Thursday, January 17, 2013

What will matter to crisis communicators in 2013

Just a few days ago, I wrote about key factors that will have an impact on the professional lives of emergency managers this year.  If I had to add one more, the sixth factor would be a pandemic type of emergency (flu shot anyone ?).

But now, I'd like to take a look at some of the issues that come up more and more frequently in dealing with the communications aspects of any crisis or emergency. Again, these are all linked together by the changes brought about by social convergence.

The first is the ability to put in place a solid social media listening operation. This is not as difficult as it may seem. A lot of attention has been directed at sophisticated operations and set ups. The American Red Cross, Dell, the recent Consumer Electronics Show, and others, have superb operations in nice, well-equipped centres. 

You can do it as well ... on a smaller scale ... one that fits your needs. The first thing is to take the time to do it in routine situations ... a part of your normal day at work. 

Doing it daily, combing through a RSS feed, monitoring Twitter regularly, adds to your business intel acumen and positions you well when you need to ramp up when a reputational threat is detected. Here's how you can go about this.

Melissa Agnes, a respected crisis communications professional, provides many insights on monitoring social media.

Having an ongoing social media monitoring activity will help you stay abreast of developments in your fields and may give you a chance to detect crises BEFORE they happen.

The second issue that will present itself to crisis communicators in 2013 is to ensure that their plans are "socially convergent".  This means ensuring that you're relevant in your response to a crisis and reaching the right audiences. 

Social convergence is the combination of social networks and mobile technologies. You use it or run the risk of being ignored.

Being "socially convergent" in your crisis communications response gives you the ability to act with speed. Not hurriedly, but a practiced fast execution.

Also, does your plan identify the traditional/legacy media as your primary audience or distribution channel? If so, that's a failure point.

A key failure point that is still quite common is the belief that organizations can still "control the message". That's a relic of a bygone era of the news cycle and cozy relationships with professional journalists who could "sit" on a story if they were given something in return. 

How does that work in a world where news breaks on Twitter and Youtube ... where citizens are reporters and the news cycle is NOW ... 24/7 ?

The third issue that could haunt some PR and crisis comms pro this year is "brandjacking" or people pretending to be YOU and engaging with your constituency.  This can happen in a variety of ways: 

Although all these can bring devastating consequences. You can help prevent these social disasters and recover from them. My good friend Jim Garrow even says such events and other social media gaffes are "survivable" ... But in some cases, you need to hit the "reset" button ... Just ask General Mills.

The fourth issue will be for crisis communicators to find the right tone and the right opportunities to defend against reputational threats. 

We have the chance to observe an ongoing case study in crisis communications these days. The US National Rifle Association (NRA) continues to defy logic and every single rule of crisis comms. They have chosen to play for their own audience and damn everyone else who doesn't agree with them

Screen shot from NRA online add using Obama's children
It works only if you really don't care what your competition thinks ...if you believe your constituency will follow you in a cult-like manner ... but for most, it's a surefire recipe for disaster and, eventually, their own demise. 

Crises come and go in an instant (in an Instagram ??? ), adopting the right tone and the right moment to launch an counter-offensive and defend your reputation is critical. This begins with knowing your audience, their needs, their perceptions and worries.

Finding the right tone is important. Communicating during a crisis cannot always be about doom and gloom. Humour, used parsimoniously and with some tact, can go a long way in making your audiences see the proverbial silver lining.  This was the case with Newark's Mayor Corey Booker in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Accompanied by solid, personal engagement on social networks, this humanizes your response.  What doesn't work ... is trying to benefit from the discomfort or misfortunes of others.

More often, a crisis calls for a somber response, particularly if your spokesperson has to do media briefings under the glare of dozens of cameras. Very few people can do that with grace. In the recent school shooting in Connecticut, the State Police could count on the presence of such a pro and it made a difference. Finding the right person for the job is a challenge in itself. 

In many cases, the CEO or President is not the guy/gal ... One tip, you don't walk off during an interview ... well, in most cases ... Some news conference tips here.

In the end, it's fairly simple ... your credibility depends on your ability to detect issues, engage with the right audience by using the right channels and tone. Nothing beats being trusted ... people will actually come to your defense when your organization is attacked.

Remember that social media should be part of an array of tools used to respond to reputational threats and crises. The people handling that aspect of your response need to be included in your planning and your posture on social networks needs to be integrated in your overall outreach.
Finally, being socially convergent is absolutely necessary. Simple fact is that people don't need you at all to make their own impression. They get their info from many sources ... base their perceptions from their online networks ... ignore that and you won't like the results ...

Friday, January 11, 2013

Five key factors that will impact emergency management this year

 I've spent the last few weeks looking back 2012 and some of the key moments for social media in emergency management. Now, I'd like to set sights on what may lay ahead this year.

Early last year, I took a look at some geo-politic and geo-strategic impacts on EM,  I'm not going to delve in as deeply now but for a full look at some of the risks ahead ... see this link from the World Economic Forum.

While I was reflecting on the material for this post, I realized that the five key factors I believe will greatly impact emergency management in 2013 are related (some more closely than others ...).

