Top Five SMEM Lessons Learned in 2012: The Demise of Facebook

The third lesson we’ve learned this year is a new one, and one I wouldn’t have guessed six months ago. One that many folks, when writing their crisis communications plans six months ago wouldn’t have guessed. It was the demise of Facebook as a crisis messaging tool. Yep, demise, I said it.

(That doesn’t mean Facebook is useless in a crisis–in fact, there are situations and topics where Facebook is still the very best method of communications. But today I’m talking about using it as a crisis messaging service, which is important because Facebook is written into so many crisis plans to be used in just that way.)

It took a number of years, a lifetime in social media, for Facebook to start offering useful Pages for non-person entities like businesses and non-profits to stake a claim on the social network. And it took a few more years for the General Services Administration to negotiate Terms of Service with the social networking giant, signaling that it was “okay” for government to put a toe into the virtual world. A couple of years, and one IPO, later, we have government agency Pages littering the Facebook landscape. (And given how underutilized some of them are, littered is the correct word.)

And then, this fall, something changed. An algorithm, to be specific. (For folks who said that geeks would never rule the world…)

The specific algorithm is the EdgeRank one, which determines how many people see a particular Page’s posts. The idea is that the more interaction one’s Page has, the more likely it will be that Page’s posts will be seen by it’s followers. You used to post something and about forty percent of your followers would see it in their feed. Today, the number is between ten and fifteen percent. (So when you proudly tell your executive that your agency has just reached 100 followers, no more than fifteen people are seeing your posts organically.) Coincidentally, this change happened around the same time that Facebook started offering Pages the ability to increase the EdgeRank of their posts, for a fee.

And people revolted.

Of course, just days later, Superstorm Sandy hit and government agencies all over the Mid-Atlantic used their new social media plans to post to Facebook, only to see the effects blunted by this new algorithm change.

For years, social media acolytes have pitched using social media as a way to get direct, opt-in only, agency-to-person messaging utilizing other people’s distribution networks (read: free), around the media filter. And for the most part, that pitch has been successful (because it was right).

But now? I can’t promise that anymore. I can only promise that some tiny percentage of the people who have signed up to see what you’re posting will see it. Any fantasies you had about posting a boil water advisory on your Page and having 10,000 people in your county see and share it are gone.

And besides all that, just listening to some of the money-making ideas coming out of Menlo Park, one has to wonder how much longer government will tolerate plying along. From the Instagram Terms of Service debacle to allowing access to people’s Messenger for a dollar per spam message, well, one has to wonder how much longer we can consider it a prime messaging network.

Top Five SMEM Lessons Learned in 2012: Capture It With a Photo

Our second lesson learned in 2012 is a big one. I think that, of all of my lessons learned, this is the one that will have the greatest reverberations in how social media is utilized in emergencies in the future. I’m trying not to overstate here but, this will change EVERYTHING.

There are now nearly 150 million people that are ready, willing and able to photograph emergencies. People. With smartphones. Everywhere. Snapping away.

Our first reaction is to resist this. Response agencies don’t want the public, and their smartphones, interfering with official activities. (And I’ll bet some of their reticence comes from scenes like this.)

The problem is that research has shown this trend isn’t new, and isn’t slowing down. Nearly half of American internet users report having posted or shared images online. And they’re being encouraged by media to report from the scene of emergencies, pictures are just one part of that. Resisting this is like turning back the tide. And I’m not one to fight against the tide of history.

So, what can we do in this new reality? Well, there are positives here.

Emergency response typically revolves around the need to size up a situation. Look at the fire and make a decision about how to attack it. Make sure there’s a shooter on scene and deploy forces to counteract. See the symptoms and begin formulating a diagnosis. ALL of these things are image-based. Sure you can describe them by voice or convey the idea via text, but is it really the same? What is it all of those grizzled chiefs in the movies say? “I need eyes on it!” We are hamstrung, as emergency responders, by a need for visual confirmation before action can be taken. (Rightfully so, too.)

Remember what we said above, though? 150 million people, with smartphones. Snapping away. We already have eyes on it. LOTS of eyes. And this isn’t like asking a member of the public what it looks like, “It’s a big ass fire!” This is real, actionable, ground-truth. And it’s free. (Which, in today’s austere climate, isn’t such a bad thing.)

The examples of how this is useful are myriad and every time something blows up, there are more of them. My favorite public health example is the story of Delta 3163, which was quarantined at Chicago Midway due to fears of monkeypox. There were stories of a doctor onboard taking pictures of the rash and forwarding it to dermatologist friends for a diagnosis. The story goes that the dermatologist friends identified it as bug bites (the final diagnosis) and the doctor on board relaxed, knowing she and her fellow passengers were safe. I don’t have any confirmation of this story, but doesn’t it sound plausible?

