Was Irene Over-Hyped? If So, Whose Fault Was It?

Earlier his week, Gerald Baron (on the excellent Crisisblogger
blog) lamented the state of the media today. Yeah, I know, what’s new? Well,
I disagreed with him, which is pretty unusual. But, as usual, he raised a
very important point. Gerald’s post focused on how the media “cried wolf”
on the Hurricane Irene threat.

As this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer points out, Irene was a
deadly storm with 18 deaths and that the media plays a vital role in the
warning the public to take the dangers of a major storm very seriously. But
it also points out that “some cable anchors were still reporting that Irene
could strike New Jersey and New York as a major hurricane long after his
team determined that it clearly was weakening.”

That’s not just mistaken or poor reporting. That’s intentionally lying,
that is crying wolf. The author of the article, Will Bunch, also very
succinctly nailed the reasons behind this kind of media coverage: Ratings,
journalist careers, and political opportunism. (Anderson Cooper, it is
pointed out, was offered his primetime anchor spot after his spirited
coverage during Katrina.)

Having spent twelve hours in the Philly EOC and then not being able to sleep
afterwards because I was watching the destruction being wrought in western
New York, Connecticut and Vermont, I truly believe that the storm was
definitely not over-hyped.

That said, it raises an interesting point and leads me to another criticism
of the media (that I’ll deal with in another post).

Gerald explicitly asks about something that bedevils public health
communicators daily. Ghosts of 1976. Public health communicators have shied
away from making grandiose statements about threats ever since they warned
the public about the swine flu threat (until after Katrina, I believe). In
this week’s case, if we’re wrong and get people scared for something that
ultimately doesn’t happen, will they stop believing us? Are we
unintentionally crying wolf? Best intentions and all that.

I like to think there’s a way to avoid that fate, but I haven’t seen it
demonstrated to know if it works. It makes sense rattlin’ around in my
brain, but I’m anxious to see it in action. I call it the post-campaign era.
Once we get beyond communicating with our publics in a one-off
fashion—“Here’s what you need to know about the hurricane that’s coming
tomorrow”—and begin a longer conversation directly with them—“We’re
worried about this storm that’s a week out, and here’s why,” and then, “Now
that the hurricane has blown through and we’re okay, let us know how your
neighborhood fared, and also, the Red Cross needs blood donors.”

You’re supposed to say now, “That’s ridiculous, Jim. The media would never
carry those long messages over weeks at a time.” Exactly. We need to move
beyond the media, ESPECIALLY the national media (whose presence will be
measured in hours). Have a conversation directly with your public. Be
available to them all the time. Have the conversation saying we got lucky,
but others didn’t fare so well. Here’s what we can do next time to ensure
that if it is worse, we’ll be okay.

I agree with Gerald that if we continue with our one-off, campaign-based
strategy, people will see us as crying wolf. If the only time they hear from
us is right before a disaster that seemingly always fizzles, of course
they’ll stop believing us. But if we have that one-to-one, always on
conversation, maybe we won’t be seen as fear-mongers, but
partners.

EpiRen and Our Failure to Make Rules

As some of you know, I used to blog using a
pseudonym
. I did it for many
reasons, chief among them a fear that in the absence of a realistic,
well-considered and comprehensive social media and public
communication policy by my employer, my posts could be used against me
and place myself and my employer in a sticky situation. In the three
years since making that decision, a best practice began to emerge
around the country regarding the personal use of social media networks
and how it affected, or intersected, with one’s career and workplace.
(I say best practice very specifically, because this is not something
written well anywhere—least of all in case law.) Due to a variety of
circumstances, one among them this emerging best practice, I dropped
my pseudonym and began writing as myself. The rewards have been
greater than I could have imagined, yet the worry that surfaces each
time I press, “Post,” is palpable.

I bring up this little history lesson because a good Twitter-friend of
mine, René Najera (@EpiRen of Twitter-fame), has been slapped on the
wrist by his employer as a direct result of his online activities.
(Thank you to my good, real-life-friend James
Hamilton
for the heads up.) As I
read the article on
René
,
I couldn’t help but relive all of the arguments that caused me to post
pseudonymously, and fret about the damage I may have already done to
my future.

René was an epidemiology god on Twitter, regularly holding
“Epidemiology Night School,” and vociferously arguing for the cause of
childhood immunization (and indeed vaccination in general). All of
that has ended now, as his employer has—as part of his
agreement—forbade him from all social networking activity related to
public health. It seems that, as part of his vociferous defense, he
participated in a discussion that reached a point where someone
complained of his activities to his employer. (Seriously, I rewrote
that sentence like four times. That’s the most even-handed way I can
put it.) Because René wrote using his real name and it wasn’t hard to
figure out who his employer was, making the complaint was easy. Much
like it would be for me. And, again with the worry.

