SOCK it to them in the Media

It’s been twenty or so years since I began using the term SOCKO.  I often worry that it may seem a bit silly or flippant, but I’ve not found a better term to express the impact, newsworthiness and succinctness that audiences of all types need. 

 Speaking and Writing in Sockos

Aces, press lines, Qs & As, key messages, mission, vision and value statements don’t do the trick for me.  If they lack impact or are not newsworthy, reporters won’t use them and audiences won’t remember them. Qs & As can go on forever with inflammatory, confidential or hypothetical questions.  Even articles in The Harvard Business Review question whether shop-floor workers in industry have any idea what to do differently after hearing mission, vision and value statements.

 

So, I’m still stuck with SOCKOs, which imply impact and allow me to discuss the communications theories that the five-letter acronym evokes.  This article made the front page of Winning Campaigns and has been reprinted and archived on the magazine’s web site.     

 

In a recent media training session with a senior member of cabinet, the time came to simulate interviews with one of my trainers.  I played good cop, asking the politician to consider what he wanted to say in the 5 to 8 minutes he’d have.

 

The client and staffers talked a bit about policy and goals.  It was an unfocused discussion.  I took a few notes on what the politician and his staff thought they should say.

 

At the end of the interview, I asked the politician to review his own performance:

 

“Good relationship with the journalist.”

 

“I felt positive about it.”

 

“I’m comfortable with what I said.”

 

“Strong performance” (from staff).

 

I pulled out my notes and observed that in the eight or so minutes he had had to speak, he hadn’t got out one single message that he’d planned to.  Jaws dropped.  I then parsed this observation more finely—either your strategy was wrong and those messages should not have been delivered, or your strategy was right but you missed executing it.

 

I’ve developed an acronym to show how to develop a good media clip.  It’s SOCKO.

 

SOCKO

 

I know this acronym evokes a crash or blow in a comic strip, but it doesn’t at all stand for punching reporters who ask you tough questions.  SOCKO does imply impact, but of the emotional or intellectual kind.  A SOCKO is a true, memorable, clear, short statement that encapsulates your position and makes the recipient say “Ah!” or “Oh!” or “Hum!”

 

SOCKO also stands for Single Overriding Communications and Knowledge Objective.  Each word is worth a few sentences in turn.

 

Strategic

 

A message is strategic because you’ve thought about it, practiced it and rehearsed it.  It is your considered opinion on what to say about a topic.  You’ve pondered what others will say in response and your rebuttal—a semantic chess game.  Rehearsal is done out loud with staff and with audio and video recording equipment.  Does anyone really think Richard Nixon thought about the implications of saying “I am not a crook”?  How about George Romney’s “When I came back from Viet Nam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Viet Nam” (often paraphrased as “I was brainwashed on Viet Nam”).  Or how about John Kerry’s “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”?

 

Overriding

 

Media operate twenty-four hours a day and thus work at three times the speed of normal life.  Reporters need your clip right now.  They do not want to waste much time on context, background, disclaimers and parenthetical statements.  Get on with it.

 

I ask clients to imagine all they know about a topic.  It’s lots.  Reporters and the public can’t absorb it all.  Now I ask clients to imagine all they know about the topic in the shape of an iceberg.  What’s the fifteen percent that’s floating above the surface?  That’s probably the best clip.  You can then move on to the next most important fifteen percent, the next and the next again.  Just like real icebergs with portions chopped off, they right themselves, and another important fifteen per cent pokes above the surface.  Proficient communicators figure out how to combine chunks to sound like new clips when they’re really reiterating previous sound bites put together in slightly different ways.

 

So, a good clip is the overriding message you want to get out and the overriding aspect of what you want to talk about.

 

Communications

 

There’s about a fifty-percent difference between oral and written communication.  In this article, I don’t have intonation, volume, pausing, pacing or any other tools that I have when speaking.  But when I’m speaking, I don’t have fonts, italics, headings, bold, drop initials or any of the graphic tools that a writer uses to hold your attention.

