SXSW: MCDM Student Talks Crisis Communications

VisneskiAna Visneski is a MCDM graduate student and also an active duty U.S. Coast Guard officer who has specialized in public affairs and crisis communications for most of her career.

On Friday, she’ll present a panel at South by Southwest Interactive called Disaster: The Future of Crisis Communication, along with her brother, John Visneski, a Cyberspace Control Officer in the U.S. Air Force. The panel will be moderated by MCDM director Hanson Hosein.

Just before Ana left for Austin this week, she talked with Flip the Media about the panel and what’s she’s looking forward to during SXSW.

FtM: How did the idea for this panel start?

I’ve been working in Coast Guard public affairs since I was an ensign. My first deployment was to Hurricane Katrina, and I hadn’t even been in the Coast Guard a full year. So my expertise and the meat of what I’ve done in my career is crisis communication.

One thing that I noticed that changed since I was at Katrina is how we’re doing crisis communication. Between 2005 and 2009 there was a really big change in how communications were going on, specifically in dealing with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and all that – it was right about then all those really took off. And all of a sudden, people in public affairs are going, ‘Wait a minute. People are watching their videos on YouTube, or getting their information on Twitter feeds, or …” et cetera. So for years, I’ve been thinking about it and when I came to UW, I said, ‘This is the perfect time to do the panel.’ Really design it, really think about it, and put a panel together.

FtM: How well do you think the Coast Guard experience translates to a non-military audience?

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and in other responses I’ve worked along side  other agencies and companies, and it’s amazing how the Joint Center model would be useful to any agency, any company. It’s very flexible and it’s built for when the s— really hits the fan. I’ve come to realize a lot of companies don’t know about it, that this first responder communications system could apply to their company. It was just one of those things, especially when I started in classes this past summer, I was going, ‘Wait a minute – the things we do in public affairs when we’re dealing with a hurricane could work for a company that’s dealing with a scandal or a problem.

It’s fascinating how many of these things cross over, and are applicable no matter who you work for. The same stuff we have to deal with on poise, and how we speak to a disaster isn’t too dissimilar to how a company has to speak to, ‘We just had a major security breach on our data.’

FtM: Have you been to SXSW before?

I have not. This is a first. I have some friends that have been very involved, but unfortunately a lot of my time in the Coast Guard I couldn’t take leave, or I was deployed or whatever. So this will be a first, for me and my brother.

FtM: Anything other than the panel you’re looking forward to?

I’m totally stoked for the gaming expo. A lot of it is I’m looking forward to the networking and getting to meet other people in my field and people who are enthusiastic about the same thing. And my brother and I are pretty stoked to see Big Ass Spider.

FtM: When did you decide to include your brother as a panelist?

The original panel was submitted with a guy from NASA and a guy from another agency, but they were unable to attend. So I needed more experts on the panel, and that’s when I said, ‘What a minute, my brother – who was deployed to Afghanistan when I came up with this idea – is a combat communications officer so he does the hardware side of what I do. So I shot him an email in Afghanistan, ‘Hey dude, do you want to be on a panel at SXSW?’ And I got a one-word reply, ‘Duh.’

So I asked SXSW, can I replace this person with my brother, here’s his background, and they said yeah. My mom is more excited than I’ve seen her in a very long time; she thinks it’s cool her kids get along. And then I brought Hanson on board when we needed a new moderator because the other agency guy had to drop out as well.

Hurricane Katrina rescue. Photo by US Coast Guard

Hurricane Katrina rescue. Photo by US Coast Guard

FtM: So you get to combine two aspects of your life with this panel in the Coast Guard and MCDM.

Yeah. It’s really important on the panel for the people in the audience to see it’s not just military types. Hanson has worked with the military as a journalist, but he’s a journalist. I wanted to have him there to help us move things along, but also to give the journalist’s perspective. He’s dealt with this from the other side. We’re the first responders inside the box. He’s the journalist who’s dealt with the people in the box. So yeah, it’s both sides of my world, but it’s also both sides of the crisis repines world.

FtM: If someone’s undecided on Friday afternoon in Austin, what’s your quick pitch to get them to your panel?

Whether you’re a communications professional, or just someone in the public who might be in a crisis, understanding how information flows during a major disaster is so critical. We’ll be able to tell you how the information flows, where to get your information, how to ask for information, and where to send information. It’s important whether you’re going to be doing the communications or receiving communications. When you look at something like Hurricane Sandy, it’s important for the public to be able to parse the information, to look at Twitter and say, ‘That’s probably not real, but that’s real.’ There’s so much misinformation, and we’re going to talk about how to sort through that information, and that’s handy for anybody.

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