Say, What’s In That Plan Anyways

Okay, I’ll admit it, I rubberneck. You know what that is, right? Can’t
take your eyes off an accident? The term comes from people who crane
their necks around while driving their car to see an accident pulled
off to the side of the road. Invariably, they drive slower and cause
much of the traffic backup associated with minor accidents.

Now, you admit it, too. You’re a rubbernecker. Maybe you don’t gawk at
crash scenes or flashing lights, but who among you said,
“Representative Weiner is a jerk and a liar, and his lack of a guiding
crisis voice makes this something that doesn’t really affect me?” And
then stopped watching? Almost none of you, right? I watched, and I
knew almost right away that it was such a poor effort on his part that
it wouldn’t even make good blog fodder.

So, why bring it up, you ask. Because the reason that situation would
make for a poor blog post is because it mirrors seemingly every other
PR crisis out there. No plan, no forethought, no common sense, and a
complete lack of understanding about how crisis communications works
today. Think back at all of the big public immolations this year and,
at their root, weren’t those the reasons why the situation invariably
went from bad to worse?

We online “cluckers” (we cluck at others’ misfortune and shake our
heads solemnly at the afflicted’s bad fortune and foresight) do our
thing and move on when the train wreck is out of the news. “Shoulda
known better.” And then back to our day-to-day.

Wouldn’t it be more productive to instead take the opportunity to
insulate yourself, your agency and your clients against such a thing
happening to you? In fact, I’d bet that Rep. Weiner’s communications
director probably did the same thing we did after TEPCO or Deepwater.
He or she clucked and shook her head and did nothing to make sure that
didn’t happen to them. Why? Because they had a plan. Just like you and
I have a plan. And it’s good. You know because you wrote it yourself
back in ‘97. Just like Representative Weiner’s office did, and TEPCO
did, and everyone else who’s been the subject of our rubbernecking.

With that in mind, I’d like to point out this great
post

on Bill Salvin’s blog, View From the
Bridge
. In it, he implores you to
review your crisis communications plan—now. He purports to have seen
plans that list executives’ pager numbers, and fax numbers as
dissemination modalities. Does this sort of thing sound like your
plan? Do you think it sounds like Rep. Weiner’s kind of plan?

Bill gives us three great things to help start the process:

  • Check your notification procedures: Is there anyone on the list that no longer works there? Be sure to test some of the phone numbers.

  • Check scenario assumptions: Let your imagination run wild and test the plan’s assumptions against the most horrific scenario you can imagine.

  • Confirm integration with external agencies: Are the right external agencies included in your plan? Have they seen your plan? Have you seen their plan?

The most important thing is to take the plan off the shelf (dust it
off) and read it. Then do it again in six months or a year. I like to
tie reviews to specific calendars, so it’s easier to remember, rather
than the crazy vague “annually.” Its almost the end of the government
fiscal year. If you live by that schedule, now is a great time to get
ready for the next year. Or do it by the calendar year (that week in
between Christmas and New Year’s is always so quiet anyways). Or even
your birthday!

Just do it now, and get on a real schedule of keeping it updated. Help
keep us rubberneckers from gawking.

The Strength of Community

With the recent insane-o weather, the number of heart-wrenching stories (both good and, unfortunately, bad) out there is amazing. My heart goes out to each and every person touched by the recent tornadoes and floods. There may not be anything to be learned from these stories, but there is always something to make us appreciate what we’ve got and hug a loved one tighter that evening.

That instinct to be near to people when faced with catastrophe is natural, and healthy (when the opposite occurs too strongly, it might be time for someone to talk with). We are social animals, after all. As social media has become an inseparable part of many of our lives, the need for community persists. In a bathroom, in a basement, after everything is okay, when things aren’t okay. We can now take that community with us, on a smartphone hugged under mattresses in a bathtub.

This story from a BlogHer author touched me, and made me think of our role as information providers. We like to think that it is our job to give the facts, but sometimes, it’s also our job to tell people it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling. To be emotional and express relief at good news. To be human. To be a part of the community.

