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The Role of Technology in Communication and News Management

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New communication management technology provides the means to manage the most challenging issue or crisis situations. Gerald Baron explains how to manage information distribution, inquiry management, internal communication, user access, and other demands of the instant news world.
This chapter is from the book

The first notice came from the border patrol manager at the international boundary between the United States and Canada. The local Department of Emergency Management (DEM) was notified and the volunteer Information Officer was alerted and activated. The situation: Someone had stopped a large motor home at the border crossing and a cloud of steam or gas was escaping from the air conditioning unit on the top. When approached by agents, the driver ran off and escaped on the Canadian side. The agents on the scene suspected it was a bioterrorist attack and the gas escaping contained a toxic substance, possibly anthrax. This occurred 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon.

The Information Officer was home mowing his lawn when he got the call. He quickly went to his home office with his computer and broadband Internet connection. The local DEM public information site had been prepared for just such an eventuality. He opened up the "dark site" and filled out the templates for public notices and press information. The incident dark site had been prepared in advance and was available on the Internet for immediate public launch, but was not visible to anyone except the communication team.

Using the internal message center and chat room functions built into his communication management system, he confirmed some of the latest information and completed a draft of the initial statement. The ICS was just beginning to be implemented and the local police chief was serving as Incident Commander while other agencies such as the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were notified and activated. The Incident Commander approved the draft public notice and press release and the Information Officer pushed another button, posting the approved documents to the incident site, and then clicked another button to launch it as a public site available to anyone.

He also then reviewed the contact names contained within the system. He selected all the reporters in the immediate area and some of the major media reporters in the region, then he clicked a button to send the release. He decided that this release would go out via email and telephone. The system automatically converted the text of the release to voice, and across the region reporters began to receive telephone calls with the information. At the same time, the press release popped up in their emails, and if they didn't have email, their fax machines were humming with the startling news.

The Incident Commander said he wanted all agencies involved to be kept informed of the event and the unfolding response and activities. Simultaneous with the release of the press information, the Information Officer selected prepared mailing lists of community leaders, as well as local and state government officials. They also received emails or faxes with the news, as did the local hospital, the Red Cross, the local and state health departments, and every police and fire agency in a 30-mile radius.

It was now 4:30. Reporter calls were coming in, but many of the reporters were following the advice offered on the release, indicating that the best way to submit questions would be through the media inquiry function on the public Web site. The Information Officer monitored the inquiries coming in even while he activated the JIC team of volunteer and agency information professionals. He activated them using the system to send a simultaneous email and telephone message. He monitored their involvement by seeing who had "signed in" to the password-protected intranet site that served as their common desktop. He decided given the urgency and time, it was best they operate a "virtual JIC" for a couple of hours. They would operate from their homes or offices until a command center with sufficient computer resources was established nearer to the scene. He assigned one of the JIC staffers as Assistant Information Officer External and redirected calls coming in to his busy cell phone to the new Assistant Information Officer's home phone. The assistant grabbed a couple of other JIC volunteers and assigned one to handle local media, public, and government inquiries, whereas the other was to take state, national, and international inquiries.

The inquiries coming in by phone were captured by the team entering the relevant information into the communication system. Other inquiries coming in via the public Web site would show up on the "uncompleted inquiries" list. To complete the inquiries, information responders would answer the question and click a button to automatically email them, at which point they automatically moved into the "completed" category. Inquiries were shifted among team members by another click of the button. Meanwhile, the Information Officer could observe all this activity from his home office and send messages to responders when they were getting off track or weren't using the latest approved information. Using the internal email and secured chat room to communicate among team members meant they never needed to leave their common work platform, the intranet site, and the New Message button would light up when a message was directed to them.

The Assistant Information Officer Internal was given the duty of keeping up with the rapidly unfolding events and preparing the needed updates. One person was sent to the scene to be the liaison on scene with the Unified Command. A computer was now available at the scene so he used this to keep a running update of the rapidly unfolding situation. Multitiered access levels allowed key members of the information team as well as leaders of the responding agencies to review this minute-by-minute document online, whereas others on the team, such as those responding to inquiries, were not granted access to this "raw" information to prevent inadvertent release of unconfirmed or unapproved information.

An hour into the event, the hit counter on the crisis-capable server was moving into the hundreds of thousands of hits, but it was built to withstand millions of hits so it was in no danger of crashing. Members of the public, the media, and the government who were not on the initial release list were now taking up the offer to get automatic email updates and were adding their names by the hundreds to the mailing list available on the public site. The next email update was sent to all those who had just signed up. A press conference was scheduled and all reporters, including those who had added themselves, received an email notice as well as a phone call alerting them to time and place. An additional and connected Web site was established, this one without public access. The Information Officers for the response agencies were given passwords for this private site so that their agency leaders and top U.S. and Canadian government officials could get immediate access to the most complete information before it was released to the public. This site was launched and managed by the Information Officer, still operating from the vast high-tech control room that used to be his daughter's bedroom.

Did this event happen? No, but an international bioterrorism drill playing out this scenario did happen in August 2000. Called Northern Exposure, this drill brought together more than 40 federal, state, provincial, and local agencies from the United States and Canada in a table-top exercise to prepare for just such an event. I served as the Information Officer and the technology just described was available. If the drill had not been a table-top exercise, the communication technology could have been implemented in much the same way as described.