 

Most candidates spend a lot of time with the written word—bills, reports, letters and so on.  They have to be reminded to shift gears when they speak.

 

Good oral communication features stories, imagery and metaphors.  Sentences are shorter.  For TV, a big part of the clip is your positive body language, eye contact, engagement and open gestures.  For radio it’s pausing and variety in volume, pitch and tone.  In print it’s what makes a good headline or picture.  In all cases it’s a polished, condensed version of normal speech.

 

Many lawmakers think that speaking as if they were a paragraph in a complex contract sounds precise and thorough.  It doesn’t.  Even in legal journals, the advice is to avoid being “hyper-correct.”  Studies of judges and juries show that they tend to discount witnesses’ testimony if it is loaded with jargon and unnecessary big words.

 

So pursuant to the above, I exhort you to peruse your verbosity and expunge polysyllabic utterances.  Keep it simple and conversational.

 

Knowledge

 

Knowledgeable people have facts, figures, data and trends at their disposal.  How often does a political speech or clip in the media say something new?  Not often enough.  This takes research and work.  So does deciding how to cite figures.  A number can be expressed as a percentage, a fraction, or a whole number, or one can show the change over time.  Numbers can be expressed graphically with bar charts, graphs, dispersions, scatter diagrams or box plots.  Choose wisely.

 

Whatever the choice with numbers, research shows that anecdotes and images trump them every time.  Numbers are hard to remember and understand, but a story is memorable.

 

Objective

 

So what’s all this work in aid of?  What’s the objective?  In print the objective is a headline, picture, cutline (underneath the picture) or call-out (a quote culled out of the copy and made larger or bold to create a nice graphic look in a magazine or newspaper).  For radio it’s a sentence or two on the news or talk show that people remember.  On TV it’s the same, but it also could be something you’re doing that looks newsworthy.  That’s often called a photo opportunity, but try to avoid clichés, such as cutting a ribbon or “grip and grin” shows of you shaking hands with someone while you’re not looking at her but grinning like a mad fool at the camera.

 

In all cases you want to be remembered by the audience.  You also want to be interesting and helpful enough to keep the reporters coming back for more.

 

Focus Groups

 

I’ve written often about the concerns I have with research techniques.  This column was inspired by my attendance at a focus group.

 

I was just asked to attend some focus groups and I was reminded of the dozen or so reasons I don’t like them.

 

First, rich and busy people usually won’t attend, skewing data to a narrow demographic.  This would taint research in a decent undergraduate social science class.  Worse, focus group companies know where they can get repeat attendees on short notice.  These are often students, the unemployed or at least people who live near the focus group facilities.  All of this taints the data, too.

 

In this particular focus group I feel a twinge as soon as the leader walks in the room.  She is too talkative, as if trying to entertain a client, not conduct research.  Conducting professional scientific research is a learned skill.  Notice I use the term scientific and do not make a distinction with social science.

 

About fifty years ago Heisenberg said the instrument used in a laboratory experiment affects the results of the experiment—the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  A thermometer used to measure temperature changes the temperature of the thing it’s measuring.  In 1962, Kuhn pointed out that scientists have a tendency to collect data that supports their views and ignore that which conflicts.  He used the term paradigms to describe this phenomenon.  Merton and Feyerabend discussed how science is a value laden pursuit, driven by those performing the science.

 

So the focus group leader is in a difficult position.  Waltzing in like the star of the show, trying to impress, performing for the client behind the two-way mirror or any other false behaviour can make that position untenable and skew the data.

 

A focus group leader should dress and talk one step up from the subjects in the room.  S/he is there for scientific purposes to gather data, not make friends or entertain.

 

Most focus groups begin way too quickly.  The leader should allow discussion to evolve slowly with open ended questions to see what the respondents want to discuss.  Closed, specific questions, especially ones that can be answered with “yes” or “no” or a short sentence won’t reveal as much as an open ended questions encouraging discussion.

