Pop-Up Experts

I’ve been meaning to post on the topic of experts for a while now. Unfortunately, I’ve been given the opportunity once again, thanks to the events in Japan and all of what I like to call the “pop-up experts.” You know the type. Even though you’ve worked in the field for years, something big pops off (let’s say a radiologic disaster post-earthquake) and some talking head gets prime placement on CNN spouting off the worst-case scenario.

Sound familiar? It should, and if it doesn’t yet, it will.

The amazing Maggie Koerth-Baker of Boingboing.net posted on the amazing story of the MIT corporate risk management scientist who wrote like a nuclear physicist. While he was well-intentioned, and helped a lot of people understand what was happening in Japan, and the problem was quickly rectified by MIT, the point made is larger than that.

There are folks out there—hired guns?—that are willing to say what needs to be said to get on cable news. And since we’ve now established that cable news is willing to amp up disaster for ratings sake, we should be anticipating these pop-up experts. Consider anyone in your field that holds an unusual view of the work you do, or maybe a former employee with some incomplete knowledge of your plans, or a colleague from afar that disagrees with you. Or, really, anyone that wants to get on cable news.

This argues even more for the need to be first (while still being credible and right) in an emergency communication situation. The sooner you are established as the expert with on the ground knowledge of what’s happening, the less likely these “pop-up experts” will be to stand in your place.

I’m sure I’m going to have to post on this issue again, but I wanted to get the idea out there and see what you all think.

Does Your Executive Know The Plan?

Last month, Gerald Baron had an extremely interesting post on his Crisis Comm blog about leadership (usually political) and its integration into emergency response, especially in the situation where a response plan is already in place. The most damning quote in the post comes from Admiral Thad Allen (USGS-Retired) concerning the role of leadership during the Deepwater Horizon response:

I’m concerned with the findings of the Commission and the national Incident Commander that officials at all levels of government were unfamiliar with the national Contingency Plan, our nation’s 42 year old blueprint for how to respond to oil spills. But I am particularly alarmed that the senior leaders of the Department of Homeland Security were either unaware or simply misunderstood how the plan functions. I am troubled that the failure of the Department’s leadership to recognize, accept and follow the plans slowed up the command and control in the days after the spill, undermined public confidence in government, and may have impeded the response.

While Gerald is a much more appropriate person to discuss national responses, I think I can offer some insight into what this means for local response.

I believe that, by and large, leadership at the local level is unfamiliar with the emergency response plans developed, written, approved, tested and implemented in their jurisdiction. They’ve simply got too much going on to get into the details, so I certainly don’t begrudge them that. I also think that political leadership at the local level usually respects the choices that emergency mangers make day-to-day. From their perspective, so long as plans exist, they have political cover. And so long as they have that, the emergency managers can do whatever they want.

The problem comes when one needs to activate those plans. Admiral Allen bemoans the lack of understanding of federal plans, but what about celebrated local leaders who circumvent established emergency plans (some would argue for political gain)? Former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani showed how advantageous it is to successfully respond to a disaster career-wise (Though admittedly, I don’t think that anyone would begrudge his response that day. The political posturing came later.). And I would argue that with a bit of social media savvy, current Newark mayor Cory Booker has shown a willingness to insert himself into emergency scenarios.

Take, for example, his widely praised efforts to respond to citizen complaints via Twitter during the snowstorms earlier this year. I even posted on it, and argued that other local officials could be expected to follow his lead in citizen-directed response via social media. At the time, many emergency managers quietly grumbled about Mayor Booker’s perceived end-run around the city’s established snow emergency plan. Now, to be completely fair, I can’t say that there was an end-run—maybe the Mayor worked out beforehand that he would have access to direct one or more snowplows as he saw fit. But if he didn’t… You think not knowing ICS was a problem, what about intentionally redirecting limited resources during an emergency?

