Saturday, June 30, 2012

an SMEM reality check

I had the opportunity to be deployed to the site of a structural collapse in Northern Ontario this week to help coordinate emergency information. The outcome was a sad one with to people losing their lives. 

What I want to focus on is the provision of emergency information (EI) and the use of social media in such disasters. You all know I'm a big proponent of crisis communications planning and the use of social networks as EI tools.

This is easy to do from the comfort of my home and office in the Greater Toronto Area ... deployments such as this one though ... bring a needed "reality check" to just how much things have changed on the ground ... in all areas of the province.

Let me be clear here ...What i'm about to discuss is not about Elliot Lake (#elliotlake on Twitter)... or how the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall was handled in terms of communications. These are simply general observations that are important for planning and SMEM considerations:

  1. many organizations still consider the traditional media as their primary conduit to inform the public ...
  2. many still operate on a 24-hour cycle ... with daily news conferences and/or public briefings ... they don't see a need for constant updates in between daily briefings ...
  3. many do not use social media at all to communicate with their audiences 
  4. many do not monitor social networks to identify issues and communications needs/gaps that may exist
  5. many do not have any crisis communications expertise or training 
  6. many smaller communities have no trained Public Information Officers 
  7. many organizations still think that disasters are local and are unaware of the role that people far away can have in shaping the public perception of their actions/response
  8. and, very importantly, many communities still lack the communications infrastructure (bandwith, mobile access) to make full use of SMEM ... 
I could go on but these observations are fairly important in my mind ... we need to ensure that the reality of today's communications/media universe reaches all corners ... 

That's why climbing down from my ivory tower from time to time is a good thing! 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

More on transparency and crisis communications

This is a follow up piece to my recent post on the increasing need for transparency in crisis communications response brought by social convergence.

Now, the New York Times is examining the in-house report of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) who owns/operates the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. Their coverage is very illustrative of how totally inadequate the Japanese government's and TEPCO's own communications response have been (emphasis/bolding is mine):

Over the last year, new details of the disaster have emerged that build a picture of an organization that ignored or concealed that its reactors might be vulnerable to quakes and tsunamis, used its close links with regulators and nuclear experts to hijack nuclear policy and — since the accident — has worked vigilantly to shut out close scrutiny of the ravaged plant’s condition.
The report comes as the government is pushing to restore public confidence in nuclear energy and restart Japan’s reactor fleetCritics were skeptical. “The report is too full of excuses,” said Masako Sawai of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an anti-nuclear policy group.
“If we don’t get to the bottom of this accident, how can we prevent future ones?” she asked.
If you're trying to learn from your mistakes and change things ... ensuring you have the ability to restore public confidence is key ... even better is ensuring you don't lose it in the first place by lying and not disclosing the information people need to stay safe during a disaster. A couple of excerpts from a NYT article of last August makes clear how this loss of confidence permeates everything after (emphasis/bolding is mine):

Given no guidance from Tokyo, town officials led the residents north, believing that winter winds would be blowing south and carrying away any radioactive emissions. For three nights, while hydrogen explosions at four of the reactors spewed radiation into the air, they stayed in a district called Tsushima where the children played outside and some parents used water from a mountain stream to prepare rice.
The winds, in fact, had been blowing directly toward Tsushima — and town officials would learn two months later that a government computer system designed to predict the spread of radioactive releases had been showing just that.
So we see above that government officials did not share information with local officials putting evacuees in danger. That danger proved considerable (emphasis/bolding is mine):

But the forecasts were left unpublicized by bureaucrats in Tokyo, operating in a culture that sought to avoid responsibility and, above all, criticism. Japan’s political leaders at first did not know about the system and later played down the data, apparently fearful of having to significantly enlarge the evacuation zone — and acknowledge the accident’s severity.
“From the 12th to the 15th we were in a location with one of the highest levels of radiation,” said Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of Namie, which is about five miles from the nuclear plant. He and thousands from Namie now live in temporary housing in another town, Nihonmatsu. “We are extremely worried about internal exposure to radiation.
The withholding of information, he said, was akin to “murder.”
In the end it's very simple ... when governments, agencies or other organizations, betray the trust of their constituents, stakeholders, and/or clients's gone forever ....No more so when you're dealing with a topic as sensitive and fraught with misinformation and rumours as is nuclear power.