 

Closed questions yield what researchers call an aided response.  The questions tell respondents what to talk about.  Open questions yield an unaided response where the respondents can tell researchers what to think about—the way it should be!

 

In the focus group I was in recently, we were testing confidential matters.  But let’s say it was reactions to Candidate X.  One of the first questions was, “What kind of car do you think Candidate X drives?”

 

This sparks a discussion of myriad types of cars.  I’m reminded that some people follow car models more than others.  Some may name one car thinking it’s the sportiest on the market, while another person may name the same model because it represents fuel efficiency, economy or some other attribute.

 

In the end, without knowing what respondents mean by the car models they name, you end up with a mish-mash of information that could mean anything.  “Cadillac” means luxury, high-price, high fuel consumption and perhaps the ability of American industry to compete with anyone on the planet.  Who knows?

 

But if there really were value in the car question, it should have begun in an open ended fashion such as, ”How does Candidate X get around the district or campaign trail?”

 

Respondents might name trains, boats, planes and cars.  If we find out people think the candidate flies around in a private jet, that could be a problem.  If cars are really relevant, after an open discussion of other types of travel, the closed ended question could be asked about what kind of car the candidate uses.

 

In the focus group I watched, one respondent got up on his hind legs and said he didn’t think the candidate used a car.  It takes guts to challenge an authority figure and say the question is wrong.  If a respondent does that, it’s a very powerful message that you could be on the wrong track.

 

Next the leader held up pages from the candidate’s web page, passed them around and asked for a review.  That’s not how people use web pages, so it’s hard to tell what was being tested.

 

Next, the leader passed around literature that the candidate regularly sends out.  The question was, “What do you like about the brochures, householders and other communication?”

 

I have two problems with this line of questioning.  First, it misses the opportunity to find out if anybody remembers getting anything in the mail from the candidate.  People may feel boxed into saying they received and remembered the material, when the most valuable information might be that they didn’t.  Next, what if people hate the literature?  Asking what they like about it, cuts off the discussion about what they don’t like.

 

People like to be cooperative when being paid, so you have to be careful they aren’t so cooperative that you don’t find out what they’re really thinking.

 

Next came the Barbara Walters question.  She was famous for asking an interviewee, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

 

In this session, respondents were shown pictures of all kinds of people—young, old, various races, both genders and so on.  As they are looking at the pictures, the leader asks, “If the candidate’s campaign were a person, what person would it be?”

 

Not only is the question a bit odd, it’s hard to tell what people mean when they pick a picture of a fit, muscular looking man.  Does mean the campaign is intimidating, full of thugs or has staying power for the long run?  Next, respondents start answering questions that weren’t asked.  One picks the construction worker because the candidate comes from a part of the district where there’s lots of construction.  Another picks the young Asian woman because the district is becoming more multi-cultural. Some seem to be picking people they find attractive or would like to be with, not who embody the campaign.  This ends in another mish-mash of unusable information.

 

I innocently asked the client where the pictures came from?  It turns out employees of the research company picked them.  They may use them every session, for all I know.  Regardless, it does not make a lot of sense to me to have respondents judging pictures picked either at random or purposefully by a research company to make their sessions go more smoothly.

 

Next, the leader asks what does the person in the picture do for a living, and what does the person do on weekends?  (I assume the construction worker works in construction).

 

Ironically, after going to all this trouble to stimulate fairly irrelevant discussion, the leader cuts off dialogue by asking if anyone has any final thoughts?  When the leader leaves the room to get more instructions from the client, I listen in to the continuing discussion in the focus group room.  It’s actually a better discussion, unaided by the leader.  One older woman began waxing nostalgic about the district, the party and the candidate.

