ESF 15 and the Rise of Social Media

I’ve learned a lot from our discussions on public information in ICS and, in my eyes, most of it boils down to two basic questions. First, what is the difference between emergency public information (and risk communication) and external affairs; and second, who has responsibility for social media within a response structure. Both are enormous topics, so I’d like to address them separately. I’ll talk about the former today, and have a post on the latter soon. And please understand, I do not represent the final word in their of these topics. I look to you, my much more expert readers, to advance the discussion.

The meshing of external affairs and emergency information has always baffled me. Maybe it’s my background in public health, but I’ve always viewed public information, especially in an emergency, as a form of risk communication. Dr. Sandman calls this crisis communication. There is a danger, these are the facts about the situation, and here’s what you can do to minimize your risk. That’s it. If that’s not risk communication, then I don’t know what is.

External affairs is an attempt to consolidate all messaging and communication under one roof, so to speak. Which makes sense on some levels. By coordinating one’s messaging, one assures that no one is left out of the loop and that all stakeholders are taken care of. By stakeholders I mean everyone. Consider this list of audiences represented in the following passage of the ESF 15 Standing Operating Procedures, published in August 2009:

9.0 External Affairs Components

9.1 Joint Information Center activities ensure the coordinated and timely release of incident-related prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation information to the public. ESF #15 provides the interagency coordination mechanisms and resource support for Federal JIC activities.

9.2 Community Relations program provides the vital information link between the DHS, FEMA, the State and local communities, and those affected by disasters.

9.3 Congressional Affairs provides information to the Washington, D.C., and district offices of members of congress. It addresses incident-related questions, concerns, and problems expressed by their constituents.

9.4 Intergovernmental (State, Local, Territorial, and Tribal) Affairs incorporates State, local, territorial, and tribal coordination to assist the FCO and JFO with direct communications interaction and outreach to public and elected officials. Tribal Affairs provides procedures to facilitate incident management programs and resources available to tribal governments to assist them in protecting their families, community livelihood, and cultural and environmental resources.

9.5 Private Sector coordination assists the FCO and JFO with communications involving counterparts in the non-governmental and commercial areas.

9.6 Planning and Products develops all external and internal communications strategies and products for the ESF #15 organization and components. This includes recognition of the need for specialized communications procedures to cover language and special needs.

See what I mean? Everyone is represented, though obviously not equally.

The difference lies in the goals of each. Emergency public information is intended to reduce the risk of harm in a population in response to an event. External affairs is intended to coordinate messaging. Let’s look at what that entails.

Emergency risk communication tells what’s going on as soon as the situation is confirmed. As soon as guidance about ways to avoid harm are identified they are released, in full. Sexually transmitted diseases are a great example of this. Many people don’t like the idea of pushing condoms at high school students, but that’s what works, so risk communicators walk around with pockets full of condoms. An emergency public information example is the new, “if you don’t evacuate, you will die,” message. Implicit in that message is the idea that someones town or community is (or will very shortly be) a deathtrap. It’s not pretty, and you won’t make any friends, but it’s the information people need to hear to avoid harm. Another core idea of emergency risk communication is the use of all avenues of communication. Social marketers are great in this world, because they understand that audiences are segmented, and single media approaches tend to not reach everyone.

Coordinated messaging, like is done in external affairs operations, does do emergency risk communication. Component 9.1 above confirms that. It is a core function, but it is only one core function. And as we saw in Gerald Baron’s case study of communications during the Deepwater Horizon response, Unending Flow, as the ESF 15 structure was placed over the Unified Command’s JIC, increasingly messaging was being coordinated by the White House. Does it sound like Component 9.3 had some say in what was released? It’s entirely feasible (though I know of no situation where this has happened), that a member of Congress or other government agency could hold, tweak or selectively release emergency risk communication message, or provide information to favored media outlets (in this situation, I’m thinking less CNN vs. Fox News than online social media vs. mass national media press conference) to suit goals that are not in the public’s best interest. The message becomes that no longer is a Congressional district a deathtrap, even when it very well may be.

Now imagine all of those Assistant External Affairs Officers in the soup, all contributing or asking for updates. In the Unending Flow case study, it was identified that there was up to six levels of approval for messages when ESF 15 was instituted, as opposed to three and fewer in the JIC system. Now think about the speed of social media. Gerald Baron’s case study gives us the amazing story of a citizen watching the live video feed submitting a note that the flow had increased unexpectedly. The response could not get an approved message on that for nearly 12 hours. By that time, the increased flow was fixed.

So, am I arguing wholesale against ESF 15? No. I think that it serves a fine purpose, and responses utilizing ESF 15 structures are peopled with top-of-the-line folks who only want to help. But I’m me. And I work at the local level, in one of the riskiest businesses out there. In my eyes, nothing should come before full and immediate disclosure of critical, life-saving information. And even putting aside Mr. Baron’s point of view, the fact that Congressional representatives from the affected areas get as many AEAOs as the public at large (the Community Relations component) is worrisome. It shows to me that a balance is being struck (and maybe my not seeing how that is important is just me being naive) between emergency information and “other concerns.”

So, getting back to the topic at hand, one has to wonder if the current DHS thrust toward collapsing the public information part of response with the liaison part of response doesn’t ultimately harm the call for emergency public information dissemination using the quickest and most direct medium—that of social media?


2 thoughts on “ESF 15 and the Rise of Social Media

  1. Great post! the line between what’s operational i.e. delivering emergency info (from a JIC ???) and what’s a bit more “political” … the coordination of messaging involving multiple agencies, interests and levels of government, is always going to be blurry and a moving target.I’ve always believed that emergency managers and their communications staff need to do some “educating” of the senior executives and political class before incidents occur to clearly define roles and responsibilities. It helps build confidence in EM professionals by elected officials … but in the end, we’re all victims of the “democratization” of emergency management brought about by social media. People can now share instantly what they feel about your response, what they’re witnessing on the ground … the public perception that is shaped by that sharing of information on SM platforms will play an increasing part in influencing how elected officials see their role in a crisis.

  2. Your blog is terrific. Emergency Public Information/risk communication is where the rubber meets the road and in particular in the issuance of PARs and PADs–Protective Action Recommendations and Decisions. This is a highly technical area and would appreciate your posting on case studies besides BP you know about and in particular PUBLIC HEALTH.

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