Friday, October 24, 2014

7 questions following the Ottawa shooting ... an incident comms debrief

The events in Ottawa were certainly troubling. I mean, this is Canada for pete's sake! If you add the incident in Québec a couple of days before ... the beginning of a pattern can be seen. I hope I'm wrong but radicalization might be a bigger issue than we first thought. 

As many other poeple, I was thoroughly fascinating by the ongoing incident. As a professional communicator, I paid particular attention to how emergency information was being handled by the key parties involved: the RCMP, the Ottawa Police, the Prime Minister's Office and others.

Seven observations or questions popped up in my mind.

  • When (or even why) should you do on-site media briefing(s) ... to bridge the gap between the almost immediate response online (@ottawapolice was phenomenal) and the more formal news conference (which in this case followed about 4 hours after the event started ... might be considered a tad long) (although it must be said the Ottawa Police PIOs did a very good job talking to individual TV/radio outlets via phone) ... I'm just thinking that a PIO presence onsite ... where reporters were gathered (and often speculating) might have been useful.
  • If you're going to wait a few hours and then decide to have a media conference ... how do you make the decision to just go with statements and not to take questions .. or start a Q and A session when you know you won't be able to answer any of the relevant questions (more than 1 shooter? was it the same person? do you have a name?) All the questions reporters desperately need to beef up their story after four hours or so ... I personally would have gone with short statements ... and told the gathered media ...more briefings would be coming ... establish a schedule and then take questions as more facts become known ...
  • Is four hours too long for a formal statement or media briefing in the age of social convergence when new imperatives guide incident communications? A recent post of mine was made even more relevant by yesterday's events. Fortunately, things went a bit faster when time came to warn employees/staff on the Hill and around Parliament:
At 11 a.m. the Government Operations Centre emailed government employees that "a situation is unfolding that compels all employees to shelter-in-place. For employees' and your own safety, PCO (Privy Council Office) is requesting that employees DO NOT exit their building until further notice and are to wait until they receive further instructions.
  • Another question that came to my mind (and I don't have an answer ...) is how to coordinate info provided by multiple sources (often at the same time) through social networks (mostly Twitter) ? Could lead to confusion ... but that's why joint exercises including validation of your social media protocols ... 
  • Another key question ... social networks (and the fact that everyone with a smartphone and a twitter account is now a reporter) make next-of-kin notification a nightmare for police services. Especially when senior officials break the news of a death ... before any official law enforcement forces do ...It's a bad thing when politicians get involved ... or jump the gun
Condolences to family of the soldier killed, & prayers for the Parliamentary guard wounded. Canada will not be terrorized or intimidated.
  • Another question: how to curb the enthusiasm of witnesses who share info on police operations, dispositions, show pictures or videos ... perhaps compromising the response of law enforcement and operational security?

 Ottawa Police retweeted · Oct 22Members of the public are asked not to post videos or photos of the on-going incident to ensure safety of first responders and the public
          While at the same time ... encouraging witnesses to come forward ... with pictures and videos ... 

Anyone who has pics or videos of the sequence of events, surrounding today's shootings send to police at this link
  • Finally, there was a veritable deluge of tweets and posts while all this was going on. Tweetdeck, Geofeedia and Hootsuite proved useful. 

Every time something like this happens, I learn more about how to properly conduct a real-time social listening operation: running a geo-fenced searched updated constantly, finding the right hashtag/keywords to monitor, determining who the credible and prolific sources are, dealing with retweets, etc... it may be difficult but IT MUST BE DONE!

In addition, there is only one real lesson in the events on Wednesday: it'll take more than one crackpot with a gun to shake the confidence of a nation.

Media preview

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola ... a crisis communications primer.

It's absolutely fascinating to see how "fearbola" is gripping North America. In both Canada and the US, the divide between actual risk and the public's perception is of, well, continental proportion. Just look at this piece (actually scary ..) to judge for yourself.

But why is that? More people have died from the EV68 outbreak ... ICUs in many hospitals are overwhelmed with mostly kids affected by the particular virus ... and meanwhile, the media and the public is left in a state of high anxiety from fear of a disease that has much chance of spanning the next pandemic as I have of singing Il Paliacci at the Metropolitan Opera. 

Just think, thousands of people are going to die from the flu this winter ... and yet, no panic about that ... a sense of perspective is largely absent from the public debate.

So how can organizations bridge the gap? How can they conduct effective risk and crisis communications related to the ebola scare?

I'd humbly suggest that the answer lays in three main areas: 

  1. occupying the public space effectively
  2. addressing key concerns
  3. monitoring social networks and engaging
These three areas apply to all types of organizations trying to combat "fearbola":
  • hospitals
  • public health agencies
  • governments and emergency management agencies
For hospitals, the goals should be to: 
  • showcase preparedness ... demonstrate a solid front (involving doctors, nursing and other staff ... not an easy task because of labour relations/occupational safety issues) ... here's how one hospital did it in Canada ... small hospitals, those in smaller towns like Brockville or on Martha's Vineyard are usually pretty well connected to their community, so that engagement might come more easily.  But larger ones can still be successful: a hospital (Sibley Memorial in Washington DC) is using its Youtube channel to showcase it's preparations and how staff are protected:
  • have a public face ... someone to help audiences connect with ... doesn't have to be the CEO or president ... but maybe a respected virologist .. or a nurse ... or a combination ... ( a good question to ask: who's got the most solid "trust capital"?especially online ) it's critical because tough questions are being asked:

  • Be ready to respond to communications issues ... that means being prepared with the right crisis comms planning ... because if you're not ... and things go bad operationally and then on a comms perspective ... you might have to hire a PR agency ... and that could become a story in itself ... just ask the hospital executives in Dallas ...
  • And as important as anything else ... engage with your employees ... internal communications are a make or break aspect of your efforts ... there will be dissent (especially in an unionized environment ) but everyone in your organization should be aware of the strategic goals and some basic messages.