Like I said before, I don’t know if Mayor Booker did that, so I won’t dwell on it. But even if he didn’t, there is nothing to stop your Mayor from doing the same thing in an effort to emulate Mayor Booker’s media success.

So, like all good emergency planners, I believe this is the state of things. It is what it is, as they say. So, what do we do about it? Well, first, acknowledge within your planning that this might happen. Say explicitly that you’ll work with your County Executive to establish priorities and respond accordingly. To not do so would only serve to neuter your response from the start. Then, raise the issue with the Executive. Couch it in terms that you want to protect life and property in your jurisdiction, and to preserve people’s faith in the helpfulness of the county. If your Executive says, “You write the plans, and I’ll duly support them,” you’re golden. If not, well, maybe you can assign him or her a snowplow.

You’re Prepared, But Is The Media?

I don’t have the media chops that most of my readers do, so I try not to comment on the media too much. That said, I do have eyes, and am a dedicated news consumer. I know my expectations as said news consumer, but also know my needs due to my public information role. And my interpretation of the current state of the media leaves me feeling unsatisfied. (See my post on Al Jazeera English as proof.)

The ongoing tragedy in Japan serves only to reinforce this feeling of dissatisfaction and want for more information. And while I’ll admit that, like most modern operations, the media has been cutting operational staff for some time, the shortcomings exposed are really quite sad. (And I say that as a completely un-fact-checked blogger.)

There were two articles that I recently came across that provided illustration of my frustrations. First, the San Francisco Chronicle opined that the, Japan Disaster Shows U.S. Journalists Unprepared. (Be sure to note that the authors place the blame squarely on cable news, lest they be found hypocritical.) They get right to the point of the matter:

The triple threat in Japan – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear reactors in peril – is clearly demonstrating how reporters and anchors are bungling the basics and how the producers and executives in charge of them have fallen woefully short of leadership. How is it possible that on Monday evening (Tuesday in Japan), with the earthquake, tsunami and worries about radiation poisoning engulfing Japan, a CNN reporter can ask this question: “How scary has this been for you?”

Let’s see, my daughter was ripped from my arms in the tsunami, I almost died, I lost my home, my belongings, family, friends. There are constant aftershocks, new tsunami warnings and apparently we’re about to have a nuclear meltdown. I don’t know, dumbass, how scary does that sound to you?

The authors note three specific failures, lack of planning, lack of context and lack of focus. Planning is tough, I’ll admit. As budgets for deployed journalists get cut, it gets more and more difficult to establish a bulkhead in remote locations. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t plan. AJE seems to be doing just fine (and is specifically mentioned by the authors, along with NHK English and the BBC). Without an effective plan, it becomes very difficult to provide context of the disaster. Before this whole thing started, Anderson Cooper (to pick a name) had no idea how far Sendai is from Tokyo, nor how far either were from Fukushima. Understanding that goes a long way in providing correct, non-inflammatory reporting. And the lack of focus thing is perfectly illustrated here:

In one notable stint, CNN was clearly not listening to Georgia Tech Professor Glen Sjoden, who was essentially telling them early on to calm down, that the threat at that point was being gravely overstated. As soon as he was off, they ramped up the fear again – meltdown possible!

The second article is from Kotaku, which is normally a blog devoted to video games, but because of an amazing lapse in fact-checking by Fox News got to write about the state of the media in an emergency.

Titled, Japan Doesn’t Have an Eggman Nuclear Plant, Brian Ashcraft points out the multiple errors in a image shown by Fox about where Japan’s nuclear power plants are located. First, the Sendai plant is in the wrong part of Japan, and the so-called Shibuya Eggman plant is, well, a dancehall.

