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The Future of Public Information?

May 10, 2007

I seem to have gotten a bit of attention from those last two posts, so perhaps I should expand on one of the topics raised.

As a blogger, it should expected that I view the medium as a valid means of communication and would defend it against detractors.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m wrong.  Bloggers are different from traditional media types; they fulfill a different role in the increasingly overwhelming information universe today in two ways.

First, and most importantly, is the technology.  This blog, and indeed most emergency management & response blogs fail to take advantage of the amazing technology available to us.  Given a theoretical disaster situation, a blog could easily post a Google Earth mashup of the scene of the disaster, replete with embedded pictures and text describing what she’s encountered there; host podcast interviews with local authorities; start a vlog with hourly sitreps, push press releases out to thousands of people with RSS feeds; and immediately post photos of the scene; not to mention more traditional text-based blogging like I do.  And all of this can be done on a single internet-connected computer.  Scratch that – will be done.  Unfortunately, probably not by a member of the emergency public information team, but someone will post video, audio and a running commentary of the situation – bank on it.  While traditional media members can do all of these things,

The second difference is more ephemeral.  Bloggers differ from journalists in training, expectations, supervision and history.  It’s a sad fact, but many bloggers routinely misspell words, and can be heralded as the picture of poor grammar.  The information published can be poorly written, improperly sourced and generally not up to our preferred standards – but it’s still published.  And consumed – voraciously – by the public and the media.  Bloggers will increasingly become the initial source of information for most of the public, with traditional media feeding off the reactions of those bloggers.  Ignoring the first line of information gathering, where initial opinions are formed, violates the crisis relations tenet of setting the agenda.  We do so at our own peril.

So, what can we do?  How does a NIMS/ICS-compliant JIC or PIO deal with legions of foamy-mouthed bloggers?  As the adage goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”  I propose that blogging specifically, and social media generally become a critical piece of crisis communications.  Someone should be tasked with seeking out, mastering and ultimately using alternative means of communication.

And what would we gain from this?  Simply put, a voice.  A voice of immediate reaction, a voice that can deal with real-time rumor control, a voice that can, most importantly, be trusted and available.  But, you ask, isn’t that what our PIO’s and press conferences provide?  Do we not track and address rumors?  I answer that we do, but we do so at a twentieth-century pace, and depend wholly on twentieth-century gatekeepers.  With the advent of the twenty-four hour newscycle, America has become accustomed to “always on” news.  We collectively expect to get up-to-the-minute updates on any and all stories that interests us.  The internet has only fed the beast; no longer do we have to depend on four or five broadcast entities, there are now thousands of news delivery agents, enough to satisfy and indulge our own unique viewpoint.

In the aftermath of a disaster, we can expect this voraciousness to exceed all expectations.  On 9/11, Americans were glued to the TV.  During Katrina, the few updates we got were from both the old and new media.  Who knows what will happen for the next one.  But I can tell you that Americans, our constituents, our customers will not stand for bi-hourly announcements or talking head conjecturing.  They will want to hear about what’s going on from the horse’s mouth.  We are that horse, and a blog could be our mouthpiece.

It’s not fair, but we are subject to our country’s whims, and now, more than ever, our country craves information.  We would be foolish not to accede to their demands.

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