Now is still too early for some government communicators

March 27, 2008

It absolutely astounds me how some of the top people in our government responsible for responding to large scale events–such as terrorism events–still don’t get the realities of today’s instant news world. I recently had a conversation with someone involved in the information operation of some large scale drills that the federal government runs regularly. It wasn’t until three hours after the event initiated that there was a call for the formation of the JIC–the Joint Information Center–which is the point of all communication about the response. Hours later and there was discussion among the leaders about whether or not to and when to hold a press conference. Hours later and they got their initial statement out.

I suspect that at the end of the drill, they all got together and patted themselves on the back for a job well done. While in reality, there would be a completely and totally predictable story dominating the news media–both mainstream and online–that once again, the government response was too little, too late and hopelessly inadequate.

What will it take for those responsible to understand the new realities? Government officials in Katrina took three days setting up their JFOs (Joint Field Offices) and related JICs. Those three days were absolutely precious in getting the word out about what was being done. Instead, they spent this time getting ready to tell their stories. It is like a person whose house is burning tying up their sneakers with triple knots because they don’t want them to fall off in their dash out of the house! Get out of the stupid house!

There is no question that the news media today has a story pre-writ about any large scale government-led response to a major disaster. That’s too bad because a lot of people are spending an awful lot of time and energy preparing to respond quickly and effectively. But if their communicators, under guidance of their response managers, think that releases and conferences hours after the event are just fine, they will find the news stories are horrible before they even crank up their fax machines. The rules have changed. Machine guns are on the field–and the generals are still lining up the troops in rows and telling them to charge the hills. Unbelievable.

Someday, just maybe, they will realize that a Virtual JIC, with all preparations in place is the ONLY way they have a chance of getting out in front of another “botched response” news fiasco. I’m afraid we might have to go through a few more Katrinas before that lesson is finally learned.


5 Responses to “Now is still too early for some government communicators”

  1. Shawanda Says:

    “What will it take for those responsible to understand the new realities? ”

    Well Gerald, perhaps this is an opportunity for you to give back to America and the good fortune she has bestowed upon you by becoming of those responsible parties. It IS your government after all, made up of men and women just like you and me who are trying to do their best. You must step in and take decisive action to remedy this critical situation.

  2. gbaron Says:

    Shawanda, we are doing our very best to do as you suggest. This blog is one way I hope to help wake up those who are in Rip Van Winkle land.

  3. jokker Says:

    Some organizations are starting to get it. A Marine Corps unit deployed to Afghanistan has started a blog about their operations there. It is still in its infancy, but it seems to be a positive step.

    i know these guys had videos on youtube and photos on flickr before they deployed, hopefully the same will be true of their time overseas.

  4. Doug Says:

    You’re lucky to be this far along. I’m a volunteer PIO for my fire department, and can’t seem to get the county FD and city PIO to even discuss a JIS/JIC concept. Almost feels like my training was dangling meat in front of a hungry dog, and then taking it away.

    Very frustrating.

  5. gbaron Says:

    To jokker–actually there was an excellent article I believe in Fast Company about 2 years ago about all the blogs coming out of soldiers in Iraq. It was creating some interesting censorship problems for command but this kind of front line blogging was also transformative in communications because it let us see the hearts and minds of those on the front lines–and in real time. Another great example of how the internet is delivering transparency and authenticity–risking in some cases our ideas about what should remain hidden.

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