The biggest gap in emergency response communication

June 15, 2009

I’ve been at this game of crisis management and emergency response communications for over ten years now–at least where that has been a primary focus. There is one problem that keeps coming up over and over and over. And the rapid changes in the last couple of years have only made this problem greater and the damage caused by it more significant.

The gap is simple: It is what Incident Commanders and emergency response leaders don’t know and understand about the public information environment.

Ultimately, they are the ones who make the decisions during a crisis or emergency response. They have many many important decisions to make and precious little time to make them. When lives are on the line, when minutes count in a response, it is little wonder they tend to have little patience for getting into a discussion about the pros and cons of web content and whether or not to set up a Twitter feed for the Joint Information Center.

I have to admit to being very frustrated with this problem–particularly because it is nigh unto impossible to get Incident Commanders or Crisis Team Leader or CEOs to pay any attention to this gap in advance of an incident. Participate in training? No way. And I was quite surprised and disappointed that my effort to address this topic at a major conference on oil spill management was rejected. If conference managers and presentation review panels don’t understand how important it is to help Incident Commanders understand their operating environment better, then how can the ICs be expected to pay attention.

There seems to be only one proven method of changing this–experience. Unfortunately, going through a major event and learning from that what the media, stakeholders and internal audiences expect and demand from the response leadership seems to be the only way to close that gap. As one experienced crisis communicator told me, he can tell immediately whether or not an incident commander has been through a real event. The difference in their understanding of and the need for fast, direct, transparent communication is profound.


4 Responses to “The biggest gap in emergency response communication”

  1. Patrice Cloutier Says:

    Hello Gerald …

    I’ve encountered this issue on many occasions although I must admit that things are slowly improving … and i’d put that on account of generational change among senior emergency managers.

    A great proportion (in my experience anyways) come from a police or military background … where info control is key.

    Many are just starting to realize how important the public’s perception of their disaster response efforts is … can actually affect the outcome of operations and sap at public and elected officials confidence …

    that problem is perhaps being felt more acutely now as the advent of social media platforms, new trends in traditional media and audience’s expectations … all necessitate an absolute need to occupy the public space IMMEDIATELY when an incident occurs …

    Now for that to happen, you need a sound crisis comms plan but even before that, the necessary delagation of authority from senior emergency managers to dispense info (even pre-approved messages) you have …

    that’s challenge number one …

    but i’m not without hope … things are improving

    regards from Ontario, Canada

  2. Clinton J. Andersen Says:

    “And I was quite surprised and disappointed that my effort to address this topic at a major conference on oil spill management was rejected. If conference managers and presentation review panels don’t understand how important it is…”

    Did they give a reason as to why they did not find it relevant or worth considering?

    I’m also surprised that IC’s, or corresponding emergency management personnel, are not discussing it pre-incident/emergency.

  3. Doug Says:

    We recently experienced a departmental crash involving one of our members. The only information I received from my chief is “no comment or post of the call please” as a text message. He also did not want any information sent to our membership (via a text message network I’d established). At least one internal stakeholder felt that this smacked of a cover up.

    Of course, dealing with internal and external stakeholders is not the paramount concern of the incident commander, nor should it be – that’s why the public information sector exists. But to block it off like that is simply wrong.

  4. There is a fundamental flaw in EM and crisis management that is hurtling towards a huge unsolved problem! The advest of 24/7/365 news made the critical distinction between Public Affairs (the sort of counter-propaganda that most governmental units engage in on a day to day basis) and the critical activity of Emergency Public Information (a highly technical arena little researched and studied and including issuances of PARs [Protective Action Recommendations]such as shelter or evacuation to the public. Worse the MSM (Main stream media) does not want its spokespersons to understand the difference. Recently another highly public example of the difference between Public Affairs and Emergency Public Information was demonstrated. With WHO going to Level 5 [now Level 6] DHS continued to operate on a Public Affairs basis while HHS and CDC had gone to a highly competently managed system of Emergency Public Information. This better get fixed or people will die becaues of lack of understanding by responders and media and crisis managers.

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