The real emergency that opened eyes for the power of social media images in disasters is Hurricane Sandy. We–all of us on social media–saw the storm devastate North Jersey and New York City, in real-time, in full color, in crappy Instagram filters.

Our next step is to try experimenting with how to harness this huge pile of information and separating the wheat from the chaff. What we need to do our jobs better is out there, we just need to figure out how to use it.

SHES: Are You Ready?

I haven’t written a word about last week’s events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This will be the last thing I write about it. I just–can’t. It’s too close. It hurts too much.

The scariest part of the whole ordeal is that something similar could happen anywhere. Big city, small town, east coast, west coast, bucolic suburb, your town, my neighborhood.

I don’t do law enforcement or behavioral health. I do crisis communications, so professionally this image is what I need to be concerned with. Because this scene could happen, like we agreed above, anywhere. At any time. With but a moment’s notice.

Are you ready?

Sandy Hook Media Scrum

Top Five SMEM Lessons Learned in 2012: The Public Uses Social Media

The first step in my lessons learned from seeing social media being used in emergencies this year is kind of a no-brainer. Anyone reading this either uses social media, understands social media or thinks something can be gained by using social media. So it’s kind of a cop-out, but that’s not all there is about this lesson learned.

What’s obvious to you and me today wasn’t always this way; in fact, I got the opportunity to travel all over the country talking about social media to smart folks who still thought it was a fad or something that wouldn’t affect their responses. I could tell folks stories about Flight 1549, or crowd mapping in Haiti, or the Virginia Tech shooting, and describe how–when those things happened in their neck of the woods–they’d be forced to deal with it, too.

I like to think I helped open the eyes of emergency managers, if not selling them on the idea, then at least making them more aware of the role of social media during the next disaster. And it seemed like every disaster this year had its social media side of the story. The culmination of this trend was during Hurricane Sandy. It seemed like the story of the Superstorm (regrettably) was the social media angle, and not the much more interesting recovery aspect. This was the disaster that finally proved to emergency managers that social media was a great and growing part of what they needed to deal with during an emergency. Not Aurora, not the March tornadoes, not the election.

What those emergency managers who finally accepted that the world was changing found when they started researching the topic was that much of the literature surrounding the topic was already being written, and it supported what they were seeing. The American Red Cross, in addition to the development of their Disaster Operations Center, published their second survey on the use of social media by the public. But at the same time, the scholarly literature has begun to demonstrate the utility, too. Even the very useful Pew Internet and Nielsen surveys have begun demonstrating how great a change we’re undergoing.

The why is just as important to me (sociologically trained) as the what. You can see the why in the Pew and Nielsen surveys: people use social media for everything. It’s the new water cooler; it’s the new over the back fence; it’s how we talk to family and friends anymore. And psychological research has shown us that people, in crisis situations, need to confirm that the situation is actually happening before acting. (Seriously, read The Unthinkable.) If we talk to friends and family every day online, why would we look elsewhere for confirmation of a crisis?

The public has integrated social media into their lives. The fruits of that integration are demonstrated during every disaster anymore. Ignoring the state of the world is, for an emergency manager, tantamount to malfeasance. Our greatest lesson learned this year is that we can no longer ignore social media or keep it out of our planning.

Top Five SMEM Lessons Learned in 2012: Series Introduction

It seems my good friend Patrice has already gotten a start on our little end-of-year project. The first few posts have been, as is to be expected, excellent. So I should probably get going.

Instead of doing what I did last year, highlighting events that demonstrated how social media was useful in emergencies (because I think we’re beyond the point where we need to demonstrate that anymore), this year I’d like to focus on lessons learned. Because boy, there were a lot of them.

Through the end of the year, I’ll be posting the five biggest lessons I learned this year about how social media is used in emergencies. I think these five things will greatly influence how social media will be used in next year’s emergencies, both by the public and by emergency responders. Much like all of our exercises and real life responses, we won’t learn anything for the next response if we don’t catalog lessons learned (and actually learn from them). This is my attempt to do just that. As always, please let me know your thoughts and if I’ve missed anything. (I’ll update these links as the posts are published, so feel free to link to this page for the full series.)

#1: The public uses social media in emergencies, and they expect us to as well.
#2: A picture is worth a thousand words.
#3: Facebook is not a silver bullet, and may actually be a lot less.
#4: Social media gaffes are survivable.
#5: The media uses social media, and will come to rely on it.