In Early August I wrote Homeland in a Haiku, an entry about the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to better utilize social media and new technologies in its efforts to promote homeland security and preparedness. I was reminded of that piece this morning as I was reading CQ Homeland Security and came across Matt Korade’s story, Technology Makes Crisis Communication More, Not Less, Complicated.
Korade writes of the uptick of Tweets from people at Fort Hood, Texas after the shooting attack earlier this month in which Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan allegedly killed 13 people on base and wounded 30 others with a high-powered pistol.
The press, unable to get quick information from the government, turned to Twitter and other social media to get information. Information that, written in the panic, may not have been accurate or complete. As Korade reports, at a Friday forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, a panel of experts discussed how the government faces challenges in crisis communications and how changing media is effecting how we communicate and respond to incidents - both disaster and terrorist.
In the August piece, I noted that DHS, as it migrates to a social networking model, should seriously consider how to harness the power of the people to be advocates for preparedness or to spread information on such things as evacuations, routes, and safety information. These individuals, after all, have created a mechanism – often trusted among their circle of friends – for spreading information quickly in a manner that outpaces traditional media. How much more prevalent, for example, is it becoming for a tweet or facebook status update to report a current event before the “breaking news” emails of the traditional news outlets?
At the time I took a pass in tackling the challenges by noting that putting together such a system would keep the lawyers at DHS busy for awhile. I also noted that there would be required some thought on how to counter gossip and panicked responses that might not be completely accurate, the situation that occurred at at Fort Hood. In thinking about it more thoroughly, the only way to effectively take control of the situation is to become the conveyor of unfettered information in real time. To gain this control, however, the government would have to lose control – control that is already eroding away in today’s “need to know now” landscape.
It would require a change in how the government, especially law enforcement, communicates with the public. In an incident that involves quick response, the responders should be most concerned about the safety and security around the incident, rather than tweeting and updating. If that incident is determined to be a crime, then revealing tons of details could be detrimental to an investigation, taint evidence, and potentially harm prosecutorial efforts down the line. That said, it may be time to reconsider how information is released. Obviously, the controlled press conferences of the past do not satisfy today’s needs.
Indeed, the use of social media to send out alerts was recently recommended by the Homeland Security Advisory Council in its recent assessment of the effectiveness of the color-coded system. In its final report, the HSAC states:
# 14 Since 9/11, a revolution has upended media and communications; the Homeland Security Advisory System should stay current with the communications revolution and adopt an “all tools” approach in reaching the general public. In addition to conventional media, this approach should encompass:
- New media generally (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Wikis, etc.)
- Social media
- Delivery through PDAs
- Public sign up for online/PDA alerts
Quite simply, if there was a mechanism for the government or official entity to tweet and update more effectively and accurately it could supplant some of the more viral inaccurate communications out there. (Obviously, it is is never that simple). To do so successfully, the government should enlist the private sector to help. The Silicon Valley companies that helped create the social networking phenomenon “get” it and could be a great resource, as could the companies who have created on-demand response and communications systems. Some of these are already being utilized but a more comprehensive approach to building out a system or systems is in order.