Parents whose children have been exposed through deceit and incompetence to high level of radiation ... and are now experiencing high levels of stress ... will never forgive or forget ... who can blame them?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Social convergence and the need for transparent crisis comms

As I'm listening on and following the response to an explosion in a hotel in Nashville where the US national sheriff's convention is taking place ...I'm struck by the fact that some people still believe they can hide info or just plain lie to their audiences. (and it's not happening in that case ...I'm using this example to show that anyone can listen in and make their own minds about your operations) 

Social convergence (the alliance of mobile tech/devices and social networks) has pretty much made such attempts at obfuscation, omission or misinformation pretty futile. There are just too many channels where people can obtain and share info to make this a viable/efficient approach.

We're in an era of transparency and openness. Stakeholders (particularly electors) expect their leaders (elected ones especially) to tell it like it is ... That's a key lesson from Fukushima ... minimizing the impact of a disaster in the face of reality and public opinion is totally misguided and can even impede your response. In addition, if it's later shown you were negligent in your planning and preparedness, your credibility is shot ... then why should I trust what you're telling me now?

In one just example of the lack of transparency by government agencies and nuclear operators following the Fukushima event, information was purposefully withheld from the public ...potentially putting Japanese citizens at risk.

U.S. military aircraft gathered radiation data from March 17-19 over a 45-km (28-mile) radius and found that people in an area about 25 km (15 miles) northwest of the plant - where some people were moving - were exposed to the annual permissible level of radiation within eight hours, Japanese media said.
The information was passed to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the science and technology ministry by Japan's Foreign Ministry but neither agency passed it to the prime minister's office, which was overseeing the evacuations.
"It is extremely regrettable that this information was not shared or utilized properly within the government and I have no words to apologize, especially to the disaster victims," Industry MinisterYukio Edano, top government spokesman during the crisis, told a news conference.
What you end up with is a legacy of mistrust and a not-so-slow erosion of confidence in public institutions and governments ... this is a direct attack to the legitimacy of the democratic process. So when new incident occur ... the climb back up to regain public trust is a steep one. Especially when authorities insist the situation is improving and they're contradicted by reports.

Or when despite your claims that you didn't study the impact of a large tsunami, a report emerges that you actually did but that no measures were taken to correct deficiencies.

OK ...that's enough piling on poor TEPCO and Japanese officials ... just shows though that "face saving" is not a viable crisis communications objective. There are few rules more crucial to crisis comms than:

  1. don't lie ...ever ...period 
  2. don't try to hide things ... they will come out ...
  3. don't pass the blame ...admit it if you did wrong and tell us how you're fixing it 
  4. we can take it ...tell us what's going on ... without sugarcoating the issue and we can make informed decisions ...
You ignore any of these rules at your peril ...especially if you're in government because some guy/girl with a strong conscience (and a big pair of brass ones ...) will see it his/her duty to let the truth come out as happened recently in Qu├ębec ... putting the provincial government in an embarrassing situation ... on corruption and the construction industry.

That particular case begs the question: who do civil servants really serve? The public or the government ... 

You can avoid these issues by practicing and embedding transparency and openness in your crisis comms planning and your training. Strike out some people's natural tendency to hide things ... lie and obfuscate ...

Yes, I know ,,, a bit utopic ... but i'm tired of the same old sh*t's high time for our institutions to be fully responsive and accountable to us ... the people who entrust them with our common wealth ...

Monday, June 18, 2012

A few quick lines on Twitter followers

One thing that really annoys me on Twitter is organizations that send you tweets for a product they're launching or promoting and asking YOU to help promote WITHOUT giving you access to the actual service so you can form your own opinion.

That's nothing more than spam and totally a waste of my time. You want me to recommend products, give me access and IF it's good ...I'll give my OK and my opinion ...

This goes along with my own personal Twitter "follow" rules: 

  • I don't automatically follow back people who follow me on Twitter
  • I will follow you back if you provide good content, stimulate discussions and/or retweet info I may not be aware of ...
  • I will follow if I see value in what you're saying ... don't promote inane products, religion or political beliefs
  • I'll follow organizations but I prefer to interact with people ... a good perso twitter profile rocks ! and you can still represent an organization 
  • I'll follow even if you disagree with me on most topics ...IF you provide good rationale behind your thoughts 
  • I won't follow you if you're a Leafs fan ! (just kidding ... well, kind of ...) 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The telling of the disaster story ... a new era

There has been a significant amount of news coverage and traffic on social networks about the wildfires in the western U.S. Just look at some hashtags on Twitter: #utahwildfire and #highparkfire among others.

What has really jumped at me while I'm paying particular attention to this story (as Ontario normally has a very busy fire season in the summer) are the different ways the stories are being told by traditional media outlets and on social networks. What we see happening is a merging of the two.