For public health agencies, the focus should be on: 

For government and emergency management agencies, the priorities should include:
  • reinforcing the message about preparedness ... from healthcare, public health and even from a broader perspective. This should be done at the municipal level .... at the state or provincial level ... and by federal governments in Canada and the US (and whether your appoint an "ebola czar" or not ...) ... that's very important, especially when dissenting voices arise (see this from Canadian nurses orgs)
  • using all government channels to amplify public health messaging 
  • monitoring social networks to identify gaps in the crisis comms and rumour management response
In other words, in the current "fearbola" outbreak ... focus should be on eradicating that particular form of mass hysteria.

Doing other things that differ from these key priorities might actually be detrimental. Experts might tell us that the public worry is over the top, but comms professionals cannot let anything get in the way of dispelling rumours and addressing the concerns of Canadians and Americans.

I just pray that Ebola does NOT turn out to be airborne ! (then a wholesale message reset will become necessary ...) 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hardware stores and Ebola

Yesterday, i helped organize a media event in our national capital. The location was a kind of mom-and-pop hardware store in a trendy part of Ottawa. Far from the suburbs and their imposing and shiny big box stores like Home Depot or Lowe's ... 

However, on this tranquil Tuesday morning, there were lots of people that came in off the streets in the couple of hours I helped set up the news conference. This got me thinking.

I focus a lot of my attention on social convergence ... the marriage of social networks and mobile technology. Hey, don't get me wrong! I still believe it's changed how people need to communicate during crises and how agencies need to manage emergencies. 

What i was thinking yesterday though, is that the old ways still have value. The old human approach ... interacting with people who know their stuff ... 

So if the "big box" types like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are the new shinning tools in the EM tool box ... they might unfortunately take some luster off of some proven techniques.  In the current Ebola scare in the US and the rest of the western world, social networks are playing a big role in the spread of misinformation and the countering info put out by official agencies. 

And that's great! To combat rumours ,,,one needs to be on the very platform where they are being spread. The trick though is to not leave anyone behind and that's where the older approaches might present real value.

Think of the mom-and-pop store quality of brochures ... especially printed in various languages ... languages spoken by at-risk segments of the population ... the same applies to radio PSAs. 

Moreover, going door-to-door, chatting with people to calm their fears will often have the impact of a thousand tweets. The same goes with town hall meetings and group interactions focused on the community. 

Are they risky? Yes. All things can happen at those but good public health communicators and emergency managers shouldn't be afraid of a debate with the people they serve. 

So, yeah, I believe in socially convergent methods ... but I've said in many presentations and seminars ... the old adage still carries weight: all channels, all audiences ... 

It's just that SM allows for fast interactions in a world moving at the speed of the Twitter news ticker ... but even sprinters sometimes like to just stroll and take in the scenery. 

So big box or mom-and-pop, all destinations can serve a purpose ... a good thing to remember when thinking about risk and crisis communications.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ebola: making the case for operational social media listening in a crisis/incident

I've written in the past about the importance of social media monitoring or listening during crises. It's something that key organizations across the globe are learning every day. In many instances, public health agencies lead the way. That's the case with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. I had the opportunity to take part in implementing a great social media monitoring training program for them.

The need for social listening is made all the more relevant now that Ebola has reached our shores

So, let's look at the five reasons why agencies need to monitor social media in the context of this deadly outbreak.

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The first reason: validate emergency info ... and identifying key "voices" that can amplify/reinforce your messaging. The first part is finding out if the behaviours you're suggesting (isolation, quarantine, proper care of patients/deceased) are being followed. 

Finding out is key ... people will share their fears and how they intend to either abide by or disregard the advice/orders of public health officials ... This tweet might be relevant: 

ALERT: Children living in the apartment with Infected Ebola Patient Thomas Duncan broke and attended school today.

ebola on social media - the influencersThe second part of the first reason is also very important ... finding "social allies" ... reputable sources that will either reinforce/validate your own messaging or amplify it: 

The second reason why you should conduct a social listening operation is detecting rumours and false information that could put public health/safety at risk. And we know for a fact that fear is rampant in Western Africa and now in Texas,

It's hard to counter an online rumour if you're not even listening ... 

And to be effective in countering rumours ... you have to be active on the very same platforms where they are being spread. 

That's something the CDC in the US is very good at ...In fact, they have been a sterling example of what to do right in communicating strong info and fighting rumors at the same time.

The third reason why you need to listen to social networks during an emergency or crisis is to detect calls for help/assistance that will come through these channels. We saw that during Hurricane Sandy and many other disasters ...people will use mobile devices and social networks to call for help ... 

How are you prepared to detect these calls and route them through the appropriate people/organizations? 

The fourth reason any organization needs to conduct a sound social listening operation is to identify early reputational threats that could jeopardize your ability to respond to the ongoing situation. There are influential people out there who may not share your views and be very active in undermining your efforts ... either on purpose or just because they are misinformed (Say Hello Donald Trump ) ... 

Finally, the fifth and final reason to monitor social networks is to enhance your situational awareness ... social data offers a lot to help better your comprehension of how an incident evolves and the consequences that follow.

Data that combines social and mobile (social convergence) can offer much in the comprehension of population movement during outbreaks for example: 

It's not all roses though ... some doubt remain about validating "big data" and finding the best way to present the info in such a manner that it supports efficient decision making. However, in place like Africa where mobile prevails ... the available info can be very valuable and bring the seriousness of the problem/outbreak home in a very real way.