Is There Really an Elephant in the JIC?

I ask again, is there really an elephant in the JIC, or is the elephant little more than our rote recitation of NIMS/ICS?

There’s an article that’s been making the rounds about how social media doesn’t work in standard NIMS responses due to the need to have all public information approved by the Incident Commander (IC). I, in fact, have made that same argument in the past. The thinking is that the process for releasing social media messages (obtain fact, corroborate fact, develop message, get message approved, release message) is too long for social media to be a useful tool for public information in a crisis.

Two of the most famous examples of how delays in crisis response message approval can harm the response come to mind. The first is recounted by Gerald Baron in his recently released case study, Unending Flow, and the second was related by Barbara Reynolds during Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication training I attended in September. The BP incident is about when the containment cap slipped off the well-head resulting in an increase in oil being released into the Gulf. The response team was notified at 8am of the increase by a member of the public who was watching the live video feed. Twelve hours later, after myriad approvals and confirmations, a press release was given to the media on the change in status. The biggest problem is that the cap had been fixed hours earlier. Do you believe my media release, or your lying eyes?

The second example took place after 9/11, around the time when the anthrax letters were poisoning mail workers and citizens up and down the Eastern seaboard. The media, and public, began asking the CDC if people should begin investing in gas masks. According to Dr. Reynolds, the CDC thought it was a great question. They interviewed their subject matter experts, communications experts and crafted a perfectly written response that read, essentially, “No.” And three weeks after the question first reached the CDC’s attention, it was released–right after thousands of people picked up their gas masks and they were almost impossible to find in stores.

These two examples provide dramatic relief of the problem of too-late releases of critical information. And the fact of the matter is that NIMS best practices dictate that all releases are dependent upon the approval of the IC.

So, strictly speaking, social media doesn’t look to have a role in NIMS. Late information is worse than no information and unapproved messages are verboten.

That said, I believe that there are ways to work within NIMS and still utilize social media, in fact, to release messages of all types, including via social media, and still adhere to the tenets of NIMS.

Gerald Baron offers a suggestion in this white paper:

To solve this problem, the following steps must be implemented by today’s PIOs and Incident Commanders:

  • Fast approval of individual facts
  • Increased autonomy while maintaining information discipline
  • Continuous web updates and direct distributions
  • Maintain full spectrum monitoring
  • Make use of appropriate social media technologies

It is the first two points that I’m interested in. First, approval of facts. Something happened. Something else did not happen. These are incontrovertible facts that an IC should be able to approve. Do they still need to approve the tweet that says that fact, AND the Facebook post that says that fact, AND the line in the press release that says that fact, AND the answer to a question posted to the internet forum asking about that fact? I would argue no. If the message is approved, the language should not have to be.

This is accomplished by the application of Baron’s second point. The IC should provide the PIO with some level of autonomy. The IC doesn’t tell the POD manager how to fill out a POD registration form, they’re given leeway in doing their job. The IC doesn’t tell the firefighter where to point the hose, they’re given leeway in doing their job.

This works because of a specific tenet of NIMS. Everything not delegated is still the responsibility of the IC. That’s how the Operations Chief is able to manage the operations, it’s delegated to them, giving the IC the opportunity to oversee the whole response. The IC delegates the role of leading operations to the Ops Chief. The IC should delegate the approval of language to the PIO. Approval of facts (read: messages) should still reside with the IC, and rightfully so.

Social media messaging as a public information tool fails only when responders look at it myopically. Every good IC knows that the public’s interpretation of the crisis response depends, to some degree, on the public information effort. Good ICs find a way to make this work while still adhering to the tenets of NIMS. By using an approval of facts methodology, combined with increased autonomy, the IC and PIO can work to ensure that crisis information is released as soon as it’s needed.