Assuming Social Media Lives Only in the JIC is Naive

So, to be completely honest, I’m a bit disappointed in you all. There were some major holes in last week’s post, and no one called me put on them. For shame!

Assuming outgoing messages will be disseminated solely by the PIO or JIC is naive at best and ostrich-like (H/T Jonathan Bernstein) at worst. Large responses can be peopled by dozens, hundreds, or thousands of responders. Do you really think that none of them has a smartphone with Facebook loaded on it?

So, let’s start there. Obviously some social media posts should be verboten. Images of survivors (or worse, victims), posts questioning the response operations, and information leaks (read: disclosing confidential information about the situation or response) are, in my mind, cause for release from the scene. Beyond that is the gray area.

What should be done about responders who are not within the JIC but are still posting messages that either echo or support the JICs message, or more fuzzily, that support the operation, but aren’t part of the JIC messaging. Consider operational staff who tweet about 9th Street being closed because it’s the primary route from the staging area to the scene, or remind their Facebook friends that the water isn’t safe to drink and should be boiled, or retweeting your official messages. Would you dismiss those folks? I’m not sure.

And what about all of those social media policies that the experts are telling us to develop? How do these figure into things? Consider a multi-agency response with partners as varied as the Red Cross, which has a great and liberal social media policy, and your typical municipal government, which has either no social media policy or a very restrictive policy. Does whoever get placed into the Incident Commander position get to trump established practices within those other agencies that are contributing to the response? I’m guessing yes, but shouldn’t that be worked out beforehand? Before some poor Red Crosser starts posting away and gets smacked down by the IC?

For some of our private sector readers, think about a situation where your company sub-contracts out parts of the crisis response. The stakes are just as high, and certain bells can’t be unrung. If your sub-contractor hasn’t developed their social media policies yet, and their employees feel free to tweet away, and then one of them posts something like, “OMG, you wouldn’t believe how disgusting this plant is, rat [feces] EVERYWHERE! I’m never eating at [your company’s name] again!!!” It’s easy to take that person off the job, and maybe you can terminate the contract, but with one tweet, your whole crisis communication plans are down the tube.

The final piece of the puzzle is what to do in some of the above situations. I mentioned removing someone from a response, but (and I’m asking some of our seasoned responders here) how easy is that? Barring that, could you forbid someone from using their smartphone (assuming they’re critical to the response)?

Furthermore, now that you’ve got to clean up the mess, does your PIO actively address the situation by mentioning that a responder was involved? I know your first thought is that they shouldn’t, but given that your rogue tweeter has probably identified that they are on-scene, it might be impossible not to say they’re attached to the response.

Now it’s your turn. What did I miss? What else can go mind-boggling wrong with social media during a response effort?

Via It’s Not My Emergency: The Chief Blogs

Here We Go…

Posted: January 23rd, 2011 | Author: chiefb2 | Filed under: Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

The term above is something I tend to say to myself when I roll into someone’s bad situation.  I use it here because this is my first foray into the blog world, and may be creating my own bad situation!  Only time will tell.  My intent is to use this forum as a way to share my perspective on various aspects of emergency management and response, with a focus on the rapidly changing world of social media and how it is changing the rules for us emergency manager types.   For the record, I am a emergency response professional with 28 years in the fire service. I’ve been a firefighter, paramedic, fire captain, PIO, chief officer and incident commander for a regional all hazards IMT.  My posts reflect my personal views and not those of my employer (gotta have the disclaimer!).  We’ll see how it goes.

The blogosphere got a bit richer in the last week or so. Chief Bill Boyd of social media and emergency management fame has started blogging. He’s got more experience in emergency management and public information than I can shake a stick at so I, for one, am looking forward to learning more from him.

Via Mitigation Journal: NIMS is dead

NIMS is dead…you still have to take the classes and jump through the hoops…but the practice is dead. Few if any local governments or response agencies are truly NIMS compliant and the NIMS CAST has become just another checklist – to “say” we’ve done it. In reality our practice of NIMS under the National Response Framework is no better off at improving on-scene coordination and interoperability than twenty years ago.

Sometimes I worry that I go too much for shock value when I title posts around here. Rick Russotti said the above in a recent editorial. Rick is an emergency responder badass and he says that NIMS is dead, so I figure that so long as I title things a smidge below Rick’s level, I should be okay.

Beyond that, the full post is an interesting argument about the hoops we all jump through.