I think the end result is better coverage. Here's why in my opinion:

  • while the traditional news storytelling usually offers a single "angle" (or point of view ..which is not bias ...) based on the reporters/editors experiences and outlook ... the stories told on social networks look at any incident through a myriad of angles or lenses ... and that's a good thing ...uniformity of opinion can be very detrimental is gathering an exact picture.
  • many traditional news organizations still have "deadline" ...this doesn't exist on social media ... it's continuous process ... which makes real-time crisis mapping such a valuable tool ...
The second key factor is that more and more news outfits are now "crowdsourcing" their news gathering operations. It doesn't matter whether they are major metropolitan newspapers or cable news networks, the trend is evident and unstoppable in an era of smaller journalistic staff and resources.
  • old time news stories often relied heavily on "official sources" ... with limited input from the people directly impacted by a disaster ...whereas social network give everyone a voice ... This is proving so valuable in telling the real, broader story ...that newspaper are doing it themselves.
  • Citizens are reporters ...  and all enterprising news organizations have to do is gather that info ... as seen here. So we have professional news outlets using social storytelling tools (Storify for example).
  • Crowdsourcing is therefore a "force multiplier" for the news business but challenges remain, mainly those dealing with info validation and verification and source attribution.
A third key observation is the use of crisis mapping by news organizations. The examples linked to above are all the results of info shared by people impacted or witnessing events and others analyzing the info and plotting it on a map. 

This easy visualization of the "social element" and the interactive functionality are at the heart of effective crisis mapping. Some key examples here:
A final observation is that with social convergence people can tell their own stories instantly ... edit and broadcast them ...This is not the end of traditional news organization but rather a culmination. 

The closing of a long loop where people get the info that their neighbours, families and friends think is important and relevant ... New business models are being introduced all the time to allow old-style news organizations to survive ... they won't all succeed but some will thrive.

The real question to me is this: if the media is adapting ...why not governments and emergency management agencies? Why is there still some resistance in accepting the wisdom of the crowd? It's changing though, and the wildfires are a good case in point.

We'll get to a truly integrated use of social media in emergency management ... one incident at a time ... the burning issue (pun intended) what will be the threshold event (or events ...) and when will we get there ? 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

It's never too late to do the right thing ... and engage

Some of you may have followed by tribulations with my local transit system (#oakvilletransit) ... I've tweeted often about them and most of it has not been favourable.

I even highlighted their lack of engagement and failure to monitor social media in a previous blog post ... I must now say that this failure has been corrected. Since then, I've been contacted, first by the Town of Oakville (which is now very responsive to tweets from residents) and then by Oakville Transit itself.

That belated engagement culminated today with a real-life meeting with their boss and his chief planner ...I must say I was impressed. They took the time to listen to me ... hear my concerns, showed me how they were being addressed and outlined the challenges they are facing in terms of service improvements and fiscal restraints. 

I got a tour of their very impressive facility (which includes catching rain water and recycling it to wash the buses ... part of their LEED build ...) ... They have a fantastic looking control room with the latest tech (a huge video wall ...GPS technology to track their fleet ... and much more). They'll soon be able to provide real-time info on services to their clients, on mobile devices so passengers know exactly how long they have until the next bus shows at their bus stop ... again, very impressive is their simulator where new drivers are trained:

So, some lessons learned in all this ... first for agencies, governments and private sector organizations:

  1. engage with your audiences ... even those who criticize you's never too late if you can showcase efforts to solve the issues 
  2. it's even better to monitor social networks and engage on an ongoing basis 
  3. you can turn critics into supporters under the right conditions ( I could be one of those!) 
  4. use technology to keep your stakeholders and clients informed on a real-time basis
  5. Don't neglect online critics ... some have resonance on social networks that can really shape public perception for (or, in most cases) against you.(do you have a tool to help you determine when  or not to engage? take a look at this then ... )
For clients/users/critics:
  1. ranting on social media is not enough ... if invited to meet IRL (in real life) do it ... social engagement finds meaningful fruition in concrete relationships 
  2. even one, articulated, influential critic can play a big role in making things change (I can say that modestly my tweets were often cited in my conversations with Oakville Transit as a impetus for change and improvements ...)
  3. you can point out deficiencies about responses and public services ... but ranting and raving won't get you anywhere if you can't offer solutions ... 
Now, good on Oakville Transit for hearing me out ... helping me see the bigger picture about the different pressures they're under to offer this important public service ... will I stop criticizing them if they don't perform ? No.  Will i be less inclined to do so because I know what they face? Perhaps. Will I note their improvements? Certainly ...

This whole episode has again revealed the amplification nature of social media ...whether people are reacting to your response to a disaster or a crisis or commenting on the service you offer ... things are not done in a vacuum anymore ... EVERYONE has an audience and an influence ...