An Emergency Communications Shortfall: The Elliott Lake Mall Collapse

The preliminary findings of the Public Inquiry into the Elliott Lake Mall Collapse leads to a communications shortfall.

The Elliott Lake Public Inquiry is getting it correct. Much of the frustration both Elliott Lake community members and the broader Ontario audience experienced, resulted from lack of implementing an up-to-date emergency communications strategy.

As the preliminary findings of the public inquiry indicate, there was not skilled communications personnel on site or on the emergency response team in the Elliott Lake community when needed most…at the onset, during the response, and in the recovery of this disaster.

Both municipal governments and emergency managers need to take note of these findings. Your reputation is at stake when you fail to meet the fast paced demands by the community when such incidents occur.

Gone are the days of ‘issuing a news release’ and all will be well. The convergence of social media and smart phone technology has thrown the media cycle timetable out the door with yesterday’s trash. Sadly, local government, emergency managers and much of the broader emergency response community have still to learn this simple truth.

I’m posting the following CBC North news clip for your reference…it’s well worth a listen!

Incident communications in the age of social convergence: four competing imperatives

Social convergence impacts emergency managers and first responders in many ways. Gone are the old days of responding in quasi-isolation. This means particularly difficult new challenges for Public Information Officers.

Time is a luxury no incident commander or PIO can afford. There are now four key imperatives when a disaster or emergency occurs:

  1. Respond … that hasn’t changed … but organizations now do so under much more scrutiny
  2. Alert your audiences … be socially convergent (use mobile tech and social networks)
  3. Monitor social networks and collate, analyze and present social data to support command and efficient decision-making in real-time
  4. Engage in ongoing dialogue with your audiences after you have warned them, keep them updated on the incident.

Why those four critical actions? Because, to put it simply, it’s what your audiences and stakeholders expect nowadays.

Responding: the scrutiny is now intense and immediate. And the judgment passed on your response also includes how fast you communicate. People will have different views on your actions …. Positive or negative. One thing is sure: if you rely as the traditional media to distribute your crisis messaging, you’re doomed to irrelevancy.

Alerting: relevancy in the age of social convergence means SPEED. Speed is not the only thing … it’s EVERYTHING. That means moving at the speed of your audiences (the pace of Twitter and other social networks) to be relevant … and using mobile tools to reach them to have a chance to be heard at all …. What you’re aiming for is to insert yourself in the alerting and news networks that are created organically by people online when an incident occurs. It also means you’ve got to have a solid presence ahead of any crisis too. There are tools that can help, such as Ping4Alerts! who marry mobile and social effectively.

Monitoring: recent events in Boston, Kenya and in the Philippines have shown the great value of social listening during incidents as a source of situational awareness and a way to gauge the public perception of your response. Operationalizing that listening is essential for supporting effective decision-making. You must find a way to finding out how the incident is progressing by screening out the fluff and concentrating on what witnesses are putting out; detecting and countering false rumours and defending your reputation. Next you must collate and analyze this info and feed it back into your command or ops structure in a way in can be used in real-time. A challenge for sure, but now eminently feasible and necessary. I like using a mix of Hootsuite and Tweetdeck for the listening part, Google docs for reports and Crowdmap for simple, easy-to-update maps.

Engaging: public alerting and warnings are one thing. But they are only the start of the comms continuum during incidents. Our audiences now demand constant updates. Does your PIO have the ability to keep sending out info? Either technical capabilities or the necessary authority? Now ensure you have linkages inside your social media listening teams to ensure that posts that should be answered get prioritized and acted upon.

After all, if the bad guys are listening to social chatter … shouldn’t you?

Now, the real hard part is that all of the four elements of the incident/crisis comms plan have to be implemented/conducted almost simultaneously. Again, time is a luxury no PIO can afford any longer.

Operational social media listening

If the bad guys can monitor social media during a terrorist attack …shouldn’t you be able to do the same thing in a crisis or disaster ?

Recent events have again demonstrated the absolute necessity for organization to monitor social media during incidents or crises. This goes well beyond using social media as a communications tool  (althought it’s a great start). The mall attack in Kenya has given another (albeit a rather unpleasant one) argument for the benefits of active social listening.

It’s not only the bad guys that get this … The Boston bombings earlier this year highlighted the effective use of social networks by local authorities..

It’s simpl,e really. News breaiks on Twitter … comments and opinions … witness accounts, follow almost instantly … as we saw with what happened in Washington near the Capitor Building today.

Other organizations recognize the need to monitor social media to gather more info and get a better operational picture. Frankly, they either do this or run the risk of being marginalized.

I had the opportunity in the last few months to lead a project on behalf of Agincourt Strategies, and collaborating with two key experts (Gerald Baron and Bill Boyd), to provide a social media monitoring training program for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

It’s now an imperative for organizations in all fields, public or private, to have the ability to stay abreast, minute by minute, of any crisis. To do so, they must monitor social media and for the following five reasons:

  1. emergency information/messaging validation: how are your audiences reacting to your messages?
  2. identifying reputational threats? what’s being said out there that could negatively impact public perception of your response/actions in a crisis … and hamper your ability to fulfil your mandate?
  3. Routing calls for help or assistance through the proper channels …we know people will use social media to call for help in a disaster … few, if any, public safety agencies are ready for this …yet they must have a plan in place to do it …
  4. detecting and countering rumours: a critical function of any social listening operation … in fact, probably the most important aspect at the onset of any crisis.
  5. finally, gathering info (pictures, videos, tweets, posts) that provide you with a better idea of what’s going on … adding to your comprehension of an event.
This five-part rationale for social listening during a crisis serves everyone to some extent: a PR crisis, an emergency response, a public health risk …. It’s essential because the world now moves at the speed of Twitter … Sees the story unfold through Instagram or Youtube … and provides ongoing comment on Reddit …