I don’t see how we can’t talk about climate change. The facts are overwhelming, the science is sound, and our wildland fire experiences validate both.
Now, I get that the topic is uncomfortable and I certainly get that while not official policy, not saying much if anything about climate change is a preference that has been well communicated by the current administration. Obviously, it’s a political minefield and I’m not advocating climbing on top of the soapbox and preaching. Most of the time, I don’t think communicators on wildland fires or other disasters should bring it up. But neither should we shy away from discussing climate change when it is appropriate or when asked by the public, stakeholders, cooperators, or the media. As incident responders, we have the obligation to honestly confront reality and as true crisis communicators we have a responsibility to discuss that reality in a way that establishes competence and confidence. If we dance around the topic in an obvious fashion, we damage our standing and the public’s view of our expertise.
Many organizations require their employees to undergo regular training on personal ethics. The goal of these trainings is to expose one to the common humanity and encourage you to not be a jerk. Yet while we spend numerous hours on the personal, we rarely talk about the larger ethical issues revolving around what we do as organizations--in this case, as emergency responders--even though many of the decisions we make before and during a crisis have ethical dimensions. For example, in the wildland fire world, we routinely prioritize the protection of communities and major infrastructure over individual homes, smaller clumps of structures, and other values when suppression resources are tight and the number of incidents are large. Is this right? Is it moral? Ethical? Is it ethical for leadership to place those decisions on IMTs and other responders? Is it ethical for the decisions to be made without an extensive public discussion about the values that will be applied to those decisions?
To the nonspecialist, disasters have an accidental nature which is related to the factor of surprise when they occur: the normal, structured, everyday aspect of some form of human life is suddenly and directly ruptured via events that initially exceed customary social and physical prediction and control. This... together with a historical and contemporary certainty that some disasters will occur in the near and intermediate future, renders the inevitable fact of disaster a compelling moral or ethical subject. Human well-being and harm will be at stake in ensuing disasters, and this in itself creates moral obligations to prepare for disaster and reflect on the moral principles that do or do not apply in responding to disaster.
There is a disconnect between practice and academia in how we describe and define what PIOs do. Practitioners tend towards the positional descriptor, incident information, which is not frequently found in the academic literature. Crisis communications seems to be the preferred term for scholars. However, that can refer to a whole host of public affairs, corporate communications, and incident information issues. Most often, you will see it applied to reputation management studies where topics like damaging rumors or corporate malfeasance are covered. Some writers use crisis communications to mean just about everything to include incidents, but still focus a bit more on the business world. A few scholars started using disaster communications to separate out the communications issues associated with incidents like fire, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and hurricanes. That sounds a little sensational and doesn't quite apply to some all-risk assignments, so right now, I'm stuck between crisis and incident.
About the time I finally became a Type I Public Information Officer, I became frustrated with the inability to advance my knowledge and skills beyond the standard courses. After maxing out on NWCG and FEMA classes and then teaching everything I could, there was no set avenue for further learning. Local colleges offered Communications courses but there was nothing in those classes that would get at what I wanted, assuming I could even describe what I wanted.
It all led me to the obvious conclusion that there is a training and information deficit for advanced PIOs and Public Affairs Officers in government service. This will be the first in a series of posts where I talk about what I have found out there and I hope it will engender discussion and recommendations from others. This is certainly not to be considered the final word--it is merely what I found to be useful information.
Welcome to the Anchor Point Blog, by me, Jim Whittington, of Whittington & Associates, LLC which is on www.incident-service.com. Whew. There will be regular guest bloggers too. I bet you can guess their names.
This blog will discuss IMT dynamics, leadership, incident information, crisis communications, risk communications, media issues on incidents, NWCG and FEMA training, emergency management, academia, wildland fire, and other directly or tangentially related topics. There might even be posts that are not related at all. Here’s some other admin stuff:
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.