Friday, May 31, 2013

How not to handle a crisis: the Toronto experiment

Okay, let's say you're the mayor of a large north-american metropolis. You got elected on a platform pretty much limited to taking a close rein on the city's bottom line. Your supporters love you for your tough "blue collar" attitude but many more people think you're a bully, are uncaring and lack vision.

You've been accused of being impaired at public events, of groping, of using profane language, of flipping the bird at fellow drivers and texting behind the wheel ... quite a track record.

Then, comes a real whopper. The country's largest newspaper which you accuse of waging a war on you and your administration, has a picture on its front page stating that there's a video of you smoking crack cocaine with drug dealers. 

What's your immediate reaction? to say nothing ... for seven whole days ... meanwhile, here's what happens (for a complete timeline ... see here) :

It should be clear by now to most readers of this blog that the behaviour above is pretty much the antithesis of a good crisis communications strategy.  Here's how our subject went wrong ... by being: 

Maladroit: no matter what he does, he appears to lack any poise
Obfuscating: he tries to divert attention, deflects questions, appears untruthful 
Reactive: his actions keep putting him on the defensive 
Obnoxious: everything he's doing is alienating more and more people
Non-disclosing: he acknowledges nothing, keeps saying it's "business as usual" ...

What our subject ought to be instead:

Sincere: if you acknowledge a fault, it will in time be forgotten/forgiven ...
Magnanimous: because calling the press "maggots" for doing their job is not a good tactic
Assertive: chose a path of action, drive the agenda, don't appear to hide
Responsive: chosing silence is not a good option when the whole world watches on
Tuned in: don't ignore the chaos around you, show you still have control ..

What do you think the mayor should do ? 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Different roles for different PIOs ... getting the big picture

I recently wrote about the critical importance of the information coordination function for any PIO. An aspect of the role that can easily be forgotten in the mad rush to push out info, especially on social networks. Although the coordination is a constant for any PIO, there are differences on what kind of work one has to do depending of who they are supporting.

The toughest thing to do, albeit usually pretty straightforward, is supporting an incident commander ( or IC) or more broadly, an incident command post. For an absolutely essential read on what this entails in the era of mobile technologies and social networks, you must read Jim Garrow's blog where Marcus Deyerin highlights his role as the on site PIO at the Skagit bridge collapse in Washington State.

A few of the key lessons learned as they relate to the use of social media ... Twitter in particular: 
  • Twitter reigned as the superior tool for getting information out rapidly to a broad audience. [Note to Twitter - please, please don't do anything vis-a-vis your API or business model to mess this up for those of us in the emergency management field.]
  • Twitter worked when phone and SMS didn’t. That won’t be true in every situation, but it was interesting nevertheless.
  • Photos attached to tweets are great – but may not always work in a constrained data flow environment
  • Once the media calls started coming in, I was no longer able to tweet. If I need to do this again, I’ll direct media calls to a different phone I have, so I can take calls on one phone and use the other phone for tweets / social media
A great illustration of the power and increasing expectations brought by social networks in incident-support communications. So, how would the role of the PIO differ at the incident command post from that of the PIO at the municipal or state level EOC for example? 

As I stated in my previous post on the role of the PIO, it's in the transition from incident-specific communications to consequence management information, where the role of the PIO evolves. One might be tempted to simplify this as the differences between tactical and strategic comms ... but that can be misleading.

There are similarities and areas in which both roles complement each other, Let's look at the use of social networks:

Incident PIO: running steam (twitter or any other social network) of the response and immediate actions .... using SM mostly as a way to push out info ... maybe responding to some queries ... because the PIO is so busy feeding the beast, there's actually little online engagement (although the phone keeps ringing ... if the lines/airwaves are still open )

Muni/State EOC PIO: amplify incident PIO social media output + create an online or SM portal for all emergency info from key stakeholders + CRITICALLY important: monitoring social media ... 

It all comes down to resources: the incident command post PIO is busy supporting his/her IC in sending out details on the response and tactical info as well as emergency info (shelter in place, evacuate, etc) ... Even a team of two or three PIOs from different first responder agencies would be hard pressed to do anything else in most large-scale incidents.

At the municipal or state EOC level, being detached from the purely operational communications needs, there's a greater ability to look at the broader picture and look at the impact on public health, transportation, etc. This also translates in being able to support the on site PIO with monitoring (legacy and social media) and engage online on their behalf. The VOST (virtual operation support team) concept can really shine in this kind of situation when implemented efficiently.

Other examples of the differences in the role of the PIOs:

At the incident command post, the info coordination is mostly done with other first responder agencies and a key contact at the EOC.

At the muni/state EOC, info coordination links back to the incident command post but is mostly looking at the broader picture: other city/state departments, federal government and the public sector (utilities and others)

Further differences:

At the ICP, the PIO gets the incident commander to approve the social media outreach parametres (as opposed to individual tweets for example) and other communications messages/products (news releases, first responder agency web updates, etc) ... the focus is operational ...

At the muni/state (or provincial) EOC ... in fact the higher you go, the levels of approvals necessary to obtain permission to send out info might vary according to whatever practice/policy is in place .... operational support comms would usually be approved by the lead PIO and the mgr/director of the EOC ... sometimes though, there might be a request for some messaging or a quote from an elected official ... that's when it can get messy and be delayed.