The new media environment requires that today's executives and communicators have a different picture in their heads about communicating with the public and the many stakeholder audiences. The old picture revolves around sending out press releases by broadcast fax and holding a press conference or conducting media interviews. The new picture is more like managing a control room in a highly complex industrial facility where multiple processes are occurring at the same time and everything needs to be carefully managed and controlled. Such a complex operation cannot be managed by sending runners out to check on this unit or that operation and having them report back to the office. Complex process management, in which speed is the driving element, requires all aspects to be networked together, with monitors displaying real-time information about what is happening.

New communication management technology provides the means to manage the most challenging issue or crisis situations. Even a relatively small team can manage the quickly escalating demands of multiple audiences wanting immediate, direct, and individualized information. This technology is entirely Internet-based, providing universal access. However, it is highly secure and controlled with multiple levels of user access. The most important advantage of using the new breed of communication management technology is that it puts the full potential of the Internet as a communication tool in the hands of executives and communicators and removes control from technicians, Web programmers, and IT managers who understand technology but don't understand the communication demands of the instant news world. You might note that in the scenario just described, not a single programmer or technician was part of the information team and there were no delays or additional steps required to make use of any aspect of the Internet.

The term communication management must be distinguished from the now commonly used term content management. There is a critical difference. Content management is focused on allowing a group of users with password access to jointly manage and control content on a Web site or Web sites. Communication management incorporates the content management function but goes considerably beyond it. Content management is aimed at "pull" communications, where viewers come to your Web site when they want and view or download information that they are seeking. Communication management incorporates interactive communication and "push" communications. Interaction involves the give and take, input and response, of most human communication. Push means directing the information to specific individual users via email or other more traditional means such as fax, telephone, or mail.

The many tasks to be managed by the communication team can all be supported by currently available technology. We'll break these tasks into various elements, understanding that in an instant news event, they flow seamlessly and simultaneously together.

Information Development

If we look at the task of the communicator as getting the right information to the right people, right now, the first facet is the right information. Information development involves collecting the facts, data, comments, images, and all other elements needed, and then drafting those elements into an appropriate form such as a press release, backgrounder, fact sheet, or other type of document. Normally, the draft needs to go through a review process. The more important it is in terms of the company's or organization's reputation and credibility, the more thoroughly it will be reviewed. The editing process might put it through many hands and eyes, with a variety of people marking changes. It is not uncommon for people outside the organization such as attorneys, consultants, or communication professionals to be consulted or to actively participate in this process. Finally, it must be approved. A communication manager might have approval authority over most such documents but when the company's present and future rests on what is said, the CEO or another top executive might be the final approval authority. In a crisis situation, this is most frequently the case, and if the ICS is implemented, nothing can go out without the approval of the Unified Command.

All this can work relatively smoothly using today's common computer and Internet tools, such as word processing software and email programs. Documents are stored on network servers, outsiders participate via email, and their changes are incorporated back into the drafts on the server. The problem with the normal way is the need for speed. In a crisis situation, the normal way of doing things is almost always too slow. The instant news environment and the expectations of Internet users require a process that takes just minutes rather than days or hours. The urgency of getting it out is matched by the urgency of getting it right because no other releases or documents might be more important to the viability of the organization than the first few releases going out after a major event has occurred. Equally important is the development and distribution of information inside the organization to employees, managers, and families.

The only viable solution today is to place the process on an Internet platform. Document and information development needs to be accomplished completely on a common desktop made possible by the Internet. Team members can participate regardless of location, provided they have password access. Current technology provides for intranet sites specifically designed for this purpose. Drafters can create new documents in advanced Web editing tools that present a word-processor-like functionality. These same advanced editors provide those used to common word processing software the tools to place images, design pages, and fully control how they want the information to look.

Images and files can be uploaded for placement in documents or on a public Web site simply by browsing for the file on a desktop or network server. Each person with appropriate password access who signs into the intranet site can then see which drafts are available for editing and what changes to earlier drafts have been made by other editors. Designated "approvers" are established by the intranet site manager, and only they have the approval buttons on their screens allowing them to move the document forward, posting it to the public site or sending it for automatic distribution via email, fax, or telephone.

The very significant speed versus accuracy issue can only be effectively resolved by having a team prepared to work together instantly and providing a platform that makes that possible. Having document creation, editing, and approving set up on a universally available but highly secured intranet site is the only practical solution for this problem. It has proven its worth in numerous crisis situations, demonstrating that it is possible to resolve this difficult dilemma.

In addition to providing an Internet platform for document creation, more companies and organizations are also preparing for the demands of the instant news world by preparing incident dark sites. These are fully prepared Web sites that are not available to the public but can be made available in very short order when launched to provide the information that the public and the media are looking for about an event. These sites are exceptionally helpful in getting a headstart in providing information, and they provide an important opportunity to get ahead of the information curve.

However, most of these sites are built with common static Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) technology, which means they are dependent on technicians or programmers to keep them updated as an event unfolds. This might not be a problem for an event that has no changing information, but such events are quite unlikely. By building dark sites on a fully dynamic communication management platform, a company has a better chance of staying ahead of the curve. Drafting, editing, and approving information online is one critical element, as is the ability to instantly post existing digital documents without technical assistance. The option, of course, is to have an exceptionally efficient and responsive Web team able to keep up on a 24/7 basis for an indefinite period of time. The cost and inefficiency of this suggests that the technology platform is a more suitable solution.

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