Mr. Ashcraft says:

People make mistakes. It happens. Fox News, of course, is aware of the goof, and the network’s Andy Levy conceded as much to Jake Adelstein at Japan Subculture. This mistake, however, is quickly becoming emblematic of just one of many mistakes being made in the recent Japan coverage, coverage that often overlooked and completely ignored the quake and tsunami victims. Japanese television showed young students holding up signs on television, hoping to find classmates that disappeared; an old man on a bicycle with a flashlight searching for his wife; a mother and son embracing in a community center after being reunited. U.S. coverage focused on nuclear reactors.

He continues:

Without feet on the ground in Japan, much of the Western press had to rely on wire reports or stringers – who might or might not have been incorrect. The language barrier was also hampering, meaning a delay between the most current info and what was be stated in the West. Then, as the Wall Street Journal points out, Japanese was even mistranslated, leading to incorrect reporting.

I bring up this topic not to bash the media—they are, after all, a vital link in all of our communications plans—but instead to make you aware of the state of our media. Because we depend so heavily on the media to get our messages out, we should enter into that relationship with our eyes open, knowing that the message will not get passed on correctly, that misinsterpretations will be spun in an effort to amp the situation up as much as possible and that much of the reporting may be focused not on helping the survivors, but instead asking them non-sensical questions.

Prepare accordingly.

The Surgeon General Was Not Wrong About KI

Okay, I’ll play the devil’s advocate if no one else will. I think the US Surgeon General is right. People should seriously consider purchasing private stockpiles of potassium iodide for a radiological emergency.

There’s been a lot of hay made in the emergency preparedness community about the recent comments by Dr. Regina Benjamin, the United States Surgeon General, regarding potassium iodide. Let’s start at the beginning of the story, with the interview as I’ve (rather poorly) transcribed it:

Question 1, re: California EOC open

Oh, it’s definitely appropriate. We have to be prepared. I mean, this, we’ve learned from anything. In my experience in Katrina, we need to be as prepared as we can. um, if you don’t need them that’s okay, but the more you prepare, the better you can be. The more lives we can save, the less disability, so whatever we can do to try to plan, um, we need to just be as proactive, as energetic as we can to try to save some lives and keep people as healthy as we can. Also, to educate people on how to be prepared themselves, as well.

Question 2, re: concern on west coast

I think we need to wait and see, but I do think we cant be over prepared. We lean red that with 9/11, we learned that with Katrina, we learned that this weekend with the tsunami, so we have to be ready as much as we can. You know, there’s always gonna be something different that we didn’t prepare for, but the more we are prepared, the better. We can save lives, even if it’s one life we save by being prepared, it’s worth it.

Question 3, re: is stockpiling KI extreme, or a precaution

Well, it’s a precaution. I’m not—you mean stocking up here? (Reporter: Yeah.) I haven’t heard that, but it’s a precaution.

There was a fourth question about HHS response capabilities, but she answered so poorly I believe she was shaken by the KI question and couldn’t put something together and, frankly, it really wasn’t pertinent to today’s post.

Now, most emergency managers are fretting over this (at least I was at the beginning) because of the risk factor. At this time, there is no risk to US residents from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, or any other nuclear reactor for that matter. And KI can have seriously harmful effects if taken inappropriately (e.g., pregnant women and those with thyroid problems). Furthermore, taking regular iodine can be extremely harmful. Add to that combination the fact that KI is only effective against the isotope Iodine-131 (one of at least two, and maybe up to five radioactive elements being found at Fukushima), and it has only been shown to prevent children from developing thyroid cancers as a result of exposure to that particular isotope (read: it’s not been proven to help adults at all).

The worry is that the potential bad is worse than the potential good.

But if you read Dr. Benjamin’s full statement this isn’t a recommendation to run right out and buy lots of KI, it is instead a recommendation that, as a part of being prepared, this is something else folks should consider. She places the Japanese catastrophe squarely within the realm of Hurricane Katrina, implying that people need to be prepared for anything. The media, of course, latch onto one single part of her statement and woefully fail to report the—arguably—more important part on general personal preparedness.

