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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Crisis Planning and Risk Management

In the wake of the deadly gas explosion in San Bruno, CA, CNN interviewed Georgia Public Service Commissioner Stan Wise in order to get a sense of the risks and realities in our utility infrastructure. Wise made the following points:

• There are 2.3 million miles of underground gas pipelines in the U.S.

• Several of the regional gas systems – such as the one in San Bruno – use pipes and infrastructure dating back to the 1940s and 1950s.

• "There’s a cost associated with upgrading these systems," he said. The debate over that cost, he said, and who pays for it, must be brought up by citizens and political leaders before state public utility commissions.

• In the meantime he cautioned citizens, repeating what he called the tried-and-true gas industry axiom, "Smell gas, act fast. Call 911."

Commissioner Wise's comments point to the difference between Crisis Planning and Response on the one hand, and Risk Management on the other. At CommCore we believe awareness of both is integral to any communications plan by an organization such as a gas or oil company when the essential commodity it delivers to the public is, literally, a potentially explosive substance.

Planning is what an organization does on the ground floor to prepare for an emergency that qualifies as a potential or real disaster. A crisis is an instantaneous game changer, as we have said repeatedly, because it has caused or could cause death, injury, significant financial loss, and /or damage to an organization or brand. The same procedures take hold in an emergency; the crisis occurs when larger groups (usually media) become aware of an emergency. Safety and security of people is always the first response. Wise's "smell gas" advice is similar to: "In case of emergency, break glass" and follow the pre-determined plan that should cover all variables and eventualities.

Risk Management, on the other hand, is part and parcel of crisis planning. It involves the identification, assessment and prioritization of risk in order to monitor, minimize and control unfortunate events such as crises. There is a balance between what needs to be done to manage the risk of maintaining 2.3 million miles of aging pipelines and valves and potential disruptions and explosions, and the politically sensitive issue of higher rates, fees or taxes to upgrade the infrastructure before another disaster strikes.

The two intersect when a crisis has erupts and must be been responded to. The crisis response, effective or not, is usually followed by finger-pointing about blame, responsibility, and whether appropriate steps had been taken to prevent the disaster. Lawsuits, hearings, investigations – all are in the offing if the crisis was big enough. Effectively communicating the potentially controversial Risk Management calculations that went into whatever preparations, repairs, or precautions were in place – or not – becomes of paramount importance when the blame game starts after a crisis.

Where are you in this balancing act. Do you have any case studies where risk management and crisis preparation teams have worked well together? What worked? What didn't?

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Discovery Communications: Emergency Planning and Crisis Communications

The hostage taking incident last week at Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, MD, (less than 10 miles from the White House in Washington) has quickly faded from the news pages. Yet a couple of notes regarding new media and crisis planning and communications are worth making.

The hostage taker was shot and killed by Montgomery County (MD) law enforcement. And because no one else was physically injured, the news media packed it in and most of the coverage was over within a day of the event.
The good news was that Discovery had an emergency plan and followed it. The company used an internal public address system with the first alert, and then sent a series of emails to all employees at the headquarters location. The first email instructed employees to stay at their desks, quickly followed by a directive to find a locked office, the next told them to go to a specific stairwell and leave the building. Children in the on-site day care center were evacuated to a fast food location soon after the incident began.

After the incident was over, Discovery's spokesperson was appropriately effusive in his praise of law enforcement. He was almost as effusive in thanking all of the employees of the company in how they followed the evacuation and emergency plans.

Was the plan perfect? No. But it was pretty darn good since no employee or visitor was hurt. Yet, Discovery is now going back to review building access procedures. Email was used to communicate with employees; which assumes that almost all have access to a work station. A public address system gets word to all, but it might have also further enraged the hostage taker. Text messages, which many universities now use to alert students, can't reach all employees.

Another important reminder is that crisis and emergency plans need to be "drilled." Fire and rescue personnel know that their success in emergencies is dependent on the number of times they drill. Similarly, employees must participate in fire drills, know the correct procedures and know where the exits are.

As to social media, Twitter showed its role in communicating the breaking news. The first photo of the hostage taker was taken by an employee, who passed the photo to one or two other employees before it was posted to Twitpic. (Tweets can viewed http://twitter.com/#search?q=%23discovery.) The local DC news organizations rapidly sent teams to cover the events, and used their websites and twitter accounts to send frequent updates. Washington Post columnist Paul Farhi backhandedly gave Twitter its due http://tinyurl.com/2chclly then discussed the role of regular reporters and editors to collect the news.

I liked the discussion of the role of professionally trained news gathers and editors in taking breaking news and providing a lens and perspective on the events. "We can't let raw info go out over the air. The front end is new, but we still have to do our work at the back end" said a news editor from a DC television station. The Post column gave me a sense that Farhi was reluctantly assenting to the fact that that while Twitter might have its place in instant news, he preferred the "move over boys" professionals who came onto the scene. The reality is that photos, videos and soon streaming video will increasingly come from citizens and bloggers. This unfortunate incident was another example of how the rules are still evolving in the information dissemination age.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mike Wise's Unwise Spoof

Just because the term "Social Media" contains the "M" word doesn’t mean professional journalists in the Mainstream Media always know how to use it properly.

Case in point: On Monday morning, popular Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise intentionally posted a fabricated tweet announcing that Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be suspended for five games, rather than the initial six game suspension he received after allegations of personal misconduct. (http://tinyurl.com/29tnu5k). This was a big deal in the world of sports news.
What turned out to be his misguided attempt to illustrate lower standards of fact-checking and basic journalism skills in social media violated the Post's own guidelines for social media, which requires that Post journalists will be accurate in their posts and transparent about their intentions.

It also violated the standards of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) which states that journalists are responsible for testing the accuracy of all sources of information and that deliberate distortion is never permissible (http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp). Whether or not Wise was aware of the standards, Wise went out on his own to post erroneous information. He never did post that his comments were a "spoof" until it was too late.

The Repercussions of Mike Wise’s false post:
  • A 30-day suspension for Wise from the Washington Post and a hit on his own credibility. Some have speculated that he should have been fired.
  • According to the Chicago Tribune, (http://tinyurl.com/2at9kuz) other media outlets picked up the story before Wise announced that the whole thing was fabricated, trusting that the Washington Post was a credible source.
  • A black eye for the Post and for a mainstream media sector already reeling from lowered public trust. According to a Pew Research study, (http://people-press.org/report/543/) the press accuracy rating hit a two decade low in 2009. In 1985, 55 percent of Americans believed that news organizations were accurate in their reporting. As of 2009, only 29 percent feel that the organizations get their facts straight. If journalists are printing misinformation this number could continue to drop.

At CommCore we tell our clients that credibility and transparency in communications are two key building blocks necessary to create trust with your audiences. This is especially true when communicating in the world of social media where an absence of official professional fact-checking combines with instantaneous global proliferation of information, valid or not.

Twitter is not just a social media platform: it is increasingly perceived by the online and wireless public a breaking news headline service, and it needs to be used with extreme care by professional communicators, something Wise clearly forgot while trying to be too clever by half.

We don't go along with the crowd that he should be summarily fired. Anyone is entitled to a mistake. Hopefully, the lesson will be learned by others trying their own "hoax."

What rules, if any, does your organization have for on-the-job use of social media to disseminate information to the public? Do you have other examples of social media missteps?

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