A Modest Proposal on How to Integrate Social Media Outreach Into Emergency Response

As part of our ongoing series on the role of public information within the Incident Command Structure, it’s become increasingly apparent that social media is a big driver of the need for change or updating (read: not the only driver, though). To that end, I’d like to address this idea of social media in emergency response.

First, there are LOTS of amazingly talented and intelligent people out there screaming from the rooftops that social media needs to be included as part of emergency preparedness and response. If you haven’t yet heard one of these folks, there’s a great list of them here. And the astute amongst you will see Craig Fugate, FEMA Administrator, about halfway down that list. If you’re not sure about the need for social media as a component of response, check out these folks Twitter feeds; reach out to them. Passionate doesn’t begin to describe how they feel.

I start these posts with the mindset that you, the reader, understand the utility of social media during an emergency response, and understand that social media will be a large part of the public’s reaction to the emergency.

Originally, this post looked at the problems associated with both outgoing social media messages and incoming social media messages, but not having reached resolution after several hundred words has lead me to separate the two. Therefore, today is a post on outgoing, with an upcoming post on incoming.

If you think of social media as another communication tool, outgoing messages should be controlled by the PIO. Written in the the JIC, approved by the IC and released as the official word of the response. Just like a press release. Well, not really. How many versions does a press release go through? How many versions should a Facebook post go through?

And this is where it gets tricky. Communications out of the JIC comprise the official voice of the response and anything less than perfect is, frankly, unacceptable. But then you think about the worst case scenario from my last post—twelve hours to get a release approved and, by the time it’s actually released, the information contained within is out of date.

That’s obviously the worst case scenario, and should never have happened, but think about the timeframe we’re working with. The media can be sated for an hour while you get a release together and approved. Do you think that Joe@Philly, on the internet, can be sated for an hour? Or will he take that hour and post hundreds of inflammatory, incorrect, libelous messages on every social media network that he can register for?

I’m guessing that probably the latter of the two is more likely.

So, how should we reconcile the two? Speed versus… Well, accuracy is the wrong term, because quick statements are not necessarily wrong. Speed versus approval. Speed versus coordination.

When it’s written like that I know where I stand. Our CERC motto is be first, be credible, be right. Nothing in there about proper approvals or coordinated messaging. It’s in the response’s best interest, though, to make sure that your Assistant PIOs aren’t going off half-cocked and releasing unapproved messages. That worry, though, still doesn’t preclude a response from releasing messages quickly, or using social media. If you’ve got someone releasing unapproved messages by phone, by Twitter, by personal contact, you take them off the response; a leak is a leak.

The problem is that messages take too long to approve. Factual information is collected, vetted, passed to the PIOs, incorporated into messages, the messages are approved and then released. I argue that we should aim to take one of these steps out of the process. I suggest the approval step.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, what did he say? Yep, I said it. I think that ICs should no longer approve messages before they’re distributed.

Instead, the IC should approve two other things: the PIO (or spokesperson) and the facts. These are the facts of the situation as we know and can confirm them, and I trust you to craft appropriate messages based upon those facts. Done. At that point, there is no need to have the IC read every little tweet and Facebook post and press release. They can then focus on managing the response (which is what they’re good at and why they’ve been put in charge), instead of micromanaging what the PIO is good at and why she’s been put in charge of public information.

I agree, it’s a pretty radical idea that diverts strongly from the established practices within ICS, but I think it manages to preserve the overall spirit of the system while allowing public information to flow in a manner appropriate to today’s media environment.

ESF 15 and the Rise of Social Media

I’ve learned a lot from our discussions on public information in ICS and, in my eyes, most of it boils down to two basic questions. First, what is the difference between emergency public information (and risk communication) and external affairs; and second, who has responsibility for social media within a response structure. Both are enormous topics, so I’d like to address them separately. I’ll talk about the former today, and have a post on the latter soon. And please understand, I do not represent the final word in their of these topics. I look to you, my much more expert readers, to advance the discussion.

The meshing of external affairs and emergency information has always baffled me. Maybe it’s my background in public health, but I’ve always viewed public information, especially in an emergency, as a form of risk communication. Dr. Sandman calls this crisis communication. There is a danger, these are the facts about the situation, and here’s what you can do to minimize your risk. That’s it. If that’s not risk communication, then I don’t know what is.

