In·for·ma·tion /infərˈmāSHən/ noun: knowledge that you get about someone or something; the communication or receiving of knowledge or intelligence.
Fact /fakt/ noun: something that actually exists; reality; a truth verifiable from experience or observation.
A common thread running through our profession is that the simplest of concepts are often overlooked or taken for granted. That’s bad news for organizations responding to emergencies and crises, (but good news for crisis bloggers who are on deadline to write about something quick and easy, yet meaningful).
My brosef Brandon and I were infused with ICS (Incident Command System), having grown up in the response community. A core function of ICS is that it provides a common operational language across all participating agencies. We are true believers in the system and when it’s done right, it is nothing short of miraculous. Imagine standing up a billion dollar corporation with hundreds or thousands of employees in a day. That’s the power of ICS.
Yet for all it gets right, for years there was one tiny detail that drove us nuts. It was the position under the PIO responsible for getting data from the command structure for inclusion in news releases and other external products: “Information Gatherer.”
Brandon recently spoke at the South Central Task Force Homeland Security Conference at Central Penn College, in Harrisburg, Pa., about collaborating during crisis, and gave an overview of the ICS Joint Information Center model. I had seen or given this overview countless times, but when Brandon gives it he likes to stop at the Fact Gathering position. This is the position within the public information structure responsible for collecting data from the other elements of the response organization for inclusion in news releases and other external products.
The position falls under the purview of the Assistant PIO for Information Gathering and, as such, often get’s rebranded as the Information Gatherer, which is more than just a misnomer, it’s a potential game changer, and Brandon will point it out because it highlights an important distinction between the two: A fact is a form of information, but not all information contains facts.
Do we sound like nuanced hair-splitting, word-bullies?
Nevertheless, the distinction between information and fact can easily be the difference between crisis as usual and full-blown meltdown. As minor as it might seem to the layman, you really don’t want to create ANY opportunity for confusion between the two.
Example, you ask? Sure.
I knew of a young public information specialist serving on his first pollution incident response as the “Information [sic] Gatherer” for an oil spill off the coast of San Francisco – we’ll call him Petty Officer Raul Phynard. While frantically gathering information in the command post one day he overheard a man say on the phone, “we don’t expect the oil to make its way to shore … it will break up and dissipate before it hits land.” As the freshly trained public information Kobra Kai
I he was, I he recognized this as a very relevant piece of “information” and promptly took it back to my his PIO, who promptly included this piece of “information” in his phone interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. I don’t believe I need to get into what cleanup crews found in Bonita Cove and the South Bay the following morning.
In my – er – Raul’s defense, he was doing what the position implied, was he not? He received, then communicated, knowledge.
I’m not implying Raul was confused by his job title but he was obviously unaware or unconcerned with any distinction between facts and information. If he had recognized this distinction, he would have taken the extra steps required to verify the information as factual. Instead, he assumed that any information from a seemingly credible source was factual.
In the communication business information is what we work with and the words we use matter. In the crisis communication business, facts are absolutely critical, while information can be dangerous. So while it might be a “no, duh” thing to write about, it’s still a fundamental distinction that can never be overemphasized: A fact is, indeed, a form of information but not all information contain facts.
In my opinion, this is one of if not the most important piece you’ve produced yet, a basic tenet in communication. The air is full of ‘information’ during the first few frantic hours of any (potentially) big incident, also known as the ‘fog of war’. During this period, there are few true facts available aside from (something bad happened!), vessel specs (as applicable), geographic features, eco-sensitive areas, potential spill, etc. But the beast must be fed, so the screaming begins and the phones start blowing up. Here comes: ‘reportedly’, ‘allegedly’ (common to LE or SAR and a CYA legal necessity in that area), and of course my mental virus favorites: ‘think so’, ‘should be’, ‘apparently’, and ‘well, I heard…’ But calm heads prevail. I feel that’s important to maintain *some emotional distance and remember that, as information types, we’re not the ones out there on the water rescuing those in peril, and we’re not the ones battling flames or sopping up the oil. You have a pen, a phone, some basic facts to go on and a puzzle/narrative to assemble. The way you handle the line between ‘fact’ and ‘information’ makes all the difference.
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Totally agree with everything you wrote here, Thomas. “Fog of war” — one of my favorite crisis comms analogies. Gotta stay frosty out there!