Events unfolding about 60 miles south of me are mind blowing. Mid Saturday morning a hillside fell. A cubic mile of dirt rock and trees rolled like a freight train through a rural neighborhood in the enclave of Oso, in Snohomish County, Washington. Before it is over, this likely will be the most catastrophic natural disaster in modern Washington State history. Local, state and federal assets have been mobilized. As I write this, dozens of people are missing, with families clinging to ever thinning threads of hope. Given the photographs and presser statements, these threads will be broken soon.
Sitting forward in my easy chair, focused on the live TV reports and social media posts I realized that I would have been mobilized to assist as part of the Northwest Incident Management Team. This group of outstanding emergency response and public works professionals is well trained and experienced in dealing with large scale emergencies. As a past incident commander for the team, I can safely say this is the largest and most complex incident the team has confronted. And, I wish I was there. But, I’m relegated to my new role as private citizen.
True to form about how I used to communicate in crisis, here is my bullet list of private citizen observations from my cheap seat:
• The Washington State Patrol’s Mark Francis, the designated PIO for the Patrol’s District 7 was “Johnny on the Spot” early on in reporting the slide in social media. But, the scope of the disaster would not be known for some time, as revealed in his early tweets. He had enough presence of mind to post a couple of pictures VERY early on
• The aerial pictures show the magnitude of the slide and scope of the disaster. I’m guessing the initial responders would have killed to have some of these pictures early on. Now, tell me, could a quick deployment of a UAV helped in the initial size up? Absolutely.
• Snohomish County was quick to engage on Facebook. They not only posted timely info, but ENGAGED with locals pleading for info. They are also fully engaged on Twitter as well. Seeing lots of responses to citizen/media inquiries.
• The initial media briefings were scatter-shot at best. Understandable given the circumstances, but a professional PIO moderator can help make sure agency representative statements and media questions are better orchestrated.
• I don’t see or hear a “single voice” or “face” for this incident…yet. I keep seeing media statements from various government officials; The Snohomish County Executive, Emergency Management Director, local fire chief, etc… all issuing/posting information and giving interviews, and posting on social media. Where is the unified message identity? It would be great to see a single FB/Twitter page to go to for the latest official aggregate information. But, I also understand the political challenges in doing so.
As I said, it is easy to quarterback from the cheap seats. I know my colleagues are working their asses off in trying to make a worst case scenario better. I also understand the politics of communication during crisis. You can have all the social media “instant news” tools in the world. But, if you don’t make a concerted effort to mirror “Unified Command” in your communications strategy, you are simply tooting your own horn. And, in crisis it can sound like a kazoo.