Communication Drills–why they go wrong

June 21, 2007

Yesterday, on our online conference on oil spill communications we discussed current practices in oil spill drill communications. I and others in my company have participated in a large number of oil spill drills and in the communication function of those known as the Joint Information Center. (If you want more information about JICs here are a couple of places to go: The National Response Team JIC manual, and a more updated JIC Guidance manual by one of the nation’s top experts in JICs and current technology (Select “JIC Guidance Manual-Pfuhl))The JIC as it is called, brings together communicators from the various agencies and companies involved in the spill response to be able to serve as one coordinated voice for the response. It is an excellent concept and it has proven to work very very well. But, there are always problems, of course.

Most problems are related to lack of training, lack of good leadership, lack of understanding of the task at hand. The oil industry along with major federal and state agencies work together in annual drills to hone their skills in responding to a spill as well as improving their ability to communicate with the public. But, as we discussed on the call, when the drill planners don’t understand the new world of digital media and how the internet has impacted public information, the drill is too often an exercise in solving problems of yesterday rather than today. Far too many drills I’ve seen are preparing to meet the information expectations of audiences 10 or 15 years ago–and the world has gone on. That’s because frequently the drill planners are emergency response experts who simply don’t live in the world of public information and have little exposure to the drastic changes occuring around them. “Blog? What’s a blog?”

If you are a drill planner or involved in the communication response to a drill, and especially if you are to play the role of “truth” or the “simulation cell,” here are some things you should consider:

– today’s audiences expect information fast, directly and transparently–and they expect a continual flow of new information

– it is imperative to work with the Incident Commanders in advance to outline how the PIO needs to meet today’s expectations

– the JIC is NOT about doling out the minimum of information to the media at the door or calling in to the News Desk or Media Responders. It is about building trust by meeting all stakeholders demand for fast, accurate sent directly to them and regularly. And their expectation the full and unvarnished truth of what is happening.

– Plan on 60-75% of the inquiries coming into the JIC from stakeholders–neighbors, community leaders, government officials, family members, activists, bloggers, etc. It is NOT about simply dealing with the media and letting them tell your story for you. Those days are gone forever.

– Bloggers will be very very active in a major event. They will be telling your story as well. The drill must include simulation of blogger activity including false info and angry accusations. Not including this is to live in a world that went away a few years ago.

– Since the “stakeholder first” strategy involves government officials and community stakeholders, the communication with them cannot be separated into entirely separate functions from the JIC. Technology today is aimed at sending simultaneous messages to multiple audiences. That means the Liaison Officer and the Community Relations leader must be part of the JIC and closely coordinate with the distribution of information.

– The JIC concept itself is outdated in the sense of a physical location for the communicators. By the time a JIC is set up and ready to operate the instant news world has told the story, thoroughly discussed it, the public has made its judgment and are moving on to other topics. If a physical JIC is set up, a Virtual JIC must be employed first in order to meet the initial and most important demands for information

– Virtual JICs are increasingly common (see previous post for excellent white paper on this by Bret Atkins of Ohio State Dept of Public Health)

– the purpose of the JIC is to build trust by meeting the stakeholders’s demand for fast, accurate, direct and transparent information. Anything less will doom the response in terms of public confidence and credibility. This is a job made much tougher by the fact that the public has already made judgments about those involved because of the environmental damage and pre-conceptions about the basic moral character of those in the oil industry.

Thanks again to Neil Chapman of BP for participating in this conference.

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