Learning About Communicating During Disasters: FEMA Specialist Visits WRAL

Travel is the name of the game for FEMA employees.  Usually, the trips take staffers into disaster zones, or field offices where they can help with the recovery effort.  In July, FEMA External Affairs Specialist Julie Bradford took a very different kind of trip.  She spent two days in the WRAL-TV newsroom to learn new ways for the organization to communicate its message.

Bradford currently works out of the FEMA processing office in Louisiana, where she coordinates both internal and external communications to keep the office on message.  Before joining FEMA in 2004, Bradford had a background in television news, so during a crisis she is often deployed to work with broadcast media in the disaster zone.

WRAL-TV Managing Editor Bonnie Moore knew Bradford from her television days, and coordinated the visit.   Moore said the idea came from a conversation about how much news gathering technology had changed since the days they worked together.

“I wanted to check out the latest technologies so I can understand my role better,” Bradford said in her application letter requesting the visit.

Moore arranged for Bradford to sit down with representatives from all aspects of the WRAL-TV news product over two days in July.  She sat in on editorial meetings for an update on how decisions are being made in today’s digital newsroom.  Over the two days, she met with six people involved in the newsgathering process, including News Director Rick Gall, Executive Producer Waliya Lari, and Chief Photographer Ed Wilson.  Bradford said these discussions led her to re-evaluate the way FEMA releases information, and consider new ways to reach out to the media beyond a newspaper-style press release.

“I cannot say enough about what a phenomenal team you have,” Bradford said.  “I knew from day one that my region needs to implement some changes and our approach to reaching the public during disasters. Now I have specific suggestions.”

Bradford also met with WRAL.COM Director of Content Jodi Glusco to discuss the use of social media by a government agency.   She spent hours with Tony Gupton and Chief Engineer Pete Sockett to learn about the use of LiveU units – a backpack-based device that can transmit a signal on cellular providers, data networks, or even Wi-Fi.  Bradford also learned how to integrate smartphone and GoPro cameras into that technology.  She found common ground with Gupton.

“We chatted about how WRAL used a BGAN satellite unit to transmit from Haiti on the earthquake and from Afghanistan in a warzone,” Gupton said.  “She loved that we were able to transmit from a portable satellite system from literally the other side of the world.”

“You guys aren’t cutting edge, you are the edge,” Bradford said.  “The advances you have made are impressive, and speak highly of your mission to not only reach your viewers, but to focus on their safety and what they need to know.  (WRAL’s) commitment to excellence is inspiring.”

Bradford has already returned to Louisiana and met with her staff to outline some of the knowledge she gleaned from her trip to WRAL.  She will also file a report with her superiors to suggest technical changes.  FEMA wasn’t the only organization learning from the exchange.

“I found it interesting to compare notes with someone on the other side of the emergencies we cover,” said Glusco.  “We were able to give each other actionable information about how to deliver the coverage in a more effective manner.”

Thanks to WRAL-TV’s Stephanie Beck for this capcom story.

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