Minnesota bridge collapse tragedy–initial observations on communication

August 2, 2007

First, as other bloggers have done, I must express my sorrow and condolences to those impacted by the tragedy in Minnesota. My interest here is commenting on the efforts of the responders to communicate with the public about this and the way this incident is covered by the news media, blogs, etc. A few quick observations:

I watched the press conference last night covered by FOX News that featured the fire chief predominantly. Overall, he did a very good job and was/is and effective spokesperson. He got into a bit of dangerous territory in my mind when he highlighted to a fairly high degree his assessment of the outstanding response. Some information was very good and helpful like how many fire trucks they have and how many were on scene in what length of time, as well as the mutual aid response. But (and this is only minor criticism) there was a bit too much of sense of satisfaction of a plan that was working rather than a sense of what a great tragedy lay before them and feelings for the families of the victims. It is very important to communicate positively about the response effort, but you do not want families to be thinking: “Good for you, you all got there soon, but my son or daughter is laying in that cold river water so don’t be too satisfied just yet.”

Some of the other spokepeople who were involved in the press conference were much less effective. The shorter woman involved in traffic information (I believe) was ineffective in part because personal appearance issues dominated. A good point for those planning press conferences. During the conference, and on live or recorded national television, the questions from reporters could not usually be heard. Effective spokespersons such as the chief, made it clear in their answers what the question was. Ineffective ones gave quick little short yes or no type answers and you had no idea what they were responding to.

It seemed there was no PIO (Public Information Officer) managing the conference. It came to a ragged end where you really couldn’t tell if it was over or not but the cameras were still rolling. There was no apparent person in charge except the chief and when he ceded the floor to others, it kind of fell apart. The lesson–the PIO has to be in charge, has to make certain spokespeople can be heard and that they are communicating to the tv audience while answering the questions. He or she has to be aware of what is on camera and keeping the conference moving along, and then they need to create a definitive end with information as to where people can get additional information.

And here is the main and important criticism I have: website. During the conference a young woman got up to explain that additional information about traffic impacts would be available on the city website. She then gave a long string of characters and dots that no one could possibly have caught. And then she said that they should not look tonight for more information but tomorrow morning when new information would be posted. I’m sorry Fire Chief, your response team may be performing very well, your information team doesn’t appear to get it. Here’s why:

– a Joint Information Center operation such as this is needs a response-only dedicated website in which all agencies that are part of Unified Command need to participate in. A note on a city website doesn’t cut it today.

– information on that site needs to be constantly updated because that JIC site needs to be the voice for the response. That is where you want people going for information. It is the morning after the tragedy and I did several google searches looking for information. I find lots of outdated information on news websites, I find more up to date information on blog sites, and I can’t even find the response site anywhere. There is none. There is no official voice for the information apparently. I found the Minneapolis city website but only through a specific search for that and the only reason I knew to do that was I heard a quick mention of finding more info on the city website. Because I work with lots of different government agencies and leading companies on Joint Information Center operations, I can tell you for certain that this is not best practice.

I don’t mean to be hard on people who no doubt are doing their very best in very trying circumstances, but people in emergency management and crisis management need to be continually reminded that a good response poorly communicated is still a reputation disaster. I’m not saying there is a reputation disaster here. I’m just saying that like a lot of other first responder organizations, it appears at this time to me, that Minnesota has done a great job of drilling and preparing to respond effectively to a large scale disaster (congratulations are in order), but have done an inadequate job of preparing to communicate effectively, particularly through a JIC response-specific website.

Another note– from a quick read of blogs commenting on this I note the cynicism of blog commenters about the role of politicians and media in an event like this. They are really picking up on two things I continually talk about–the propensity of the media to immediately engage in the blame game, and the propensity of opportunistic politicians to jump on the bandwagon following such a tragedy with a whole new level of regulations and expensive government programs designed to protect us all. I say, God protect us from the blame game and heavy-handed politicians. And may God be with the families.

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