Social Media as a Decentralized Emergency Alerting System

Too many parents today are reeling from the events of Monday morning,
when a young man opened fire in a crowded high
school
,
killing at least three students and wounding others. I know I hugged
my kids extra hard that night.

Like all horrific situations, though, if we refuse to learn from it,
we should expect to repeat it. The lesson I took from Chardon applies
not only to my professional life, and as such, fits into the purview
of this blog, but also my personal life. And it has to do with social
media.

Social media, for all of the positives and negatives bandied about it
is ultimately a tool, another way to communicate. And we know that
when stressful or upsetting situations occur, we reach out and
communicate. The students at Chardon High that morning did exactly
that. In fact, some of the first reports of the shooting can be found
on Twitter
,
posted by students as the shootings were occurring! This was before
the school was locked down. Before the school’s emergency alert system
was activated. Before the police showed up.

So my lesson is two-fold. First, monitoring of social media, even just
trending topics, can alert one to events that are still in progress.
And who among us doesn’t want to know something is happening sooner?
Second, monitoring of social media, even just local trending topics,
can make me aware of what’s happening in my child’s world. Is his
school locked down? Has her day care been evacuated? Are they safe?
And what parent among us doesn’t want that reassurance?

I Speak for the Mayor

Here’s an interesting concept I heard about the other day
that I’d love to see become a best practice.

You guys know I don’t like to talk about work, but something came up
that was just too good not to share. During a recent citywide social
media meeting (Wait, your city doesn’t have them? Maybe that should be
today’s best practice.), we discussed a weekend when our
social-media-loving Mayor didn’t have anything on his calendar, so he
decided to personally respond to everyone who reached out to him on
Twitter. (Look around your office. If anyone who works in
Communications’ jaw is on the floor, they’re probably reading this
right now.) Everyone. In most places this would be a great thing (and
I think it was a great thing here, too), but in a city of 1.5 million
generally cranky and sometimes contentious residents, it can get a bit
hinky. Rest assured, we as a government survived. But we, thanks to
our Mayor, also learned a valuable lesson: he doesn’t know everything
that’s happening in our city.

For a Mayor like ours, who likes to be hands-on and give the right
answer the first time, you can understand how frustrating this must’ve
been. So, we came up with a plan to have all of us in each of the
Departments check in on the tweets directed at our Mayor. If there was
something that fell under our purview (Health for me, Parks for
another fellow, Licenses and Inspections yet another, etc.) that the
Mayor didn’t already address, we were given carte blanche to answer
the question. No approval needed, no coordination through myriad
channels necessary. If you’ve got the answer, give it. We weren’t
provided with schedules, no assignments given; just check in when you
get a chance. True social media spirit.

This is an important tactic for a variety of reasons. First, and maybe
most importantly, it takes the burden of being the City’s everything
off of the Mayor. He is high visibility, so everyone knows his Twitter
account and reaches out to him first. Then he’s presented with the
choice of ignoring constituents or repeating his “Ask Me Anything”
weekend. No good choice there. Maybe just as important, though, is
that allows the public to see that our City government is more than
just a Mayor and his handlers. It’s real-life experts who spend all
day thinking about that question you just asked. It’s real customer
service. (Key point: serving the customer/constituent in the format
and fashion that they request—huge.) And in today’s economy, proving
that your job is important and necessary is a big bonus. Finally, by
actively participating in the Mayors’ very popular feed, those
smaller, more specific Twitter accounts and users get the kind of
visibility they can’t pay for. Win, win, win!

(And as for those trite downsides: speaking for the Mayor and the lack
of approvals? Every person on an official City Twitter account is
speaking for the Mayor all day long already. He’s the one responsible
at the end of the day, so why not let him benefit from that
relationship by relieving some of the burden? And unless your Mayor
already approves each tweet now… Well, you’ve got bigger problems if
that’s the case.)

Pinterest is Useful For Crisis Communicators

If you follow the tech blogging community at all, you’ll
have heard of Pinterest. If you don’t
follow that community, and you haven’t heard of it already from a
friend, family member or co-worker, you will soon enough. It is
officially the hot new thing.

Intended to simulate the look and feel of a corkboard (the site calls
it a pinboard), Pinterest is a digital place to save and display
images meaningful to you, with a link back to the source. Pictures of
cute puppy dogs to make you smile, skinny people to remind you to put
down the (second) cupcake, inspirational quotes, etc. The social media
part of this is that you can see everyone else’s board, and can pin
stuff from their boards to your own board. What an amazing way to
learn more about someone; you can see everything that they find
important.

And Pinterest is making headlines. Even as an invite-only website
(which is a hugely clever way to ensure that people joining the site
have ready-made friends on there, so there’s never that element of,
“so now what do I do,” that bedevils sites like Twitter), Pinterest
is driving more referral traffic than Google+, YouTube and
LinkedIn
.
COMBINED. That alone would get headlines, but there’s one more
interesting part to this equation. By far, the majority of Pinterest
users are women. In the U.S., some statistics have the figure at 87%
of active users
.

So, naturally, I wanted to know more, both for personal and
professional reasons. (So I asked my wife for an invite.) What I found
was that there’s really nothing girly about the site. It functions
just like my magnetic whiteboard at work, with all kinds of important
or interesting pictures hanging from it. Then after pinning a bunch
of tattoo pictures and Star Wars
stuff
(or you could do like Chief
Boyd
and post lots of
motorcycle pics and man caves and prove that you’ve got way more guy
cred than I have), I started thinking about work and how we, as
communicators, could use this new medium in an emergency.