 

So, what’s the right approach?  There are lots of them.  Credible scientists use several different methods and compare them to obtain more reliable data.  Polls, questionnaires, elite interviews with opinion leaders and lay-elite dialogues to see where there are gaps between those in the know and regular folks can all help.  So can old-fashioned research.  Online databases now make is really easy to search everything from newspapers to academic journals.  For all a campaign knows five distinguished academics and journalists have written 10,000 excellent words on the topic over the years.

 

Focus groups can be helpful, if run properly.  But they also need to be augmented with sound, old-fashioned research, preferably in libraries, surrounded by musty books.

 

 

 

Research Design Issues

 

I have many concerns about the quality of research conducted in political campaigns, by those governing and by industrialists.  I even see those in the not-for-profit sector spending precious money on unproductive research. 

“Original” research in universities is often only conducted at the doctoral level.  Research that is done often involves relatively unproductive statistical tables or questionnaires that purport to be” scientific”.  Many students find searching through microfilm, microfiche and original texts in libraries to be passé, if they are aware of the technique at all.  This constricted research in universities translates into marginally beneficial or even irrelevant techniques and results in industry and government.      

 

How is it that the best educated generation the world has ever seen is relying on research techniques that would not achieve a pass in a second year social science course in a reputable university?  In government, and in the political campaigns designed to lead to governing, senior managers are making decisions based on flawed methodology.

 

But we are in unstable times when we need excellent public policy and politics.  America is polarized domestically and the European Union is beginning to show signs of eventually having similar economic and political clout in some parts of the world.

 

For those who look to the private sector for leadership and use the refrain of “running the government like a business”—please don’t.  Fully 82% of all mergers and acquisitions in private industry fail to produce new value.  There is a crisis of competence in all sectors, in part because of poor research.

 

Here are the top ten issues and comments on research techniques and challenges faced both in campaigns and then in governing:

 

 

The population is much more sophisticated than they were when the random sample telephone survey was invented.  A telephone call is now an intrusion, especially during dinner time.  Pollsters are experiencing up to 70% refuse rates.  I tell my clients that often the biggest message they are getting is that their constituents refuse to speak to them at all.

 

Compounding the problem is caller ID which tips people off that it’s a pollster calling.  The moment of silence before the questioner begins speaking is a further tip off, as is the robotic reading of questions from a computer screen.

 

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that up to 10% of the population has just one hand-held device or phone—higher in the crucial 18-24 age group.  Many will not participant in phone surveys because they have to pay the air time.

 

People miss-remember dates, events and attitudes—what researchers call “backward and forward telescoping”.   They also tell researchers what they wish had happened, or use answers to researchers’ questions as surrogates for other messages.  The classic example is that far more Americans reported that they voted for President Kennedy after his assassination than could have done so in the closest election the US had had to that date.

 

Social science is too imprecise to determine that 22.3% of people think or do anything—often referred to as “spurious accuracy”.

 

Citizens reserve the right to lie to pollsters and reserve the right to park their votes in the undecided category or tell pollsters they will vote for a party or candidate when they have no intention of doing so, in order to temporarily reward or punish candidates.

 

One joke about polls goes like this:  “If an election were held today, everybody would be really surprised because it’s scheduled for November 4”.  That kind of captures some of the unreality of polls these days.

 

  • Focus Groups.

 

Robert K. Merton is the inventor of focus groups.  He also coined the terms “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy”.  He disassociated himself from the way practitioners implemented his ideas about focus groups.

 

The dirty little secret about focus groups is the number of times companies rely on semi-professional attendees whom they know will show up on short notice to fulfill a client’s needs.  Students, the disadvantaged and others who need an honorarium or have time on their hands are often overrepresented.

 

There are ways to make focus groups more reliable.  What the Harvard Business Review calls “empathic testing” involves using a product or discussing an issue in real life conditions.  Putting respondents around a board table and having a formal focus group leader ask questions is not a normal life experience or venue and the results will thus be forced and false.

 

Anamatics is similar and involves making the experience realistic and having participants focus on the element to be tested.  Realism in the venue can be addressed by driving respondents around in a van while they listen to radio ads a politician wants tested.  This is closer to how voters would listen to an ad than sitting at a board table.

