Social Media and Situational Awareness: Suspicious Package at Philadelphia Airport

Airports around the globe had a few hours of worry today. Here in public health, we really don’t have a role in that type of situation (though initial reports did mention radiological material might have been involved), but it’s good to know what’s going on so if we get media calls or someone asks our executive, it won’t be a complete surprise and we come off looking out-of-touch. In a potentially bad situation, everything came out very well — no explosives, no one hurt, get to practice our media monitoring and we look good to the executive.

So, what did we do?

Well, I first found out about the situation on Twitter. One of the local TV stations had a couple of “developing” type tweets about something going on at the airport. I checked with some of our official internal channels and found that this might actually be something. I alerted my bosses and was advised to maintain situational awareness. I was able to manage that through a combination of official and unofficial channels. The official ones, for obvious reasons, I can’t tell you about. The unofficial ones, the ones that really helped develop the overall story for updates to our executive, I’ll describe in detail for you.

The tools. First, two screens. There’s simply too much information for just one screen. Since I don’t have two screens, I used a laptop next to my monitor. One on monitor, I had two browser windows open with internal tools.On the other monitor, Twitter and websites. I had one browser window open to a national media list on Twitter for official news releases. I had another browser window open to TweetGrid. TweetGrid is a great little website that allows you to run concurrent, live searches on Twitter. First, you pick how many searches you want to run (I’ve found that I can’t do more than the 2×3 grid), then type your search terms (or hashtags) into the boxes on your screen. Each box will then update, in real-time, with tweets that include your search terms. The key here isn’t to find one nugget of wisdom in these streaming tweets, but to pick up on things that are just happened. If a half-dozen people report on something (not RT’ing the same message), it’s something to investigate further. If one of the tweets is from a national news outlet, take it with more credence. This takes some getting used to, but really helps in picking out new topics. As new topics presented themselves, I would look on the national and local news websites that I also had open. As I found new search terms, I would swap out older, less useful search terms (at one point, I got rid of bomb threat and added Portland, due to the suspicious device found in Maine).

In the past, I advocated using a tool like Netvibes (or CrisisWire) as a dashboard for situational awareness, but today I found it too difficult to set up day of.

Using the best of social media, mass media and official, internal reports, I was able to provide real-time updates to my PIO, boss and executive on a rapidly expanding incident that had the potential to grow into something that could affect our department. I know that this reads like a paean to Twitter, but I found that it gave me unprecedented insight into what was happening around the globe and in my own backyard — even more than my official channels, at times.

So much is written about how Twitter is a great tool for broadcasting emergency messages, or for developing relationships with one’s stakeholders (both of which we here in Philadelphia have experienced); rarely, though, does anyone mention what a great tool it is for obtaining situational awareness. And that’s a mistake, because while not everyone uses Twitter to receive messages, a whole bunch of people use Twitter to send messages. Messages with information we need. Are you paying attention?

Ad on Soda and Fat Was Part of Health Dept. Dispute –

The argument was becoming too sophisticated to convey in a simple advertisement. “The science absolutely weakens our potential for mass distribution[.]“

This quote is from a NYTimes article on the NYC Health Department’s recent soda and obesity ad campaign. Have you ever draft a thematic message only to have it shot down because scientists in your organization found it less than exquisite?

I go back and forth. Our messaging should be correct, absolutely. But how much creative license should we, as public officials, be allowed? Do we go back to front shot of a doctor in a white coat, monotone jargon ads? Is there a role for implication in our messages, or do we need to be explicit, exquisite, perfect in everything we say?

And if we’re not sure about it, what about when our emails get FOIA’ed, and we’re caught saying, “What can we get away with,” like we’re doing something wrong? What a terribly intractable position.

Qualities of a Successful PIO

Lately, I’ve been interviewing folks for an open position on my staff. The resumes I’ve received and interviews I’ve had so far have been amazing. If you’re looking to fill a position, now is a great time to do it. This post, though, isn’t about my interviews or the position, but my searching to fill the position has prompted to think about what qualities I’m looking for the fill that role.

That thought process has made me think about what types of qualities would make for a successful PIO. Now, understand that this is just a shot in the dark; if you can think of any I might have missed, or there are any that you disagree with, please let me know.

My first thought was quick-thinking. A successful PIO must be able to think on their feet. From a fickle public, to changing media priorities (even within a single interview) to the audacious scope of material and topics the he or she is considered the “go-to” person on, the PIO must be able to skip mentally from complex topic to complex topic without breaking stride–or a sweat. If you’re the type of person who needs time to digest questions and formulate responses, this job might not be for you (though, admittedly, there are techniques that can help with this, you can imagine what the media thinks of a PIO that constantly deflects).

Next, I thought of creativity. While this is similar to being able to think quickly, I find that it’s not covered by it totally. Creativity implies being able to develop novel means of dealing with a situation (for artists, that situation is painting, dancing or writing; for the PIO, it’s developing and delivering messages). A unique view of a response that does not compromise that response will sate a veteran reporter and your responders while serving to amply inform the public.

Next is that PIOs must be easy to work with. Have you ever known a real bastard PIO? Tell me, how long did they last in that position? Many people view the PIO as an intermediary between subject matter experts and the media. Pissing off either (or both) is not a good way to do that.

The next one I thought of isn’t something that all PIOs agree with. I think that the next ten years, however, will show how important tins really is. PIOs should be forward-thinking, or anticipatory. The ability to see situations before they develop into disasters is something that any executive will appreciate, but I think this goes further than just that. A PIO should be able to proactively develop beneficial relationships and partnerships as well as willing to explore new avenues for communication, be they technological or personal.

The final two I considered are small, but just as essential to their success. A PIO should be assertive; one cannot meekly conduct a press conference. By the same token, one must be able to speak up to their executive if something is wrong, or needs to be addressed, or addressed differently. And finally, they must be a quick-study. The ability to read something complex and distill out the essential points in a short amount of time, while not critical, will make it much easier to act effectively as PIO.

Now, please, what do you think?

Crisis Preparation Lessons from the Big One

I’ve captured some of the major lessons learned in a 60 page case study called “Unending Flow.” You can have a pdf sent to you by requesting it here. It is available in both the full form and a 7 page executive summary. The case study is also available on Kindle.

But here are a few things from this event that are making emergency management planners very nervous:

I’ve downloaded Gerald Baron’s (@gbaron) case study to my device (yep, I paid for it) and can’t wait to read it. I hope to pass along my comments soon. In the meantime, download it yourself from the above links.