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What to Keep An Eye Out For

April 29, 2010

I have an interest in public information dissemination during emergencies, but you already knew that. I know that lots of work goes into testing messages, developing messages, getting messages approved and getting messages disseminated. Lots of good people spend lots of valuable time doing public information — especially during emergencies.

And the worst part of that math is that one small, little thing can derail that whole process. Rumors.

I have this thing about rumors. I think they’re one of the most important parts of public information response. Well, actually dealing with rumors is one of the most important parts. I think that out of control rumors can make or break a response. Incorrect information can drive people to avoid those places you want them to go (like PODs), lead them to places they shouldn’t go (hot zones), or make them disregard your recommendations (like to get H1N1 influenza vaccine).

So, what do you do about it? Rumor control. Unfortunately, I have this thing about the term “rumor control,” too. I hate the term. I don’t think you (even though you’re very good at your job) can “control” rumors.

You can, however, find out about rumors and then work to correct them through better or different messages and information dissemination methods. To clarify the terminology that we’re slinging around, public information folks conduct monitoring (think rumor monitoring, media monitoring or social media monitoring) and then engage in what they’re best at, developing and disseminating public information.

Even Gerald Baron agrees with me:

A critical, if not the MOST critical, role of the JIC and the incident PIO is rumor management. that means they must always be the authoritative source of the information. It also means they need to monitor social media continually and step on rumors as fast and hard as possible.

So, I guess that the thing I think is most important is really monitoring. Eyes must be on the TV and radio, on social media, and even listening to the people. (If you’ve got people at PODs or shelters, they can be valuable assets in hearing the latest scuttlebutt.) The problem is that most of this work needs to be done by someone either in the JIC or with access to the JIC. And our JICs are full of people who develop messages. They do half of the job. How many people in your JIC structure are assigned to do media monitoring? Social media monitoring? Rumor collection? Call center data mining? Do you have enough? Are you willing to bet your response on it?

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