 

For TV ads, we have stripped rough cut ads into tapes of the actual TV show in which they will appear.  Testing can occur in shopping malls where hundreds or even thousands of people can view the potential ads and react to them.

 

For print ads and even editorial content, we have mocked up the copy and inserted it into real newspapers to see how respondents react.  We don’t tell them what we want them to react to, we first want to know if they care to look at the ad or story at all.  That’s the so-called “unaided” response.  If they don’t look or read, we have some valuable information.  Then we asked them to review the ad and get more valuable information in their “aided” response.

 

Campaigns and sitting politicians use lots of mail.  Direct mail raises money and mobilizes troops.  Newsletters and political “householders” let constituents know what their representative is doing.  But nobody opens the mail or reads a householder while sitting around a boardroom table.  These items should be thrown on the floor in a pile of other mail and magazines to see if anybody bothers to stoop down and pick it up.  If someone does, the next question is whether the political piece is interesting enough to cull out of the pile and read.  If not, that’s a valuable answer in itself.

While on the campaign literature theme, there’s always somebody in political meetings showing a mock up of a brochure or householder who points out that the candidate’s picture or name or other important information is off on the right-hand side “where the eye naturally goes”.  By this time in the meeting, I’m too exhausted from trivia and nonsensical issues to point out that we read from left to right in English, Spanish, French and most other languages prevalent in North America, and only read right to left in Arabic, Persian, and some other languages.  (I wonder where these perceived and received pieces of communication wisdom come from?)

 

With regard to video and TV production, audiences are very sophisticated.  Most people own video cameras and watch TV dozens of hours per week.  Research has shown that focus group attendees will review the production qualities of ads, rather than the content.  To counter this, advertisements can be mocked-up by a graphic artist and one can then test the voice-over or content separately.

 

Candidates can test debate one-liners, still pictures for brochures, slogans and any other communication element, without layers of clutter or testing of extraneous elements.

 

  • Graduated Questionnaires.

 

Self-administered questionnaires are not used much anymore, but are a valid technique.  One of the best examples of these is the old Bureau of Broadcast Measurement diaries that were mailed to households to survey radio listening and TV viewing.  People often put down their favourite station, not the one they actually watched most.

 

With telephone or in person surveys, respondents become easily and quickly fatigued with having to choose among:  strongly agree, mildly agree, somewhat agree, agree, mildly disagree, strongly disagree.  What does mildly agree mean, other than the fact that it’s stronger than just agreeing and weaker than strongly agreeing?  How does one compare one person’s strong agreement with another person’s?

 

The best model to determine the weight to put on a respondent’s report is to see if that person actually changes behaviour as a result.  People often report that they will change voting habits, but actually do not.  This makes their threat to do so a surrogate for other matters that should be probed.

 

In industry, it’s the same.  I have a telecommunications client which conducts quarterly research to determine how much its customers like them.  The results show that up to 30% of respondents say they are “agree”, “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” with the notion of switching service to a new company.  Yet for years the so-called “churn rate”—the rate at which customers actually change telecommunications providers (phones, hand-helds, internet, etc.) is under 3%.

 

It is vital to distinguish between what people actually do and what they say they might do.

 

  • Elite Interviews.

 

It may not sound egalitarian these days, but elites are good respondents because of how they became elites—they know their demographic well.  These one-on-one, in-depth interviews can augment focus groups, polling and other techniques.

 

Who’s an elite?  That’s easy.  Ratepayer groups, condominium boards, religious groups, union leaders and even book club busy bodies all rose to the top of their little heap, in part through knowing what their demographic is like.  They can be a great source of information.

 

 

The term, taken from navigation, stands for gathering data from several different sources, or with numerous methodologies.  Where data intersect, results are more reliable.   