Today’s little story leads me to a shortcoming that I’ve noticed in my
posts on the need for government agencies, and private industry, to
confront the new reality that social media has forced upon us all. The
rules still remain largely unwritten, and in the absence of good
rules, capricious reactions to poor judgements and complaints will
blindly lead us—eventually—to common-sensical rules. But in the
meantime, folks like René risk getting their careers derailed.

The shortcoming that I feel I have is that I get haughty. I say things
like, “Lead, follow, or get run the hell over.” And I believe that
someday public agencies will get it and move into the twenty-first
century, or they’ll be recognized as dinosaurs and cast aside. The
problem is that this agencies are full of people who forgo the money
of private enterprise due SOLELY to their passion for the work they
do. They believe in it to their core (much like René), and are willing
to tell the world about it. Why should these people, your best
advocates, have to walk the razor’s edge until some executive gets his
head out of the sand and makes some rules? Why my blasé stance? (Could
it be my positivist approach satisfies my need to believe that should
the hammer come down on me, my executive will support the work I do?
Not entirely smart, and not good for everyone else in my position, or
René’s.)

So, my charge to you today is to push for some common-sensical, EASY,
rules on social media usage in the workplace. I’ve got a few PIOs
reading this blog, and you guys and gals are perfect to advance this
work. If you’re not a PIO, you probably know one, and I ask that you
forward this along to them.

What should a good social media policy encompass? Well, start here:
the Online Database of Social Media
Policies
. Browse
through and see what others have done.

Then consider your policy over the long-term. While social media is
new and fancy right now, it will soon be everywhere and part and
parcel of nearly everyone’s lives. Will your policy hold up in that
world? Does it understand that public speech these days does not
involve a soapbox and a dozen listeners, but instead a comment box and
millions of listeners? (And everyone in your legal department’s
sphincter just tightened.)

Also consider, though, what is the difference between a Facebook post
(complaining about work) and pamphleting (some racist screed)? Is it
the method or the message that you should be looking at?

Finally, is it prudent to assume that all of the communications coming
out of your department is controlled by your communications office?
What does your janitor’s MySpace page say about your “mission?” Some
of my background research on that spokesperson
post
I put up
this week congratulated one agency for getting their door people and
security folks through media training.

Think of it this way, the face of your agency is no longer just the
PIO and Director. It’s now each and every employee. And until we set
some ground rules, folks may potentially reflect poorly on our agency
(wittingly or unwittingly), with either no recourse or a vastly
overblown hand-smack.

This needs to be a priority, lest we have other dedicated, passionate
people like René become discouraged and move out of public service.

If you’d like to know more about the ongoing saga, the scienceblogging
field has seemingly exploding in René’s defense. Already two of the
top ten Google results for “EpiRen” include posts on the situation,
like this one.

The Face of Your Response

I’ve read a lot about spokespeople lately. They are, quite literally,
the face of your organization, your response, your agency. They
provide the face of the matter. Where the rubber meets the road and
all that.

Quick, who is your agency’s spokesperson?

Exactly.

But let’s assume you’ve at least vetted your spokesperson and taught
them what to do with their hands. Your Mayor, right? Or CEO. They’re
savvy and can handle the cameras, so probably.

In an emergency, though, that’s not the end of your problems. Not by
far. And that’s because your spokesperson is the person who will be
blamed for the situation—rightly or wrongly. So, are you sure you want
your vetted, hands-at-her-sides spokesperson up there getting blamed?
Your executive might be running for election, your CEO might be
worried about the effects of being a punching bag in front of the
stockholders. Sure, you want to project that the leader is in charge,
but should they be up there every day? At every press conference?
Inextricably linked to the continuously unfolding disaster? Is there
some other leader who might be (more expendable) better linked to the
response?

(Think hard about how CEO Tony Hayward did during the Deepwater
Horizon response. I argue that it was appropriate for him to be
present at the beginning, but as the disaster stretched on, did he
represent the face BP wanted to project? After the chief spokesperson
position changed to Gulf native Bob Dudley, notice how the tenor of
the response changed?)

You see, your decision about who to put in front of the cameras should
no longer be predicated on the answer to the question, “What do you do
with your hands?” Think strategically, think long-term. Wo should your
spokesperson be now? Now? Five hours from now? In two weeks? Are you
sure it should be the same person?

Disaster Stylebook

In anticipation of the upcoming tenth anniversary of the
9/11 attacks, the Associated Press has done something I’ve never heard
of: developed and released what folks are calling a “situational
stylebook.” Dubbed the Sept. 11 Style and Reference
Guide
,
the AP has compiled a list of terms (including pronunciation) that
reporters may use in their stories about the event, in addition to a
full account of all related events from 8:00 a.m. until 5:25 p.m.

