world is passing you by.

It comes down to this (another of my usual pronouncements) ... to be able to "occupy the public space" at the onset of an incident ... you need a sound crisis communications plan that ABSOLUTELY includes the use of social networks as key emergency information channels.

Can't say it much more clearly ...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Google Reader shared items

For the past couple of years, I've been sharing with more and more people, stories and blog posts, tweets and other docs I find interesting.

They cover topics such as emergency management and social media, emergency preparedness, law enforcement and social media, PR and technology, terrorism and CBRNE and other related items.

Here's the tag cloud:


You can access the stuff i pick out from all the feeds I follow here:

You may visit daily or follow me on Reader. You may also email me at and i'll add you to my google reader mailing list.

Another solution is to pick and chose the RSS feeds that interest you.

You can view the feed bundle on the left hand side of the blog.

Hope to hear from you.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Summarizing my thoughts on the integration of social media into EM and BCP.

I was recently invited to speak recently at the Emergency Management Council of the Conference Board of Canada. The meeting had a focus on the impact of SM on EM. It was revealing to me to see how different were the various levels of willingness to integrate SM into EM and BCP practices.

Some were clearly very uncomfortable with volunteers providing (either in person or virtually) services such as crisis mapping or social media monitoring for EOCs. We heard the traditional arguments: training standards, data validation and so on. 

The fact is people want to be informed quickly about incidents and they want to have their say and participate if they're willing to do so.

I do believe that most of the senior EM and BCP people at the meeting realize that we have to catch up with our audiences and use SM ... certainly as an emergency information tool. More and more, this  realization is expanding to include the contribution (crowdsourcing) of volunteers and citizens through social media during an emergency.

A key consensus emerged: every one recognizes the tremendous value of social media as a crisis communications tool. That's the building block for more integration of SM into EM.

Hope you agree with me. 

The end of the news cycle and the impact on crisis communications.

Abbottabad ...who would have thought a little piece of real estate near Pakistan's capital would be the centre of the world's attention?

Yes, that's where Usama Bin Laden met with a well deserved and violent death at the hands of US SOCOM troops. The news broke through Twitter first. A witness was surprised to see so much activity near the Al Queda compound: helicopters flying low, loud bangs and gunfire. What did he do? Call the authorities? (well, maybe he did) What he actually did was tweet about it.

And boy, did it ever snowball quickly. In fact, all sorts of records were set in regards to Twitter use. Usama over Michael Jackson's death and the royal wedding? Apparently so.

You know that the world has changed forever and that old news cycle are dead when the most powerful man in the world (that would be POTUS) has to schedule an impromptu news conference at the White House on a Sunday night at 11 p,m, because the news leaked out on social media a few hours earlier and is now being picked up by traditional media networks.

Gerald Baron's piece on that is pretty interesting.

To me, the ongoing need for constant social media monitoring by organizations (does anyone still doubt you need to monitor SM?) and the absolute necessity to have the ability to respond quickly (by having a sound crisis communications plan), mean that the very concept of crisis communications has evolved.

Again, let me cite Gerald Baron:

I believe that statement makes a lot of sense but I think that what is really happening is that the principles of sound crisis communications planning are now being applied more frequently on an ongoing basis: crisp, short messages that will actual convey the info you want conveyed, messages targeted at specific audiences, pre-identified channels to transmit these messages.

Some offer that the growing impact of social media and expectations from our audiences, have changed even the most fundamental principles of crisis communications. Again, I tend to agree with my friend Jim Garrow. In some ways, we are living through a revolutionary period in how people consume their information and how they PRODUCE information. Often that production will be about a company, a product or a response to an ongoing incident. Are accepted rules being left behind or set aside? Yes. This is scary but also offers a bit more flexibility in your response.

If you examine the current and ever-changing media environment, we quickly realize that it is now imperative for governments, NGOs, large corporations, in fact, any organization, to have the capability to implement its crisis communications plan at any time. We no longer have the luxury of waiting even one or two hours to issue a news release because we have to talk to the CEO or some other executive.

The only solution is to have clear procedures, people trained to apply them and pre-approved messages (message mapping) to get the ball rolling immediately after the first basic verification that an incident has occurred and could threaten your reputation, bottom line or even your very survival.

In a further post, Gerald positions that any organization needs to prioritize communications with 5 to 7 key stakeholders. But really, once  you have the ability to reach them because you have a crisis comms plan in place, you're really in a position to reach a much broader audience too.

Does that make sense?

Are all communicators becoming crisis communicators? Let me know!