External affairs is an attempt to consolidate all messaging and communication under one roof, so to speak. Which makes sense on some levels. By coordinating one’s messaging, one assures that no one is left out of the loop and that all stakeholders are taken care of. By stakeholders I mean everyone. Consider this list of audiences represented in the following passage of the ESF 15 Standing Operating Procedures, published in August 2009:

9.0 External Affairs Components

9.1 Joint Information Center activities ensure the coordinated and timely release of incident-related prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation information to the public. ESF #15 provides the interagency coordination mechanisms and resource support for Federal JIC activities.

9.2 Community Relations program provides the vital information link between the DHS, FEMA, the State and local communities, and those affected by disasters.

9.3 Congressional Affairs provides information to the Washington, D.C., and district offices of members of congress. It addresses incident-related questions, concerns, and problems expressed by their constituents.

9.4 Intergovernmental (State, Local, Territorial, and Tribal) Affairs incorporates State, local, territorial, and tribal coordination to assist the FCO and JFO with direct communications interaction and outreach to public and elected officials. Tribal Affairs provides procedures to facilitate incident management programs and resources available to tribal governments to assist them in protecting their families, community livelihood, and cultural and environmental resources.

9.5 Private Sector coordination assists the FCO and JFO with communications involving counterparts in the non-governmental and commercial areas.

9.6 Planning and Products develops all external and internal communications strategies and products for the ESF #15 organization and components. This includes recognition of the need for specialized communications procedures to cover language and special needs.

See what I mean? Everyone is represented, though obviously not equally.

The difference lies in the goals of each. Emergency public information is intended to reduce the risk of harm in a population in response to an event. External affairs is intended to coordinate messaging. Let’s look at what that entails.

Emergency risk communication tells what’s going on as soon as the situation is confirmed. As soon as guidance about ways to avoid harm are identified they are released, in full. Sexually transmitted diseases are a great example of this. Many people don’t like the idea of pushing condoms at high school students, but that’s what works, so risk communicators walk around with pockets full of condoms. An emergency public information example is the new, “if you don’t evacuate, you will die,” message. Implicit in that message is the idea that someones town or community is (or will very shortly be) a deathtrap. It’s not pretty, and you won’t make any friends, but it’s the information people need to hear to avoid harm. Another core idea of emergency risk communication is the use of all avenues of communication. Social marketers are great in this world, because they understand that audiences are segmented, and single media approaches tend to not reach everyone.

Coordinated messaging, like is done in external affairs operations, does do emergency risk communication. Component 9.1 above confirms that. It is a core function, but it is only one core function. And as we saw in Gerald Baron’s case study of communications during the Deepwater Horizon response, Unending Flow, as the ESF 15 structure was placed over the Unified Command’s JIC, increasingly messaging was being coordinated by the White House. Does it sound like Component 9.3 had some say in what was released? It’s entirely feasible (though I know of no situation where this has happened), that a member of Congress or other government agency could hold, tweak or selectively release emergency risk communication message, or provide information to favored media outlets (in this situation, I’m thinking less CNN vs. Fox News than online social media vs. mass national media press conference) to suit goals that are not in the public’s best interest. The message becomes that no longer is a Congressional district a deathtrap, even when it very well may be.

Now imagine all of those Assistant External Affairs Officers in the soup, all contributing or asking for updates. In the Unending Flow case study, it was identified that there was up to six levels of approval for messages when ESF 15 was instituted, as opposed to three and fewer in the JIC system. Now think about the speed of social media. Gerald Baron’s case study gives us the amazing story of a citizen watching the live video feed submitting a note that the flow had increased unexpectedly. The response could not get an approved message on that for nearly 12 hours. By that time, the increased flow was fixed.

So, am I arguing wholesale against ESF 15? No. I think that it serves a fine purpose, and responses utilizing ESF 15 structures are peopled with top-of-the-line folks who only want to help. But I’m me. And I work at the local level, in one of the riskiest businesses out there. In my eyes, nothing should come before full and immediate disclosure of critical, life-saving information. And even putting aside Mr. Baron’s point of view, the fact that Congressional representatives from the affected areas get as many AEAOs as the public at large (the Community Relations component) is worrisome. It shows to me that a balance is being struck (and maybe my not seeing how that is important is just me being naive) between emergency information and “other concerns.”

So, getting back to the topic at hand, one has to wonder if the current DHS thrust toward collapsing the public information part of response with the liaison part of response doesn’t ultimately harm the call for emergency public information dissemination using the quickest and most direct medium—that of social media?