Coordinating Information in a Multi-Agency Response Scenario

Post by Featured Contributor: Gerlad Baron

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many different federal, state, municipal, public utility, and regional government agencies specifically on the issue of coordinating public information in an incident or emergency. I’ve developed public information plans and annexes for several of the largest urban regions in the country. I’ve also had the opportunity to directly observe clients and work with them on major events including Hurricane’s Katrina and Ike, the Deep Water Horizon spill and most recently, the LA windstorm of November 30th. There are some common lessons to be learned from major events and from the effort of many hard-working communication and emergency management leaders.

The goal of coordinating public information in a multi-agency or multi-jurisdiction response is simple and very laudable: to speak with a single voice in providing the public with desperately needed information about the event and the response. When this happens, the public gets the information it needs to take appropriate action if that is required, such as evacuating or avoiding an area. Trust and confidence in the response is built because inconsistencies and contradictions are eliminated and there is clear information conveyed about what is being done to protect their interests.

The problem is that there are numerous very significant obstacles to overcome in realizing that goal of a single voice.

Obstacle 1: Silos or Participant Independence

This applies to both private companies and inter-agency communications. Not everyone gets along. Departmentalization in companies that makes sense and is essential for day to day operations often conflicts with the needs for consistent communication in a crisis. The same is true of government agencies. The people in the public works department might not like the people in the parks department, or the airport staff believes they shouldn’t have to coordinate information with the police department. One county in an urban region may not like the idea of information sharing with a neighboring one. The independence, personal conflicts and even competition that exists on a routine basis needs to be dismantled if coordinated communication will work in a crisis. This is not easy and there is only one answer to it: strong leadership. Someone at a high enough level needs to knock some heads together and say: “put your organizational differences aside for the greater good. We will work together, we will share information, we will be part of the coordinated response, and those who will not play will go home.”

As you can imagine, that is a tough challenge.

Obstacle 2: Speed and Information Discipline

Information discipline in coordinated information is critical. There needs to be an approval process that assures only verified, factual information is released and that consistent, clear, and appropriate messages are delivered. But that very requirement makes most official communication obsolete by the time it is approved. This is something that many older, experienced emergency managers don’t understand. They tend to think the world waits for their pronouncements. But the media and the public today get their information primarily from the people closest to the event. If it is a visible event, observers with cell cameras will distribute photos and keep up a real-time commentary with text, e-mail, and social media sites like Twitter. Even if it is not visible, those impacted will be continually sharing their limited knowledge and perspectives on their Facebook pages, blogs, or e-mails to friends and family. All events in the past few years have demonstrated this new reality. What it means is that the response information has to be incredibly fast or it will be ignored. It also means that rumor management is now the most important task of the “official communication.” Since it is impossible to be as fast as the front-line observers, it is essential that their information sharing be monitored and corrected with verified information as quickly as possible. Social media makes rumors rampant and spread with the speed of light. Some of these are dangerous. While there is a strong self-correcting tendency in social media, making certain that the coordinated communication function can monitor and respond quickly to rumors is essential.

Obstacle 3: Political Messaging and Emergency Communications

Government agencies and jurisdictions are ultimately ruled by elected officials. That is the glory of our democratic system, but it is too often the downfall of effective inter-agency communications. Political leaders have one overwhelming concern: reelection. They got where they are because their instincts are tuned to that reality. So when an event happens, most politicians know that the event represents great risk and great opportunity for them. What’s more, if they show the kind of decisive, strong leadership the public wants and their standing is enhanced. Fail at that, and the public memory may be long. (A very much related problem is how the media covers events, see Obstacle 4 below). Emergency communication from government officials ought to be free of political messaging. It should convey “this is what is happening in the event, and this is what we are doing about it.” But it is never that simple, because it is difficult if not impossible for those elected leaders to see in the gathered satellite trucks and open microphones the opportunity to communicate their own strengths of leadership. Certainly, one of the most extreme examples of this was the way political messaging co-opted valuable response information during the Gulf Oil Spill. But the same process plays out in nearly every government response. When the regional inter-agency response plans call for the Mayor’s, Judge’s or County Executive’s office to approve every message (as the White House required during the Gulf Spill) you know that political messaging will trump effective response information. The only antidote I know for this is strict adherence to the National Incident Management System which requires Command approval, not elected leader approval of information. But I have yet to see an Incident Commander or Unified Command stand up to a Mayor or Executive and say: “I don’t see your name on the org chart.”

Obstacle 4: The Nature of Media Coverage

When the shuttle Columbia disintegrated in flight in 2003, all the pieces had hardly landed before the media was asking the question: who is to blame? In the nearly nine years since then, media competition has gotten far worse and the extremes to which the media will go to attract and hold audiences seem to know few bounds. This is particularly true in a disaster when the competition for audiences is very great. Every reporter, editor and producer knows that it is fear, anger, uncertainty and doubt that glues eyes to the screens. So in a disaster, the media have an objective which is to increase public fear or anger or uncertainty, while the communicators have an opposite goal of reassuring the public based on the measures being taken to protect their interests. This is why you see the “blame game” played out in nearly every event. Someone must be at fault, even in a clear act of God. Someone has to have dropped the ball, or is right now dropping it. Politicians understand this tendency because they have to deal with it almost daily, which is one reason they are very eager to co-opt the communication function. Their survival may be at stake. The clear answer to this significant obstacle is to emphasize direct communication with the public. This means harnessing the full power of Internet communications including a news-style incident website, email distribution of updates to stakeholders and the public, use of social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Flickr, text messaging, automated phone calling and any other direct channel that emerges. It also means that media coverage that is misleading must be challenged and corrected as quickly as the rumors that evolve on social media.

It is still important for government agencies to work hard to speak with one voice when coordinating their efforts in a response. The structures provided by NIMS, the Incident Command System and the Joint Information System/Center are very valuable. But, the obstacles are many and high. Strong leadership is the only solution. Leadership that understands both the value and the obstacles and has the commitment and credibility to bring the parties together in a way that will enable full cooperation in meeting today’s public information challenges.

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