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Speed, Accuracy, Brevity/Clarity: Pick Two

January 5, 2010

Last week, a freak snowstorm paralyzed Portland, Oregon. The city that copes so well with rain, and lots of it, could not cope with snow. A parlous commute on snow-clogged streets blocked by wrecked, stuck, and abandoned cars and buses frayed nerves and called into question the city’s (and especially the city government’s) capacity to cope with adversity.

As the snow piled up and queries started rolling in, no less than the mayor himself sprung into action. The new weapon of choice in the war against snow-spawned chaos: Twitter. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but does an iPhone and a Twitter client trump snowplows?

As it happens, the answer seems to depend on what you expect. In a political age when people want politicians to show they “get it,” tweeting has certain advantages. For starters, when deployed by the pol-in-person, they add an aire of immediacy and intimacy often lacking in official communications. But with access comes higher expectations. It’s not enough to know about something, you have to do something with what you know.

Criticism of other city officials has been coming hot-and-heavy, not only for their response or its perceived shortcomings, but also for their lack of communication with the public. Not so, the mayor who has gotten consistently high marks for retweeting message-after-message from angry and dismayed snowbound citizens.

So, what does this say? Well, the lesson seems clear enough. If you can’t do much about a situation, at least make it clear you know what’s happening and you care about its impact on people.

This raises another important question though. What kind of information makes people feel better? City officials who have the routine responsibility for communicating with the public in such situations wondered what, if anything, meaningful could be said about the situation. It was snowing, no one knew how hard or for how long it would last, and Portlanders, in typical fashion, were dealing with it rather poorly.

But that, it seems, is just the point. People wanted to know it wasn’t just them that didn’t seem to know what was happening. They wanted confirmation that the situation was unknowable. That knowledge may not have made anyone happier, but it would have put their frustration with not knowing what was happening in the category of the unknowable.

When it comes to public messaging during disasters and emergencies, public officials have always had to balance three competing priorities: speed, accuracy, and clarity.  In the age of Twitter and text messaging, clarity and brevity seem to go hand-in-hand.

It seems, however, that these three things do not function well as fellow travelers.  Communicators seem more or less doomed to deliver only two at a time.  You can have speed and accuracy, but that comes at the expense of brevity.  You can have brevity and have it quickly, but often accuracy suffers if only through the loss of context.  Even when you get the short, fast message right the loss of context often leads to misinterpretation or misapprehension about its true meaning.

Getting it right and keeping it short takes time. As I recall (I can’t find the quotation at the moment), Gen. George S. Patton once famously responded to a request to speak by saying: “How long do I have to prepare?” Never at a loss for words, Patton made the point that he he could speak for two hours on virtually any topic if they wanted him to begin immediately. Even when you’re bigger than life, apparently, it takes effort to be direct, concise, and memorable. In disasters and emergencies, though, time is always of the essence.

This leads us to one final question. How important is it that we get the message right? What’s right for one group may not be relevant much less important to another.

Getting short messages out quickly has become the new currency of the realm in emergency management. Quantity has become more important than quality. Those who manage to act or at least tweet quickly, may not be forgiven their mistakes but neither will their silence be overlooked much less forgotten.

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