Why the response guys don’t get it

August 15, 2007

Traveling through the Southeast and East Coast on a business trip during a heat wave in the middle of August is not my idea of fun. But I must say, the Riverwalk in Augusta, Georgia is a surprising delight–even on a very warm evening.

I can’t be specific here but I was talking to Dan, my traveling companion about the respect (or more correctly, lack of it) that communication people have in the response circles. Having worked with professionals in emergency management, oil spill response, disaster planning, etc., I am quite convinced that most leaders involved in planning for and managing large scale responses tend to think that they are better at dealing with public information than the seasoned professionals they usually have available to them to manage this task. I think they think they can handle the media better, run a public meeting better, deal with stakeholder questions, etc. They only let the PIOs and communication professionals do what they do because they are usually too busy doing the important work of response management or response planning.

The sad truth, from my perspective, is most of these very smart and capable men and women are very much out of touch with the realities of public information. And they will only know that when it hits the fan and they look back and realize how ill prepared they were to deal with the realities of a post-media world. Communicators have far too little clout when it comes to the essential planning steps of a coordinated, multi-agency or large scale response. It’s a lot there own fault, I believe, for not assuming a more strategic posture in the planning process, but it also the fault of those seasoned response professionals.

I was talking to one professional today in this business who is in a very responsible position and who definitely does get it. We agreed that the key for many of these who have their heads up their, uh, sand, is to experience a major event themselves. Only in the aftermath of a Virginia Tech or Minnesota bridge incident will some of these wake up to the realities of public information management. And short of that, because we certainly cannot wish for such catastrophes, the best way to do large scale drills in as realistic a mode as possible. That’s when even the most confident eyes tend to open a bit. Communicators needs to push and push and push that response drills include a very large communication component. No namby pamby let’s have someone call into the JIC and pose a few juvenile media-type questions. It’s got to be full slam to the wall with overloads coming at the PIOs from a hundred directions at once.

For example, in the Virginia Tech incident, there were 1000 reporters on the scene!  1000! How many more were trying to reach those beleaguered JICers trying to keep up with the crush? Let alone family members, community members, students, governors, local leaders, etc., etc., etc.

No question at all that emergency management professionals have a tough job to do. But, as Katrina showed, ultimately the measure of the job they do in a real emergency will depend on communications. Precisely those people they tend to ignore and discount right now.

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