What. A. Resource.

Normally something this cool would be enough, but I had a thought. Why
don’t we do this as PIOs? Now this obviously isn’t for everyone and
every emergency. But for those long-term responses? Think public
health emergencies or wildland fires or oil spills. Something that’s
going to go on for days, weeks, months and has lots of confusing
terms, spellings and pronunciations. There are names to remember,
players that may be difficult to sort out and critically important
timelines.

And really? How difficult would that be? A two-page document that
gives the history of your emergency. That allows reporters and
bloggers and the public to get it right the first time, no matter at
what point in the story they’ve become interested.

A disaster stylebook, if you will. You’ve probably already got all of
the information you need to put one together. Now, just remember to
post it to your Media
webpage
.

National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media

Thanks to the fine folks at NPHIC, I had the
rare pleasure of participating in the 2011 National Conference on
Health Communication, Marketing and Media
,
sponsored by SAMHSA, the
NCI and NPHIC. What
an amazing conference!

My first reaction to attending this conference was, “Wow, look at all
of the women!” I’m used to attending emergency management conferences
full of men and this was quite a change, to say the least. While there
certainly were men there, and there certainly are women at my EM
conferences, I wonder why the gender balance is so severe. Especially
when there is so much GREAT information that we can learn from
different conferences. I learned so much from all of these amazing
communicators that was completely relevant to my everyday work that,
frankly, it reinvigorated me. I can’t WAIT to try some of this stuff.

The theme of the conference was “Listening for Change,” and that
simple idea, listening, was a common thread throughout the week.
Listening to one’s audience is important to ensure that our messages
are getting through, that we can tweak our messaging to make sure that
it addresses the needs we are looking to work on and to preemptively
develop messages and campaigns that actually work! Too often, I think,
our messages (both in public health AND public information) are
developed in a vacuum and released into the ether. Listening rarely
occurs.

The sessions I attended touch on a wide variety of subjects, but I
think I can distill them down to two: full-throated use of social
media networks and identifying and relating to the many audiences you
strive to meet, which is fun, because I tend to talk about those two
subjects lots here.

I can succintly put three ideas out there that I really consider takeaways.

  1. Your audience is varied. Every time you push a message out, it will
    reach different ears and eyes. Is a message pushed to the media
    appropriate for the public? Is a message pushed to the media
    structured in such a way for them to pick it up? Is a message
    appropriate to mothers or fathers and why? Does that “why” influence
    whether or not they will successfully receive your message? There was
    an amazing session called, “Not All Parents Are The Same,” that talked
    about just that.

  2. Consider unusual uses of social media. These ideas came from a
    session called, “Using Twitter as a Tool for Community Engagement and
    Collaboration,” and focused on the hows and whys of Twitter chats,
    townhalls and “Twitter-views.” Twitter is not just a push tool, but an
    opportunity to interact very, very closely with a potentially WIDE
    range of people. The White House, HHS Office of Disease Prevention and
    Health Promotion, Health Literacy Missouri and CDC National Prevention
    Information Network have used these types of tools to make Twitter
    MORE useful, both to themselves and their publics.

  3. Fail fast. Kevin Dame and Chris Waugh of
    IDEO took part in an extremely well put
    together session using the common issue of childhood obesity and how
    to reduce or prevent it as each presenter’s point of departure. Their
    presentation took the stand that we’re too invested in what we do.
    Consider your latest big project. How many years should it take to
    implement? How many tens of thousands of dollars? By the time that
    project is ready to go, you’re most likely wed to it and it’s success.
    You will do backflips to ensure that the last three years of your life
    (or so) haven’t been wasted. Even if they may have been. The IDEO
    folks advocated that we should instead be looking to design
    “sacrificial projects.” These are projects that are put together in
    hours and with minimal budgets. That way, if they fail, who cares,
    because it’s only been two days worth of time. And undoubtedly the
    project designers learned something from the exercise, so it’s not a
    complete waste. Try. Fail. Try again, but in a slightly (or vastly)
    different way. Eventually you’ll succeed, or learn enough to advance
    the science of what you’re doing. (And frankly, think how interesting
    your job would be if you had new projects every couple of weeks.)

Thank you to every amazing person I met in Atlanta at the conference.
Thank you to all of the great Tweeters that live-tweeted every session
well enough that I always regreted that I chose a particular session
and wished that I was in the other one (and likely they felt the
same about the session I was in). And once again, thank you NPHIC for
the wonderful opportunity.