And I failed.

Really smart folks like Patrice
Cloutier
and Karen
Freberg
and Gerald
Baron

are convinced that Pinterest can be a useful way to communicate in an
emergency, but I just don’t see it yet. I think that ultimately
they’ll be proven right, but that doesn’t mean that Pinterest can’t be
useful for those in our field right now. But instead of after or
during, before.

Take, for example, this great pinboard
by the wonderful folks at APHL (the Association of Public Health
Labs). They’re using it essentially as a self-directed teaching site.
For those of us in specialized fields that aren’t really well
understood, like public health labs, like public health, like
emergency management, like fire fighting, like policing, like the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. What an
amazing way to demonstrate, in those thousand-word-pictures, what
we’re all about. In these times of austerity, what a better way to
demonstrate why the work you do is important.

And one final note for my public health readers. It’s known that women
(specifically mothers) are the chief medical decision-makers for
families in the U.S. And that the percent of medical decision-makers
searching online for health information continues to rise. And now
you know that the largest reported age group in the U.S. on Pinterest
are women aged 35 to
44
.
So if you wanted to influence medical decision-makers about things
like, say, vaccines, where do you think might be a good place to do
it?

The Greatest (Ongoing) Failure of Communicators

(With an eyeball-grabbing headline like that, I’d better bring the
stick, right?)

I’ll guess that most of you who know me would bet that this post will
be about the lack of social media utilization by communicators as why
the headlines have been filled with “communications disasters” in the
last year plus. But you’d be wrong. Many of those disasters had a
social media component in the response, some of them significant. (You
can get into the tactical part of those responses and question if they
could have been done better, but that’s not a fault I would call
pervasive.)

I would argue that most of those so-called “communications disasters”
are little more than operational disasters masquerading as
communications failures. Look at the list of Top Ten Crises of
2011

pulled together by the Holmes Report:

  • TEPCO
  • News Corp
  • Penn State
  • Blackberry
  • Dow Chemical
  • Netflix
  • Sony
  • HP
  • Qantas
  • European Central Bank

Now, I’m not so naive as to think that there wasn’t significant public
relations complicity in some of these situations. But each of them
were operational disasters dropped into the laps of the communications
team who were told, “Deal with this,” or worse, “Don’t say a word.”
And now they’ve been excoriated by an outfit like the Holmes Report.
I’m willing to bet that next year’s list will include the unfolding
Komen/Planned Parenthood disaster. The Komen PR team will likely get
strung up for being obstinate and non-communicative, for authorizing
statements that ran counter to reality and for generally bungling the
reputation of one of the country’s most reputable brands.

The thing is, I think that’s generally unfair. Taking the Komen
situation as my example, I’m willing to bet that the decision to cut
funding to Planned Parenthood was made without the input of the PR
team. And frankly, there’s no way to gussy up that pig, lipstick or
no. In fact, at the time the decision was made (late last year), Komen
was in the middle of a corporate restructuring that caused them to
lay off their Senior Communications
Advisor
,
John Hammarley.

The organization was in such turmoil at the time that Komen hired
former White House Press Secretary Ari
Fleischer

to supervise a search for a new Senior Vice President for
Communications and External Relations. During the interviews,
Fleischer specifically asked about the candidates’ feelings on the
Planned Parenthood situation. In short, at a time when the
Communications Department was undergoing significant change and losing
institutional knowledge and relationships, the leadership was
preparing for the upcoming disaster. I think it goes without saying
that the leadership was directing this process, and building a
Communications Department to fit their plans. (That the new Senior VP
and restructured Department did a poor job is simply an expected
outcome of the piss-poor strategy.) (And just between you and me, I
wonder about the restructuring going on at the same time that the
leadership was pressing to institute a policy that no PR team could
cover; a coincidence?)

So the greatest (ongoing) failure of communicators? Continuing to
allow major policy decisions to be made without their input. Cowing to
leadership that seems set upon steering the agency/corporation into
the rocks. Would you blame the helmsman who followed Admiral
Farragut’s
order to
“Damn the torpedoes,” if ultimately the gambit failed?

And I’m not the only person who sees this failure. Smart folks who do
this type of thinking for real see it, too. Gerald
Baron
.
Richard Edelman.
Bill Salvin
(I took Bill’s point in this post as communicators need to be brought
into the loop—fully—as soon after a crisis occurs as possible, in
order to help guide policy and craft both operational and PR
response).

Maybe this way of conducting PR/PI/PA makes sense in a world of old
media, where you had hours to craft a response and bring in your PR
team to lipstick up your pig before tomorrow’s edition. In today’s
24/7 media (I’ve taken to calling it a 10-second media landscape, as
that’s the longest it takes to write and publish a tweet), every
second that your PIO doesn’t know what’s going on, your organization
falls further behind the curve. Every interview they give that’s full
of holding statements damages your credibility. Bill Salvin
demonstrates what that delay means anymore:

I first realized this was going to be a problem back in 2009 when US Airways ditched into the Hudson River. People started tweeting about it immediately. We watched the plane floating down the river on one side of the screen as US Airways President Doug Parker used a template to “confirm there has been an incident.” The statement was delivered 96 minutes after the plane hit the river. It seemed it took forever to get that statement and that was three years ago.

Bringing your PR team or PIO into planning meeting after it happens
means you’re already behind the eight ball. Having them as a key
planning partner before it happens ensures your organization is
leaning forward and might get a chance to smear some lipstick on
before the cameras go on (or maybe even convince leadership not to put
a pig out there in the first place).