Historically, in the field of emergency management or crisis management, the first hour after a catastrophic event has occurred has been referred to as the ‘golden hour’. This is the period during which the people in charge of the immediate response will try to achieve an element of stability – gather resources, determine the short term strategy and try to provide a framework upon which the longer term response, leading into the recovery phase, can proceed with some element of planning, purpose and structure, writes David Stewart.
The now ubiquitous and insatiable social media mean that commanders no longer have the luxury of the Golden Hour to achieve a sense of stability and order in an incident (Glock33/123rf)
This period also allowed for a time to reflect on the key media lines to be taken and to develop the overall media strategy – whether to appeal for witnesses, call for volunteers, warn people to stay away – and also to consider what questions the media may ask and how best to respond to such queries.
As a former police commander, I can attest that this period was crucial as it allowed the initial focus to be on operational delivery with media, while an important element of the aftermath of any incident, secondary in the mind during the initial period of chaos.
In recent times however, the change in media to incorporate rolling 24-hour news channels and, most significantly, the introduction of mobile telephony, has had a dramatic effect on the focus of those leading initial response activities.
At a recent conference, a former BBC journalist talked about the 1998 Lockerbie bombing, where a bomb planted on a Pan Am aircraft exploded mid-air, causing Flight 103 to plummet into the village of Lockerbie in the Scottish Borders, killing 270 passengers, crew and local residents. The explosion happened at approximately 19:00hrs and, although the first journalists arrived on scene within a few hours, the first formal press conference did not take place until the early hours of the following morning. Television shows being broadcast were interrupted to bring news of the atrocity. However, with no ‘news 24’ broadcasts, most television coverage did not air until the following day.
Coming forward two decades to 2007 and the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport, within minutes of the incident, shaky video footage of the burning jeep vehicle at the entrance to the terminal building was being broadcast live on CNN, Sky, BBC and many other dedicated news channels. However, as the police Silver Commander in the immediate aftermath of that incident, although these images were being broadcast literally as I arrived at the scene, the real popularity of social media had not yet really taken hold and my own ‘golden hour’ was not interrupted with the demands of media responses.
Come forward another 10 years however, and the landscape is significantly different. Now, within seconds of incidents occurring, the social media channels – Twitter, Facebook and may others – have video and audio clips, live streaming and instant messaging. TV news channels have their own social media feeds and millions of followers. The ease and speed that news is now broadcast represents a completely new paradigm, and those in command of the immediate response to a crisis no longer have the comfort of a ‘golden hour’ – today it is routinely not even a ‘golden minute’.
Previous issues of CRJ have highlighted the importance of a media and communications strategy for crisis management; however, the challenge remains that much of the time in the first hour is spent actually trying to understand what has happened – is it a criminal act or a natural disaster? Are there fatalities? What is the extent of the damage? Are people safe or still at threat? These questions, and probably dozens more faced by responders in that first hour, are challenging in their own right. However, when media channels are already broadcasting video of the incident itself, eye witness accounts and, very quickly after the incident, opinion pieces from anyone and everyone willing to contribute, the challenge for responders is magnified significantly.
In the past year we have seen on our TV screens and computer screens and smartphones, video of terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes and many other crises and catastrophes, almost as soon as they have occurred.
And the challenge does not stop there – there used to be a television advert with the strapline ‘don’t turn a drama into a crisis’ – well social media now has the capability of doing just this for any organisation. On April 9, 2017, United Airlines staff dealt ridiculously badly with an issue of overbooking on one of their airliners by instructing security staff to remove a passenger who was removing to leave his pre-allocated seat on the plane. Arguably, 30 years ago, the incident and the way it was handled, might have made some local TV news channel but would hardly have been international news. In this instance however, numerous mobile phone users on the aircraft recorded and uploaded the video to various social media feeds. The story immediately became viral and was picked up by news channels worldwide. It trended on Twitter and, in China, was shared more than 480million times on Weibo (a Chinese social media platform). Over 22,000 people signed an online petition seeking the CEO of United to resign and, in the following days, shares in United lost an estimated $250million value.
Some of the memes that went around after the United Airlines incident
There has also been much debate recently about so-called fake news and the use of social media. Without venturing too much into the murky world of politics, the capacity for fake news to spread is a real threat to organisations as well as political entities – in 2016, more than two million people shared a post on Facebook saying that President Obama had signed an Executive Order banning the Pledge of Allegiance in US schools and almost a million people shared a post that claimed Pope Francis had endorsed the then candidate Donald Trump. This not only brings to bear frustration about the fact that such stories appear, but more so about the fact that, no matter how seemingly ridiculous, some people do believe them – or perhaps more worryingly, know them to be false, but support the distribution of misinformation as a means of adding to chaos.
The big question in all of this for those in the world of crisis management and resilience shouldn’t be ‘so what’? The challenges and implications for us are pretty clear, but too many organisations have still to step up to the challenge.
The comfort of the golden hour no longer exists. In order for those co-ordinating the immediate response to be able to do so in some structured manner, any planning done at an earlier stage simply must include crisis communications.
In a world where a dispute over a seat on a plane is viewed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide within minutes of the event, the old ‘media holding statement’ is no longer anywhere near enough. While the communications and information objectives of the information ‘owners’ may be different than those seeking to obtain it, the reality now is that strategies and plans must be in place to allow information to be released as quickly as possible in a manner that does not adversely affect the ability of the responders to do their job.