National Park Service Safety Hamstrung by Trump Administration

UPDATE 1/21/17: apparently the ban on National Park Service tweets has been lifted. If so, this is a good move. Though, the fact that we had even discuss this…

ORIGINAL: I grew up in digital crisis and emergency risk communication. I am some sort of expert in what to say when things go sideways, at least online. And when I say go sideways, I don’t mean like when nobody likes your Facebook post. I mean like when there is an active shooter, or a terrorist event, or a natural disaster or disease outbreak.

I’ve written plans that tell government agencies what to say when websites crash and hordes of media are bashing down the door. When people are hurt and scared and desperately trying to figure out what the heck is going on. I’ve trained dozens of communicators on what to post when they don’t know what to say and they don’t even know if their own people are safe. How to project calm, and openness, and safety on Facebook. How to save lives with a tweet.

If all you are used to seeing on your feed is this morning’s breakfast and kids and memes, this might seem outlandish, but it can work. It does work. Think about it: where do you get your news? When something happens, where do you turn? When do you check your Facebook in the morning? Is it first, or second? Where do you go to see if your friends and family are safe after a big storm?

Emergency management agencies, police departments, public health departments, fire services all across the country, and indeed around the world have adopted the standard of posting to social media early and often as one of their primary response duties. This is standard today. This is best practice. This is the bare minimum agencies should do.

And a major, massive government agency cannot do that anymore.

In one of the first actions of the newly-installed Trump Administration, in response to two admittedly inappropriate tweets, has apparently banned all National Park Service Twitter accounts from posting. The blowback from the White House from this was swift and thorough:

We have received direction from the Department through [the Washington Support Office] that directs all [Department of Interior] bureaus to immediately cease use of government Twitter accounts until further notice.

Please ensure all scheduled posts are deleted and automated cross-platform social media connections to your twitter accounts are severed. The expectation is that there will be absolutely no posts to Twitter.

On its face, this seems like overkill and probably not that bad. Maybe a bit childish. So some huge parks out west can’t tell you about ski conditions today. But the NPS, for all of the beautiful vistas they publish online, aren’t just backwoods country. They are places like Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell; places like the Statue of Liberty in New York City, one of the premiere tourist attractions in the nation; places like the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Places that are so-called soft targets. Places which sit at the top of every terrorist wish list. Places where danger is constant, vigilance is eternal, and being able to give up-to-the-second evacuation or shelter-in-place information could quite literally save lives.

And now they can’t use the tool that is guaranteed in the first two or three things that their crisis communications plans says they should do. The best practice that is being proven over and over again in disasters to be the right thing to do to protect people. Hamstrung because of two errant tweets and a wild overreaction.

The email to NPS employees even acknowledged that this would affect safety and security:

PWR parks that use Twitter as part of their crisis communications plans need to alter their contingency plans to accommodate this requirement.

The email, posted by Gizmodo, makes no mention of the expected duration of this ban, any recommendations on how to issue safety and security warnings if needed, nor any planning process to ensure errant tweets don’t happen again. Just stop using it.

The, “hope you don’t need it,” is implied, I’m guessing.

I hesitate to call this bad policy, because it doesn’t even approach the level of policy. It is unsafe, dangerous, and goes against best practice that has been established and vetted around the world.