To me, the single most important phenomenon impacting our planet today and having a big disruptive impact on our communities and on emergency managers, is climate change. I don't care if you believe it's human caused or not ...
Escaping the flames: The family's pet dog Polly sought safety on the jetty as the family huddled together in the waterDivine intervention: A building burns near the jetty. The family credits God with their survival from the fire that destroyed around 90 homes in their town of Dunalley as the country was hit with record temperatures

Fact is, it's real and the consequences are felt globally:
  • The current bushfires in Australia are just one example (see above ...). In fact, it's so unusually hot that the meteorologists have had to make changes to their maps
  • We've also see powerful cyclones and hurricanes, Superstorm Sandy.
  • What we see are more frequent and more severe previously thought as "freakish" weather events around the world and in the US and Canada.
2012 National Events Map

In 2012, the contiguous United States (CONUS) average annual temperature of 55.3°F was3.2°F above the 20th century average, and was the warmest year in the 1895-2012 period of record for the nation.
  • What does this mean for emergency managers? We'll deal with more frequent large, devastating wildfires/forest fires such as the one that burned in the Western US and Northeastern Ontario last summer.
  • As we now face 100-year storms almost every season, how do we cope as emergency managers? 
  • As climate changes and opens up new routes for commerce (like in the Arctic), how do we follow with increased emergency management and search and rescue capabilities?
  • And on a much broader scale, think of the impact on critical infrastructure caused by rising sea levels? 

As we face more large scale events, many of us must deal with diminishing resources and smaller budgets to keep up emergency management programs. While our public expects us to do more (just think of the new demands brought by social media and crowdsourcing ...), we must do so with less. 

The third key factor that will impact emergency managers on a global scale will be the growing scarcity of water and food supplies. This is not just something that should concern people in Africa or Central Asia. North Americans should also be very aware of what lurks ahead. It's a planetary issue.

Lower Mississippi 2012 (many dry areas)
Lower Mississippi 2011 (river wider with floods
The fourth factor that could very well bring about large headaches for emergency managers is a wholesale collapse of our financial system. Although it seems, we're slowly recovering from the crisis that started in 2008, many believe the worse is still to come.
  • Somebody who's accurately predicted socioeconomic upheaval in the past is saying a "great depression" is on the horizon. No matter what you think of Gerard Celente, the prospect is a scary one:

  • The growing inequality between the "haves" and the "have nots" is a sure sign of trouble brewing on the horizon. The activities we saw in the last 18 months by the Occupy Movement would pale in comparison with what would happen if a new "great depression" occurs (and many believe it will come with the collapse of the financial system).
  • Some commentators on the "fringe" side of things, see a concerning situation. Others, perhaps a bit more levelheaded, still see a need for preparedness.
  • So what does this mean for emergency management? How about social unrest, no budget, no staff, shortage of emergency personnel and a general distrust of government. How effectively could we deal with incidents and disasters then? 
The fifth factor that could greatly disrupt the "peaceful" existence of emergency managers in 2013 is the specter of large-scale terror attacks. Have we been lulled into a false sentiment of security since there have been no large attacks on our shores since 9-11? Is this about to change?
"That’s our whole goal here: to show you can cause physical damage or change in a city environment entirely using computers."

Now, my hope is that I'm totally wrong and none of these five factors really disrupt our personal and professional lives this year. But wishful thinking just won't do. We must adapt our preparedness and capabilities to face new realities. That's why I'm such a believer in social convergence (social networks and mobile technologies) that foster community resilience and the crowdsourcing of response and recovery efforts.

Friday, January 4, 2013

At the top of the list: Superstorm Sandy

Sandy Crisis Map

Was there ever any doubt? Superstorm/Hurricane Sandy ushered in the era of "socially convergent" emergency management. Because of where it happened, how the disaster unfolded and how impacted populations reacted, the storm left a lasting social, economic and policy impact.

I've written about the before Sandy and after Sandy eras, so I won't go into particulars again except to say that crowdsourcing, crisis mapping and other expressions of the empowerment of volunteers and citizens, have forever changed how authorities will respond to large-scale incidents/disasters.

Governments and agencies, at all levels, must now realize that new players have a seat at the table when emergencies occur and that they need to put in place policies that will facilitate the expression of people/volunteer power.  In a era of fiscal constraints, where response resources are more limited and stretched than ever before, the "force multiplier" effects of social media cannot be ignored. 

The behaviours have been there for thousands of years. When something bad happened, the ancient Greeks met at the agora, the Romans at the public square, then a few centuries later, at the church or maybe a pub ! We like to talk about what's occurred it's impacted us ... what we have witnessed .. and how we can help ... Now more and more, this happens online, on social networks. It's an added boost to community resilience and recovery.

So, we don't have a choice. We must bridge the gap between our citizens' expectations and our capabilities/policies. Some organizations are already well along that path of helping residents help themselves. Superstorm Sandy brought that realization to most emergency management agencies and governments. The old ways are gone ... people no longer simply want to be victims or witnesses ... they want, and they will, take part in some form or another.

We use that power to enhance our collective efforts ... or we ignore it and slowly become irrelevant as citizens and communities bypass official channels in favour of their own networks, implement their own initiatives and rebuild along a more distributed process that focuses on local, crowdbased and cloudbased solutions more adapted to their needs.

It's my opinion that Superstorm Sandy ignited this whole debate and that's why it sits atop my list of top SMEM events of 2012. 

The whole list: 

Series introduction (Dec. 5,m 2012)
#10: the Israel-Hamas War (Dec. 9, 2012)
#9: the wildfires in the western US (Dec. 12, 2012)
#8: the SMEMTO conference (Dec. 16, 2012)
#7: the lauch of FEMA's SMEM course (Dec. 17, 2012)
#1: Superstorm Sandy ushers in a new era for emergency managers (Jan. 4, 2012)