 

Researchers have identified several types of triangulation including:  within-method, between-method, data, investigator, theory and methodological triangulation.  Within-method means two separate polls, perhaps by different companies that say the same thing.  Between method might be a poll and a focus group that produce similar results.  Data triangulation might involve qualitative or quantitative results that are much the same.  If several investigators find out the same thing, that’s triangulation.  Theory triangulation might involve a psychological and sociological explanation of behavior.  Finally, these days, using mixed methods—both qualitative and quantitative—is increasingly the norm to avoid the errors that each alone can produce.

 

  • Mixed methods.

 

The distinction between qualitative and quantitative data has been blurred for at least fifty years.  Few branches of any science have the predictability of Newtonian physics.  Current thinking is to engage in a mixture of methodologies, mentioned above.  So, a reproducible poll with a large sample that claims to be “scientifically” accurate might be cross referenced with qualitative focus groups, elite interviews and such that plumb small samples more deeply.          

 

  • Question formulation.

 

Average People don’t speak the way telephone researchers do, or the way those who write questions think they should.    It’s hard to imagine anyone constructing a questionnaire where a response could be “some good” which is a common expression in the Canadian Maritimes, or “awesome” as is currently popular.  The California “Valley Girl” response of “gag me with a spoon” was probably not used, even in its hay-day.

 

  • Telephone interviewers.

 

In addition to the long pause, script reading and intrusion, some companies balk at long distance charges, skewing data to urban respondents.  For decades, first year social scientists have been warned that telephone surveys obviously only gather information from those with telephones.  Triangulation is the antidote.

 

 

Social scientists are supposed to keep notes, tapes and a reflexive diary to examine themselves as a scientific instrument while they are examining other people or issues.  Commercial researchers would rarely do this.  

 

  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

 

The use of a particular research instrument has an effect on the outcome of the research.  Heisenberg stated, “[o]n the level of molecular research, the presence of the experimenter is certain to affect the results in a way which cannot be measured”.

 

The mere fact that a pollster calls up respondents has such affect.  Asking about certain topics that the respondent might not be concerned with, puts that matter on the public agenda.  Moreover, researchers cannot control for the myriad other variables in that respondent’s life.

 

In the end, perhaps my premise is flawed.  Perhaps we are not the best educated generation the world has ever seen.  We have more degrees and a multiplicity of choices in methods, but may lack the clarity and professionalism of previous generations.  Pity, we need that clarity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Order of Political Business

Citizens who are hard at work, raising children, going to school and raising social capital might assume that there’s a good division of labour in the community.  They’d be right to assume that the first duty of politicians is to keep citizens safe and thus political leaders have lead the police, fire, EMS, and other first responders to make effective emergency plans.

 

But this isn’t always the case.

 

Many world cities are in danger from their own emergency plans which sometimes feature pages of jargon, acronyms, missing appendices, irrelevant lists of contributors, and wishful thinking.

 

Researchers in the field call them “fantasy plans,” relying on public transit, private cars, and even expertise and help that often doesn’t really exist. Up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often the remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.

 

Where does Auckland, New Zealand fit in? Auckland’s Emergency Management Group Plan 2010-2015 is a wake up call for the rest of the world. In a study that I conducted of 100 urban emergency plans from the top English-speaking cities in the world, none face up to lack of preparedness the way Auckland does. Auckland’s plan notes that only about 7% of its residents are prepared for an emergency. This means go bags, first aid kits, stiffening up homes for high winds, preparing for floods and so forth. For a city built in a volcanic field, this may seem alarmingly low, but it’s the truth.  Some Ontario response officials claim that 50% of the population is prepared, and I don’t believe it.

 

Knowing the impact of a disaster can be a good first step to preparing for it. So Auckland’s plan also notes the economic consequences of disasters. The estimate is that a severe natural event such as a volcano could have a catastrophic economic impact. Page 8 of the plan notes that there could be a reduction in GDP of 47% in the city of Auckland and 14% nationally. This is double the impact of the Great Depression.

