6 Aug 2013

Global risks

The report ‘Global Risks 2013’ of the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, is impressive. You can find it here http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2013/

It provides an overview of risks as they are seen based on a yearly repeated survey of of over 1000 experts from industry, government and academia. Severe income disparities and chronic fiscal imbalance are considered the most prevalent global risks, next to (consequences of) greenhouse gas emissions e.g. for natural disasters.

The topic of ‘digital wildfires’ is scrutinized, including includes various risks related to the hyperconnectivity of society nowadays, such as massive digital misinformation and cyber attacks. For example, fake tweets have moved markets and influenced elections. This calls for an responsibility and a healthy skepticism of social media users. Obviously social media bring advantages as well as challenges.

Several of our research projects, and the researchers and students involved, aim at investigating and enhancing resilience, see www.crisiscommunication.com. Resilience can be seen on the level of individuals, groups and societies. It relates to the potential to bounce back and recover from crises. Resilience is considered especially needed where risks are non-predictable.

An important resource for resilience is human capital, communities that are able to self-organize. Flexibility and connections between institutions and with public groups, creativity and innovation help create safety as a co-production of social networks and governmental organizations. Communication can contribute to resilience by facilitating such cooperation. This includes sharing of information, e.g. by crowdsourcing. Monitoring social media is important, but what then? We should get also a clearer picture of communication strategies that facilitate this co-production and thus support resilience in various situations. There is a lot to be investigated and developed!

5 Mar 2013

Old stereotypes die hard

Reaction to column by Pekka Mervola, newspaper Keski-Suomalainen, about too many and unnecessary communication officers that just polish organizational images (Turhaa töhinää viestinnässä)
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It must be disappointing that the number of journalists is under pressure, while the number of communication experts within organizations is rising (and where I come from faster than yet here).
But that is no reason to present such stereotypes of a profession that already 10 years ago was different than depicted by Pekka Mervola, as I also know of own practice.

I do not doubt that disappointing tales about professionals can still be found. But then, almost every day when I watch the work of journalists I am sometimes positively surprised but often disappointed that one isn’t much more critical and that there is so little investigative journalism.

He is welcome at our team where we teach students that an image is not something polished the way the organization wants it to be, but an image is owned by publics and valuable information on the organization’s legitimacy. Reputation needs to be earned and can’t be polished.

It must also be irritating to Pekka Mervola that communication experts do not spend all their time facilitating journalist reporting, actually the percentage of time is decreasing. Nowadays we have many other tasks.  Communication is an interface/bridging function that monitors consumer trends and issues relevant for the organization, and helps it to function better in cooperation with customers and other stakeholders. We also support change management.

Communication experts of organizations and journalists can both be considered attention workers, and can also both contribute to involving publics in decision making. Yes, we both have great ideals! Of course, both may also have opportunistic reasons and this may explain why you so cheaply utter these old-fashioned stereotypes, because you think either your palls may like it or it will deliver you more readers.

Actually, Pekka, we have much more in common and that may be a frightening thought to you…

Of course, I realize that it will be so easy to do away with my reaction, as it isn’t translated in Finnish, and yet that would be using even more stereotypes, now against foreigners. Of course, our communication staff department will be disappointed that I didn’t ask for translation. But maybe you have a heart and will visit us for an exchange of opinions and we can tell more about our different and modern views on communicative organizations. You are warmly invited.   ;-)

You may have to read this twice to appreciate the humour between the lines.
Prof. Marita Vos, University of Jyväskylä

3 Jan 2013

Co-producing safety requires a changed culture in public administration

Mid December I was invited as a keynote speaker in an interesting Danish conference in Copenhagen. Much of the content of the day was devoted to the attacks in 2011 in Oslo and Utoya Norway (see earlier blog) and how we can improve preparedness for such sad events, but also other topics popped up of which some had also been mentioned by participants of the conference end of August in Davos Switzerland (also see an earlier blog). I would like to share these topics with you. One is the organizational culture in response organizations that makes it difficult to improvise in crisis times, and –related to this– the cooperation needed between response organisations and with citizen groups or communities.

          We plan for uncertain situations and exercise preparedness in the face of the unknown. If we plan in a too detailed way and develop too precise procedures, we will not be flexible enough to react to new and evolving situations. When we investigate scenarios we should keep in mind that these are just examples or prototypes of what could happen and that reality may be very different. Therefore, exercises should not focus on properly using procedures but rather on flexible problemsolving, in a less detailed but more effective way.

          In a crisis per definition structures collapse and hierarchies may not function in chaotic situations. However, many authorities have a culture of command and control. This makes it difficult to improvise in crisis times and flexibly answer to changing situations. A cooperative and flexible leadership style is also needed. This helps bridge cultural differences among different organizations in the response network, by bringing together experiences to find new solutions. The coalitions that need to be build in crisis times consist of organisations and public groups that may differ for each crisis situation.

          In developing countries community approaches in disaster management have been promoted in for several decades. Authorities and NGOs active in relief activities are expected to do so in contact with local civil groups. UN sources mention that this close cooperation still requires a shift in the culture of public administration. But it seems that for this, by now, western countries can learn from experiences in developing countries. Somehow Western European publics seem to delegate crisis preparedness to authorities, as indeed there are many specialist crisis response organizations. However, crisis response depends on a co-production with citizens and strong ties between expert organizations and citizen groups are an important resource. An example of such an inspiring philosophy can be found on the website of the American organization FEMA.

Some sources:
- Dynes, R.R. (1994), Community emergency planning: False assumptions and inappropriate analogies. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 12(2), 141-158.
- Maskrey A. (2011), Revisiting Community-Based Disaster Risk Management. Environmental Hazards, 10(1), 42-52. (also see UNISDR)
- FEMA (2011), A whole community approach to emergency management: Principles, themes, and pathways for action. New York: Federal Emergency Management Agency. http://www.fema.gov/library/viewRecord.do?id=4941