We are in one of those unique periods where people are not only paying attention, but are interested in getting prepared. We should be making every effort to push preparedness messages now. Every effort. Dr. Benjamin is doing that.

Now, I will admit that it could have been phrased better, understanding how the media would’ve focused on the KI statement, but she’s no C. Everett Koop.

If I was going to give that advice, I would be sure to couch it in all of those things I mentioned before, only in the event of a confirmed release, not if you have thyroid problems, better to shelter-in-place, etc. In my eyes, the biggest problem with Dr. Benjamin’s statement was that it was kind of one-off, and not part of some coordinated effort to communicate on issues of preparedness. And apparently, I’m not the only person who thinks this. I’ve heard rumblings of a call recently between emergency managers in western states with the federal government about the Feds stepping up and taking the lead on communicating during this disaster. (If anyone was on the call, I’d love to know about the content of the call.) Perhaps we’ll see some sort of coordinated campaign, focusing more on the general preparedness issues, and maybe not ignoring people’s real desire to get prepared for radiological disasters.

(And if they don’t, I worry that this whole situation might end up looking like the CDC “gas mask” debacle of 2001.)

Via Homeland Security Watch: Do You Know What Your MOM Is?

Following up on last night’s post on lessons learned in the wake of the Japanese earthquake, I’ve got to pass along this post by Chris Bellavita that completely encapsulates my second point about the woeful state of our nuclear risk communication (obviously as part of a larger point about our all-hazards risk communication).

Mr. Bellavita takes us through the thought process of a seasoned homeland security person—one of the experts in the field—living the in the aftermath of the earthquake with family on the US west coast. He reads first from the NRC:

The vapidity of the prose on that page makes me long for ready.gov (whose main page provides links to information about tsunamis, flooding and the 2011 national level exercise).

I’ll look at that later. Right now I want to know more about how the west coast is “not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.

The NRC’s “Emergency Preparedness and Response” page seems to be mostly information for people who live near nuclear power plants.

In 2011, does living on the same planet as Japan mean I now live near a nuclear power plant?

No, says the NRC.

I have to be within a 10 mile radius before the page will speak to my concerns.

He begins looking for potassium iodide online, just in case, and falls into the seamy world of post-disaster profiteering.

And this is from someone I consider to be an expert in homeland security preparedness planning.


Neglected by his government.


Exposed to the worst of people.

What do you think your grandmother thinks? A single mother of three in Seattle? You think they’re scared?

This is something that can be fixed. And unlike $1.6 billion dollar seawalls or nuclear reactors being shaken and blown to bits, it can be done cheaply. All that’s need is the desire. So, where is it?

The Very First Lessons Learned in Japan

(NOTE: This was written before the latest events in Japan. I’ve pushed up the publish time just because it looks like tomorrow morning will be, well, something I hoped I’d never see.)

As it should be in the wake of a disaster, two big things are happening off-site. The first is an outpouring of support (which you can do here and here). The second is everyone in the emergency preparedness and response fields watching very closely to learn as much as they can. And there is so much to learn from a country that was so prepared for disaster but instead saw a catastrophe.

Frankly, I hope the lessons stop soon, but the bad news just continues to compound—more lessons to be learned, I guess. If anyone is myopic enough to think I’m looking at this disaster selfishly, I argue that I owe it to my community to learn as much as I can so that I might help them avoid the same fate. Those who lost their lives in Japan will not have died in vain. We won’t make the same mistakes again.

So, what have I learned thus far? For as little information has made it out and in my tiny slice of the emergency world, there is plenty to learn. The first, and arguably most buzzwordy, is about social media. While traditional communications lines went down, social media use continued and served as a lifeline to those trying to communicate. If you don’t know how to use text-based communications, learn. And if you count people who don’t use text-based communications amongst your target audience, teach them. And incorporate those tools into your plan for communicating with your publics. And if you’ve got someone who sneeringly tells you that the internet will go down in a disaster, you can now tell them that even after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 10-meter tsunami, the internet still worked.