 

Compare this to San Francisco’s plan, for instance, and you’ll see what an improvement Auckland’s plan is. San Francisco’s Hazard Mitigation Plan includes a section on “seismic hazards.” Surprisingly this is mostly about distinguishing among earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis. A brief history of those events on San Francisco follows. But I could find no procedures describing specifically what to do in the event of those emergencies, nor any assessment of the effect that they might have.

 

Why don’t cities in California note the potential negative impact of an earthquake? How about American cities in Tornado Alley? What about the impact of climate change on cities everywhere?

No plan will ever be able to foresee every form disaster can take. Auckland’s plan rightly notes that “it is not possible to completely remove risk.” It’s important to be flexible and realistic.  Too few cities use pictures to show the risk the way Auckland does, and I don’t recall one that speaks of the “emotional, social, economic and physical well being of individuals and communities.”  There might be one other city that notes the danger from solar winds.  The right kind of storm can knock out power to 131 million Americans, but I don’t see Americans particularly worried about this.

There’s always room for improvement in evacuation, shelter in place, emergency kits, and so on.  But Auckland is on a better track than the vast majority of plans I’ve seen.

All Bound For Morningtown!

In the children’s songs, Morningtown ride (1957 Malvina Reynolds), girls and boys under their blankets are “All bound for Morningtown/Many miles away.”  This refrain is repeated until near the end when we hear that “Somewhere there is Morningtown/Many miles away.”

I sang this song many times (badly) to my boys.  The technique of indicating there’s a train voyage which will take time and cause the boys to arrive “[m]any miles away” is a nice mix of time and place.  So is the notion that the name of the place is a combination of a time of day (Morning) and a settlement of people (town).  

John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost uses a similar combination of precision and vagueness to describe Hell in his quest to “justify the ways of God to men.”

Metaphors are invaluable when soothing children, and when trying to describe and probe the almost unfathomable.

But why would emergency plan writers use this technique?  

Brisbane, Australia advocates “[c]areful planning” in advance of a decision on whether to evacuate.  Fair enough.  In fact the plan suggests ensuring that people “would be significantly safer at another location.”  Readers are also encouraged to determine if the risks of moving to another location are less than the risks of staying put.  

This all makes sense, until you think seriously about what this might mean to a person facing a risk.  Does it make sense to someone who will have to make the life and decision about whether to call for an urban evacuation?  In fact it just might delay information gathering or the decision.  What is careful planning?  Is there a lot of dangerous planning going on that we need to correct?  How much safer is “significantly” safer.  Is this a statistical significance or a qualitative one?  Is “safer” measured in discomfort, injuries, or death?  

Comparing risks is a good idea.  There’s no such thing as no risk.  Some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency.  Moving the elderly and hospital patients probably reduces life expectancy in many cases.  But how shall one measure the risk in one location, the risk of moving people, and the risk of locating people elsewhere?  We are none the wiser by reading Brisbane’s plan.

Waterloo advocates developing a list of “reliable” contractors, but doesn’t actually list them.  

In Tampa they’re pretty precise.  Their Emergency Operations Plan stipulates that “every attempt will be made to obtain the assigned driver or drivers who are familiar” with certain types of vehicles.  Good idea.  There are good reasons why heavy equipment operators, school bus drivers, and 18 wheeler drivers need training and special drivers’ licenses.  Putting a cabbie at the wheel of a school bus or highway coach may be more live-threatening than leaving people in the danger zone.  

Another way of creating the impression of precision is through using words with lots of syllables.  “Procuring” seems more precise than “buying” and yet the end result is still the same—obtaining something.  When someone says s/he will “utilize” a technique, the impression given is that more thought has gone into this than from someone who is just going to “use” a technique.  Wrong, but a strong impression.

Tampa will “ascertain” the type and location of “all” available transportation vehicles.  

