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Guest Post: Of the IMS, emergency information and social media

August 17, 2010

Ed. note: I’m at a PIO Summit put together by the local Task Force, so I thought I’d put up a piece by a PIO. Patrice Cloutier is one of my favorite thinkers in the PIO world. Blogging from the crisis comms command post, Patrice gives an inside peek into the world of boots-on-the-ground crisis communication in emergency management. He also Twitters at @patricecloutier. On August 10, Patrice posted Of the IMS, emergency information and social media, reproduced below.

There have been a few blog posts and stories recently on the importance of social media in emergencies … such as this one:

I’ve also enjoyed reading about the limitations of the Joint Information Centre and the political aspects of the emergency info work done on the Gulf oil spill by Gerald Baron:

This had me thinking … especially after my latest experience planning communications for the security group that helped ensure safe and secure G8 and G20 summits in Ontario in June. The use of social media was a key feature of our plans:

These might appear a bit disjointed but really reflect emerging realities. I believe the whole central tenet of the IMS doctrine is being shaken by social media and, more importantly, by the changing expectations of the public and our audiences.

To sum it up … while the IMS is based on a fairly hierarchical approach with scalable and flexible structure …it’s still pretty vertical … When it comes down to providing emergency information, it does not reflect the growing nature of how people communicate with each other today.

Increasingly, communications is done on a diffused, distributed basis. That’s certainly true for social media … It’s not top down but horizontal, vertical and diagonal, all at once. There are multiple conversations going on at the same time … No one stops to listen to someone preaching from the pulpit anymore.

That’s even becoming true from traditional media as well … the consumer can now fashion how he or she gets their news:

That’s more and more parallel to the social media model. Now, how do you reconcile that with the top down, very structured model embodied in the IMS?

In the domain of emergency information where PIOs have to run everything by the incident command … how can you keep up with the constant demand for immediate and relevant conversations?

These don’t only begin once an incident or disaster occurs but way before when you need to do sound risk communications … It’s not about preaching anymore but convincing … taking part in people’s lives in a productive and effective manner. If you make valid points, provide valuable and implementable info and do so using the right tone … there’s a better chance that your audience will adopt the behaviour your desire them to adopt.

It’s even more relevant during the response phase when immediacy and relevance are critical … Can you do that in the IMS? How easy is it to convince command, particularly a unified command structure where political aspects play a large role, that you need some latitude in what and how you communicate?

We hear many stories on the “cloud” as the way of the future. Is the IMS doomed to be replaced by a more diffused, yet collaborative and participative scheme? The emergency management family keeps growing and is no longer the exclusive domain of first responders, governments and agencies. The private sector, service organizations and increasingly, private citizens, are involved. The Crisis Commons is a good example of that.

If social media and the future of communications is about empowerment, than I think that the way authorities react to emergencies and communicate about them should also reflect a more collective approach.

Yes, there will always be a need for somebody to be in charge. But, for those who provide emergency information, it’s absolutely imperative that those in charge recognize that EI is not an afterthought but a critical piece in ensuring that your response is perceived in a positive light,

The only way to do that is engage your audiences, give your PIOs carte blanche, open channels to all audiences … even those who are critical … and be fast … so you can correct misconceptions … respond to media inaccuracies and help shape public opinion…

In the current IMS, with or without a Joint Information Centre, I think there doesn’t exist that ability to adapt to the diffuse and collective world that’s social media today. The old way is too directive and does not inspire conversations that can help foster the right behaviour adoption.

It’s imperative to get the right people together … form a community whether based on geography or affinity. Work with them and use the pooled knowledge and expertise to get your messaging out.

Our audiences are diverse and fragmented, so should be our communications channels and philosophies.

Hope this makes sense somehow!

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