The second is all about our communications. People understand earthquakes (better on the west coast than on the east coast), and after 2004 people understand tsunamis (and after this latest disaster, they’ll know even more thanks to ubiquitous video). But nuclear accidents? Well, there was Chernobyl, which was really bad, and TMI, which ended up being a lot of nothing, and, well… The China Syndrome, maybe? I know this, a meltdown is bad, except that’s what happened at TMI, and they think might be happening there now. And explosions are the worst of the worst, except when they aren’t.

How the heck do you do risk communication in an event like this? And maybe this is just showing that I do not work very close to a nuclear reactor, but damned if I’m not confused.

The thing is, if something big were to happen in Japan or somewhere else in the States, I would have to be able to communicate on nuclear risks to my publics. The last really big threat was TMI and that was in an era when it would’ve gotten two, three minutes on the six and eleven o’clock news, and then an above the fold article in the mornings paper with all of the info coming directly from the mouth of the horse. You think that’s happening today? With a million bloggers and pundits on half a dozen cable news shows are spouting off on every rumor you can think of, filling miles of blog inches and weeks of evening television and talk radio, I doubt it.

If something big happens, my publics are going to be scared and confused. And I don’t live by a nuclear reactor; so I cannot take for granted that they know anything. I have to boil down nuclear physics to a fourth-grade reading level. Sure, we’ve got templated message maps, but I don’t know the last time they were reviewed (before today, I mean). And I’ve got to find a health physicist to find out if they’re even any good!

We live in a world where disasters on the other side of the globe raise questions from our publics in hours. The hazard-vulnerability analysis that I need to develop my messages maps from just grew from Philadelphia-centric disasters to envelop everything under the sun.

For me, the biggest lesson that communicators can learn from all of this is that you are not ready. Consider everything and don’t dare say, “But it’ll never happen here.” Because it doesn’t need to happen here to be a disaster.

On Demystifying Our Message

Ms. Valerie Lucus-McEwen, writing for Emergency Management Magazine, had an interesting couple of articles recently published that I wanted to touch on. The first, Demystify the Message, is an in-depth critique of how emergency managers view emergency warnings from the perspective of vetted, accepted academic research on the topic. The second, Demystifying the Message: An Afterthought, points us to another resource from which we can learn more. Both are worth the click through.

I wanted to talk a bit about the blind spot that these articles call out because I think that all of us are afflicted by it and can unlearn it. (By us, I mean government communicators.) Ms. Lucus-McEwen described it thusly:

Many emergency managers still think of emergency warnings as an initial blast and don’t think of following through by monitoring public interpretation or people’s need for additional information.

She quotes Art Botterell, a disaster management consultant with Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley:

We assume we have the authority to wag out fingers at the public with great vigor and tell them what to do, and them express frustration when they don’t listen. Well, nobody told them they had to listen.

I bring this article to your attention not because I don’t talk about it enough (because I do), but because of the language that Mr. Botterell used. I immediately knew that feeling, and had felt it around topics beyond emergency notification. I think of the same thing when I read a lot of public health communications, too. Which got me to wondering, do we, as government communicators talk to our audiences in a certain way? Do we assume that because we represent some official voice that we can decree things be?

This is dangerous on so many levels. How dare the government assume! I believe that in emergency situations people may have died from the government’s hubris. In public health, people live less full lives because we produce crappy materials that don’t give them the tools to fix their lives.

We are communicators before we are government communicators. We know—deep down—what works and what doesn’t. I worry that we allow ourselves to think that subject matter experts should guide the development of materials because they are the experts. But we are the experts, too. We are the ones who took all of those classes on the communications process (message, encode, transmit, receive, decode), so we know where it can break down. But do we say that out loud? At meetings? In front of a grizzled fire chief or a battle-tested infectious disease doctor? Why not? And does our messaging suffer because of it? Do our communities suffer because of it?