Houston uses a combination of vague weakness and proscriptive strength in its dictum that “[l]aw enforcement will request wrecker services needed to promptly respond and clear disabled vehicle impediments …”  Leaving aside how a “disabled vehicle” differs from a “disabled vehicle impediment”, Houston will need an order not a “request.”

This mock-precision does not take the place of actually doing the work described.  Make a list.  Check it twice.  Stop nattering about what a good idea a list would be.

Today in History: July 13th

2007: Conrad Black is convicted in U.S. District Court in Chicago of mail and wire fraud and obstruction of justice. The charges related to diverting funds due to Hollinger International for personal benefit, and to Black and his chauffeur removing documents from Hollinger offices in violation of a court order prohibiting removal.

Political Conventions – Lordly Body Language

1991: Gwich’in people of Mackenzie Delta settle a land claim, getting 15,000 square kilometres of land and $75 million. This is the first regional settlement with northern native groups.

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1968: the Hong Kong Flu pandemic begins. It would go on to kill 1 million people worldwide.

An Ounce of Prevention – On Pandemics

An Ounce of Prevention – Black Death

Today in History: July 4th

1911: A heat wave with record-high temperatures begins in the northeastern U.S., killing 380 people during the next few weeks. The end of the 1911 heat wave was marked by a severe thunderstorm that killed five people. For more on Crisis Management: Click Here

1886: A crowd of 1,500 British Columbians cheers as the Pacific Express, the CPR’s first scheduled transcontinental passenger train from Montreal, rolls into Port Moody, the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, after a five-and-a-half day journey.

1776: In the midst of war with Britain, the Second Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence, announcing that the thirteen American colonies regarded themselves as independent and no longer part of the British Empire.

Political Conventions – Happy 43rd Birthday, America

Today in History: June 13th

1994: A jury in Anchorage, Alaska, blames recklessness by Exxon and Captain Joseph Hazelwood for the Exxon Valdez disaster. This allows victims of the oil spill to seek $15 billion in damages.

1993:  Kim Campbell is chosen to succeed Brian Mulroney as Progressive Conservative Party leader, defeating Jean Charest. She becomes the first woman Prime Minister of Canada from June 25, 1993 to November 4, 1993. She looses the election of October 25, 1993, winning just two seats. She resigns as leader December 13, 1993.

1971: The New York Times begins publishing portions of Pentagon Papers, which was the U.S. Department of Defense history of involvement in Viet Nam from 1945 to 1967. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who became an antiwar activist, stole the documents and gave them to the Times. The Papers showed the Johnson administration had lied to the public and to congress.

Today in History: June 7th

2010: Seven former employees of Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary, including the former chairman, are convicted in India of causing death by negligence in the Bhopal Disaster, and are sentenced to 2 years imprisonment and a fine of about $2000 each, the maximum under the law.

An Ounce of Prevention – Bhopal

1999: Bernard Lord, at the age of 33, leads his New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Party to a surprise landslide victory in the provincial election, winning 44 of 55 seats in the legislature.

1962: A massive earthquake devastates the town of Port Royal in Jamaica, killing about 3,000 people. Many of the buildings where the 6,500 residents lived and worked were constructed right over the water. Thousands more died in the following weeks due to sickness and injury. Aftershocks discouraged the survivors from rebuilding Port Royal. Instead, the city of Kingston was built.

Today in History: June 1st

1980: The world’s first 24-hour TV news network, Cable News Network, signs on. CNN changes the idea that news TV news is packaged for a once-daily 30-minute newscast. Although first ridiculed, CNN soon was known for broadcasting news events as they unfolded, and often beat the conventional networks.

1974: An explosion occurs at a chemical facility in Flixborough, England, killing 28.

An Ounce of Prevention – Flixborough Chemical Facility Explosion

1965: A coal mine explosion kills 236 workers at a mine in Japan.  A sudden explosion led to the collapse of many of the mine shafts and caused boulders to block the escape routes. The trade and industries minister of Japan, Yoshio Sakarauchi, resigned in the aftermath of the disaster.