Transforming Public Communication Through Technology: The Katrina Example
By Gerald Baron
It’s no secret that technology has created a whirlwind of change in the world of public information. But what many in Emergency Management may not realize is the degree to which technology is transforming the way Public Information Officers (PIOs) perform their jobs.
It’s fair to say that the world is shifting under the feet of today’s Public Information Officer and, for that matter, today’s Incident Commander (IC), both of whom need to understand the demands each faces if he or she is to make informed decisions. Experienced ICs know that their efforts are judged positively by the public only if two things occur: the response is handled well, and the public is kept adequately informed. A poorly communicated public response, no matter how effective it originally may have been, is nonetheless a disaster.
It is little wonder, then, that the United States Coast Guard–perhaps more than any other agency involved in last year’s devastating hurricane season–concluded its emergency efforts with its already-impressive reputation intact, and markedly enhanced. Not only did Coast Guard personnel perform more than 30,000 successful rescues, they also communicated efficiently and rapidly with stakeholders, decision makers, the press, and the public at large. It is likely that this effective communication made the difference in the Coast Guard’s successful efforts during the critical emergency period.
During Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Coast Guard District 8, headquartered in downtown New Orleans, managed to distribute numerous press releases with up-to-date information and respond to more than 500 inquiries from the public and media via its public information Web site. Additionally, Coast Guard members were able to feed the media and the interested public a continual stream of official information, in excess of 250 images and documents.
What is most impressive about the Coast Guard’s performance during this challenging time is the fact that these tasks were successfully carried out by PIOs after their headquarters, along with all their IT resources, had been inundated and destroyed. The Coast Guard PIOs never skipped a beat and never stopped communicating. Their efforts on this front focused on managing an information-rich, public Web site relied upon by the media and stakeholders, all of whom were able to quickly access an accurate picture of exactly what events were occurring, and subsequently engage in interactive, intelligent dialog.
The key to the Coast Guard’s communication success during Hurricane Katrina was an organization-wide commitment to be the best in providing public information while using reliable, cutting-edge technology. The Coast Guard’s virtual communication management system, a Web-based product designed specifically for public information during an emergency response, gave PIOs and their staffs “Virtual Joint Information Center” capability. In other words, while others were hampered by not being able to physically co-locate with needed resources readily at hand, Coast Guard personnel were able to call upon a number of staff spread across various parts of the country to assist, since they all could collaborate online to collect, process, and distribute critical information, as well as effectively manage inquiries.
The U.S. Coast Guard performed with great distinction, and its reputation and role in emergency management has been greatly enhanced. This can be attributed to two key, equally important factors so critical in emergency situations today: its outstanding response effort and its non-stop communications using the best technology available.
Editor’s Note: Gerald Baron is President of Baron Co., founder of AudienceCentral, and creator of the PIER System, a Web-based system for managing communications with stakeholders such as critical team members, employees, public officials, media, and concerned citizens. Baron, a nationally recognized expert in crisis communication and preparedness, is the author of several books, including the upcoming Now is Too Late II: Survival in the Era of Instant News.