I remember that day, because I worried about all of my friends in Kansas City. In fact, I even said on Twitter that the worst part of knowing people across the country was having to worry about so many more of my friends.

Read Rita’s story here (it’s a happy ending story), and consider how big our roles actually are, bigger than press releases, bigger than social media, as big as the community.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Pop Quiz!

How do your publics want to learn about impending disaster?

Bzzt. Time’s up. Hopefully your answer was more than, “Well, we have this thing that some people are signed up for…” And I really hope your answer was more than, “The news.”

Well, tiny Eden Prairie, Minnesota didn’t like their answer to the pop quiz, so they set out to find out. In this great article out of Emergency Management Magazine, Rick Wimberly explores this process.

Senior Communications Coordinator Katie Beal, as part of her Master’s thesis, sent an Emergency Communication Survey around town that asked the following questions:

  1. How would you prefer to receive urgent messages from City officials?
  2. How would you likely share emergency information with City officials? …with friends, family and others in the City?
  3. How would you prefer to receive initial (first) notification about specific incidents?

There are two things about this that I really like. First, now they’ll know how to get in contact with their publics! Second (while more subtle, I think this is the better of the two), they’ve actively engaged the public in emergency planning! If this was tied to town halls about hazard vulnerabilities and the results were circulated along with draft plan language and the whole thing was tied to a personal preparedness campaign—wow! And even if none of that happened (which it probably did not), just getting the survey and being asked to think about that hopefully spurred some people to think about their own preparedness.

And frankly, I think that has the chance to do more long-term good than deciding if Facebook or text messaging is the preferred route. Kudos, Eden Prairie.

How Bad Is It, and Can I Really Believe You

The bad news keeps coming for Northern Japan. On Monday, the nuclear response group in Tokyo issued a statement revising information that had been previously released regarding the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. CNN puts it simply:

Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced full meltdowns at three reactors in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami in March, the country’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters said Monday.

Now, I understand that in the aftermath of one of the five most devastating earthquakes recorded, there may be some confusion about how bad one particular site is. And I understand that it’s not exactly easy to tell if a nuclear reactor is leaking, melting down, or just plumb gone. But given that there were calls for more transparency in the immediate aftermath of the incident, both by foreign and Japanese media (Like here. And here.), well, it just goes to show that maybe when there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Okay, sure, nobody will believe TEPCO ever again, but I argue that the damage is worse than that. The Japanese Prime Minister stood there and re-iterated the false statements (not that his approval ratings were anything to write home about beforehand). But, the US government and all of the public health departments across the country said not to worry because there’s been no meltdown, and according to these figures released, we’re in no danger. Ha, ha, ha, silly little lady; don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.

Oops.

If I remember correctly, the NRC issued A SINGLE press release initially. Wipe hands and kick back ‘cause it’s Miller Time.

Then everybody freaked out cause the Surgeon General said, yeah, it’s scary, and you should be prepared for any consequence, and that didn’t follow the script.

Looking at this issue from a higher perspective takes me to my main point. In all of these trainings we’re told to aim high in our initial damage assessments, so we can walk it back later. TEPCO failed miserably at this and every day was like a drumbeat of worsening news. The US government, after not making virtually any statement for days downplayed the situation as well, instead of using it as a teachable moment. Their goal? To not cause panic. Because that would drive people to stockpile and ultimately take KI (which they did, so yeah, goal not attained).

So, my question to you, fellow PIOs, is this. At what point is it, “aiming high in damage,” and at what point is it, “inciting panic?” And are those two mutually exclusive?

I’m totally sold on the “walking it back” goal, and I’m a big believer in the “people don’t panic” mindset, and I think that, by and large, we could do a better job teaching our public about dangers and what we’re doing about them, and what those dangers mean for them. So, I tend to err on the bigger disaster, but here’s what’s really going on side of things. (See my previous post on Dr. Benjamin.) Our federal partners seemed to have erred on the Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic! side of things, maybe improperly. Where do you stand?