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Joint Information Center Plan Update

This post is a bit of inside baseball, and most of my readers might not get anything out of it. Or maybe I can spin it. (wry smile)

So, when US government agencies respond to a disaster or emergency, they’re supposed to organize the response according to the Incident Command System. The part that’s interesting to me on this blog is the Public Information Officer box. What’s not shown is that the PIO can’t do it all in bigger responses (think website, community outreach, media relations, strategy sessions, etc.). So most places will bring in lots of PIOs and organize them into what’s called a Joint Information System (all of this takes place in a place called a Joint Information Center, or JIC).

Background aside, the JIC has been used in every big disaster in the last decade in a hugely successful fashion. Unfortunately, the folks that get the most opportunities to practice it are the US Coast Guard and US Environmental Protection Agency due to their role in responding to oil spills (which apparently happen with some frequency). Both agencies chair the National Response Team, a group of 15 federal agencies who coordinate to prepare for response to hazardous materials and oil disasters. In my estimation, they put out the very best Joint Information Center documents in the world. Just recently, they updated their JIC Model for 2013 (PDF). There were only a couple of really big, substantive changes that I could find, but both of them should be interesting to students of the field of emergency public information.

First is the addition is simply an acknowledgement that social media is a part of the work that we, as communicators, do every day and should be a key part of an emergency response. The NRT added a new Job Aid intended to help walk PIOs through if they should use social media, and if so, how to do it including some best practices. See the following for an example:

  • The use of social media should support the IC/UC communications, not drive them. As the PIO considers people who need information about the response, sometimes social media is a great way to communicate, but sometimes it is not.
  • Social media is a dialogue with the public as an information dissemination and engagement tool. It should be used as a two-way communication tool and not as a mechanism to “push” information. Be prepared to engage and respond to comments and concerns in a timely manner.

The second change is really inside baseball. Remember Deepwater Horizon? You can imagine the JIC that was established to support that oil spill. It was massive, spanned three states and dozens of media markets. They even got kudos for being open (showing the oil flow a mile underwater) and for using social media as a component of their outreach. But then, as usually happens when things go sideways, politics got involved. (If you’re interested in a lot of the backside dealing, see Gerald Baron’s great ebook, Unending Flow: case study on communications in the Gulf Oil Spill (PDF).) The Department of Homeland Security, at the request of the White House, activated the DHS Emergency Support Function (ESF) 15 (PDF): External Affairs. ESF 15 is intended to coordinate all messaging related to a disaster, and differs most significantly in two ways: inclusion of political figures as key stakeholders and focus on strategic messaging and control as opposed to tactical communication.

To the best of my knowledge (and I could be wrong here, call me out if I am), this was the first time ESF 15 was instituted over an existing JIC. The goals of each are different (strategic vs tactical) and the methods vary (especially around message approval). There was, well, some internal difficulties is probably how best to put it. Among JIC geeks, there was some real consternation about the future. If they set up a JIC consistent with their local or state plans which were probably built from the NRT guidance, would they get trumped and pushed out of the way if Washington stepped in?

Well, the new NRT model includes, as its first Appendix, one-and-a-half pages on the difference between the two methods of public communication and offered the following recommendations to help avoid the confusion that reigned during Deepwater Horizon:

  • ESF #15 is intended to support existing response communication efforts, not direct them.
  • NRT JICs are not meant to be absorbed into the ESF #15 organizational structure.
  • Effort must be made to achieve unity of effort and facilitate message alignment.

DHS? I think the next move is yours.

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