It is critical for any PIO to understand the different characteristics of his/her role depending of their assignment: tactical or strategic, Having had the opportunity to plan and coordinate the delivery of emergency info at both the ICP and provincial EOC levels, it can be a challenge.

A solution is to train as often as possible in setting up a Joint Information Centre (or crisis comms cell) at the strategic level and assign staff whose sole function is to liaise with the incident PIOs to ensure uniformity of messaging, or at the very least, the flow of info between all partners.

Even more valuable, is cross-training with first responder agencies with the two-fold goals of 1- ensuring they get used to working together and avoid comms silos (see my previous post) and 2- ensuring every PIO at all levels understand the pressures and expectations at the ICP and the EOC. That's where my recommendation that every response exercise include a communications/public affairs component comes to the fore.

These kind of partnerships will make everyone lives' easier. This is especially true in situations where a senior PIO is sent from the state/provincial EOC to help coordinate at the local level ... We hear the scariest words in the English language echo ..."I'm from the government and i'm here to help ..."  

Truth is ... the strategic outlook can be of help at the municipal and operational level ... especially for ongoing incidents ... a few days following the initial response. That function of the PIO ... the emergency info liaison role is growing in importance in my jurisdiction where local resources are often stretched and the need for comms and social media support are growing in the face of increased expectations from our audiences ... 

There you have it ! Collaboration is the only way all PIOs will be able to meet the growing expectations of the people we serve ... demands that grow heavier by the the day as social networks for emergency communications become the main channel for disseminating information.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The role of the Public Information Officer

I've spent a lot of time recently developing procedures for our public emergency information officers (or EIOs as we call them ... for emergency info officers). As I talk with colleagues and observe what's going on around us, I notice that a key function of the PIO/EIO's tends to be somewhat forgotten amid the pressure to be quick and relevant in the constant battle to provide information to the public, particularly on social networks.

We all understand the pressures brought by social media and the need to have a solid crisis comms plan in place as part of any response or business continuity plan. The need for immediacy often means the PIO's attention is focused on feeding the "beast". That social media imperative, while critical, should not overshadow what is to my mind, the primary responsibility of the PIO: coordinating information among all agencies/organizations involved.

A key factor is that the management of incidents and their consequences has evolved. It's fairly plain to see that incidents (fires, terror attacks, natural disasters) can no longer be managed in a comprehensive manner by a single agencies. There are just too many interdependencies involved. 

More and more, that's where Unified Command, comes in. While the primary responsibility to respond to the incident itself remains with a specific type of responder, the consequence management part now plays a greater role. Hence the need for multiple or joint ICs. 

I suggest, that a parallel framework exists to help individual PIOs ensure that all public messaging around an incident be coordinated. That's the main purpose of a JIC or Joint Information Centre. 

The problem is though, that it's hard for agencies to let go of decades worth of legacy thinking around incident management ... and sharing a piece of the "command pie" ... The same applies to some extent to communicators. Although breaking down silos can be difficult ... we simply have no choice. 

Our audiences expect us to work together, be coordinated and hear the "government" (the public doesn't distinguish between local/municipal or provincial/state or federal levels) speak in "one voice" ... it's all one thing to most ... The voice of the "Man" ... should therefore resound in unison.

A recent case in point ... (and I want to be clear here that I do not blame any specific organization or first responder agency ... I simply want to illustrate a point)

There was a major industrial fire in Ontario last week, just across the border from Michigan. A plastic recycling plant caught fire and sent plumes of billowing smoke that could be seen for miles and miles ...

Did people get worried? You bet! There was first talk and then instructions of evacuations in a radius of 1.5 miles around the plant and shelter-in-place orders for an even larger section of the city and town affected. (btw: see my friend Jim Garrow's blog on shelter in place and clear language during emergencies).

So, I hear of this fire and I go online. I see on the city's website that police is evacuating people and that a shelter in place order has been issued. I go on Twitter and see the same from the local fire service ... and then I see on the police twitter account that there are no evacuations ...

At that point, I was thoroughly confused .... So I go and check back. OK, now the city's website says only to shelter in place .... the fire and police soon match up as well ... 

Although the confusion did not cause any major issues ...It could have because the media and the public picked up on the lack of coordinated info. What's the risk to the public from the smoke? Should we leave? Stay home? Why can't we get the same message for those responding to this? 

So finally, there is, perhaps, no danger. But why are first responders wearing masks? And we're told to stay home? 

In my view, a lot of this confusion could have been avoided by the immediate set up of a JIC where all PIOs from the major agencies involved could have coordinated their messaging ... The beauty of the thing is that you don't even have to do it in person anymore. With mobile technologies, a virtual JIC is now a real option.

A quick google hangout ???? or google chat or using IPads ... could have put the PIOs on the same page especially when it came time to use their individual social network accounts to send out info.

So the "social convergence" is not only about social networks but those mobile devices and tech as well. It's time that agencies and governments start using the tools that the public they serve use every day ... 

We know our audiences turn to Twitter on mobile devices to get breaking news ....especially when it happens close to home (see a couple of good blog posts by my good friends Gerald Baron and Bill Boyd on that ...).

It's about the tech but also about our own professional reflexes ... how we react to emerging incidents. Yeah, tweet out that you're responding ... implementing your plans ... and keep sending out info ... but DON'T forget to coordinate with the other guy ... his audience is your audience ... are you in sync? 

That coordination is essential to the success of any PIO ... to managing public reactions and fears following an incident and to ensuring your credibility survives long after the ashes have gone cold.