Setting The Record Straight

Given last week’s post on getting the news right, I think it’s important to acknowledge that “truth” can be a subjective term. Not in the sense of my truth versus your truth, of course. More in the sense of the truth being a process that we arrive at over time. For example, when an explosion happens, no one knows the cause or resulting damage right away, we learn that over time. When a new disease starts making people sick, it takes public health folks a while to figure out who it is making sick and how best to avoid it or heal it. They aren’t lying, they just haven’t made it to the truth yet.

Mass media, I think, works very similar to this process. Something is said, usually wrong, and eventually, as time passes and more information is obtained, the truth is arrived at. Social media, as I say during my presentations, is almost another iteration of media and suffers from the same problem; and I’d say it’s worse because of the low-threshold for publication and wide variety of users.

The difference between the two (social media and mass media) is that social media has access to a LOT more information and thus has the potential to arrive at the final “truth” more quickly. In addition, the mass media throws around slogans like, “The Worldwide Leader in News,” and tends to imply in their reporting that once something is reported, it’s the truth. Full stop.

Is it clear now where the problem comes in? Where the disconnect is? When the mass media is trying to out-Twitter Twitter with breaking news, they’re reporting the not-quite-truth. The not-finished-and-ready-for-publication truth.

I was reminded of this dynamic thanks to a post by Jon King, on his blog about public sector transformation. He brought up a great point about the recent AP Twitter account hacking, that even though the tweet about an explosion at the White House was wrong, social media has a trick up it’s sleeve that the media, with their this-is-the-final-truth reporting doesn’t have: the great ability to self-correct.

Jon lays out the case here:

If (god forbid) an explosion did go off at the White House, there would be multiple messages with photos and video flying around the twittersphere within moments. I won’t add a link to the disturbing scenes captured in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings but I think I’ve made my point.

A bomb has gone off at the White House? Go on Twitter and search the hashtag #whitehouse or #obama or #bomb or anything similar. Use your common sense. If there’s tumbleweed blowing across the desert and the sound of crickets, the chances are, it’s a hoax.

And this is definitely not the only case of social media taking a little bit to get to the “truth.” What are some other examples you know of?

UPDATE POST-WRITING: Holy smokes, Andy Carvin (one my media heroes), wrote something amazing and similar recently, definitely a must read.

2013 Retrospective: Week Four, Top Three

Things are changing around here, and I wanted to highlight the best of the blog during December, 2013. The first week is devoted to my favorite guest posts and posters. The second week is devoted to my three most engaging posts. The third and fourth weeks count down my top six most trafficked posts, truly, the best of the best. These overview posts will have links to each of the posts for the week.

Stay tuned to all of my posts for the rest of the week as I re-post the creme de la creme. It’s funny to see, as a blogger, which posts really take off and which ones don’t. I literally have no idea which it will be. It’s as much of a surprise to me as it is to my readers. Some posts you’ll research for hours and pour your heart and soul into and, nothing. Other ones you dash off under a deadline and–BAM–it’s the best post you’ve ever written. But that’s not always the case, either. Sometimes you really craft something good and people keep reading it. And sharing it. And visiting it, again and again. And that’s what these three are. Finely researched, wonderful crafted (if I do say so myself), and ultimately the best I’ve published according to you guys.

So, without further delay, the top three:

First up, number three. Viral videos are coup de grace these days. And with some money and creativity, even a local emergency management agency can do it. But, what does that success mean for the rest of our work?
Secondly, number two. Ugh, Bank of America and an automated Twitter account. It’s really amazing how creative protesters can be, and how mortifying it can look from the outside.
Finally, the top banana. Facebook is dying. Well, maybe not dying, but it’s certainly not as useful as it once was. And for agencies who are just now getting into social media, understanding how less useful is a key component of setting their expectations.

2013 Retrospective: Week Three, Top Six

Things are changing around here, and I wanted to highlight the best of the blog during December, 2013. The first week is devoted to my favorite guest posts and posters. The second week is devoted to my three most engaging posts. The third and fourth weeks count down my top six most trafficked posts, truly, the best of the best. These overview posts will have links to each of the posts for the week.

Stay tuned to all of my posts for the rest of the week as I start to re-post my top six, best trafficked posts. I still get stars in my eyes when something of mine gets seen by hundreds of people and these posts are the ones that really did well. Like a child, you spend time grooming, correcting, refocusing a post, and then you let it off in the world to succeed or fail. Failure brings a renewed sense of determination. Success? Well, these posts made me want to do it again. Seeing a successful post reminds you why you stay up too late and why you research too many things.

First up, number six. Hoboken, New Jersey. Water main breaks and near constant messaging via social media by the city government. Text. Book. Case. Best. Practice.
Secondly, number five. The Boston Marathon, and how Boston Police depended wholly on social media after the bombing–with audio!
Finally, number four. Hurricane Sandy was the inflection point for emergency managers and emergency management agencies realizing that social media is everywhere and is remaking how we respond to disasters.

Food, Water, Shelter And Wifi?

starbucksIt’s natural for me, an information guy, to think that one of people’s critical needs in an emergency is information. (If I am not a hammer, why am I surrounded by nails?) So while it may seem that I’m being selfish when I say we should have four goals to accomplish to start people on the road to recovery (food, water, shelter and wifi), anecdotal evidence, especially from the last few disasters, has started to show that my request isn’t so strange.

When I give presentations, I usually mention something about how, in a disaster like the Joplin tornado or Superstorm Sandy, people go to extraordinary lengths to get access to information, but I saw this article in the Guardian recently that demonstrated that this need isn’t just a first-world one, but instead is a function of today’s hyper-connected world.

[I]n developing countries – think of Haiti after the quake, Indonesia post-tsunami or the Central African Republic during the current political upheaval – there is often a rapid decrease or even instantaneous halt to the amount and quality of information available for local people, those directly affected by the crisis. Dangerous rumours and misinformation begin to run rampant, causing panic and poor decision-making.

The article goes onto talk about how humanitarian organizations can, or should be, fulfilling the need for information in those cases. The author mentions how local media is often overlooked in such cases; everyone’s got a radio, right?

And that’s a pretty good place to stop. People are looking for information, and humanitarian organizations can help. But I wonder if there’s not a whole lot more to this idea of giving people information in a disaster. You see, in my title and call, I’m not asking for radio broadcasts. I’m asking for access, for a super fat pipe that can download–and upload–information.

And I want data for two reasons. First is the obvious thing. They are survivors and they need information, on the disaster, on where they need to go, on what needs to happen next, about the larger world (yes, it’s still there). The goal of this is to start the recovery process. The more quickly folks can start to normalize, the more quickly they can get back on their feet. And yes I’ll admit, a lot of this can be handled by traditional post-disaster messaging.

The second reason, though, is where I start running off the rails. In addition to being survivors, these people are two other things. First, they are members of a family. And as family members, and friends, and acquaintances, they have a duty to their family and friends and acquaintances. To let them know they’re okay, or not. To commiserate or be grateful. To ask for help or support or wave it off. Remember, these folks aren’t victims, they are survivors and need to do something to feel useful and helpful.

The second reason they need access is because they CAN help. They’re the only ones who’ve been through this disaster. They know what got hit, what didn’t, who’s missing and where they might be. They are the best information nodes you can ask for. And not only that, it’s likely that they know the area affected by the disaster better than anyone else. You will never get as good, on-the-ground intelligence as you would from a local survivor that’s motivated to help. It’s impossible to pull them all into the Command Post, but by allowing them to post informational updates on Facebook or Instagram, you’ve given the response team a powerful new ally.

I think we’re in the midst of a radical change in how we do emergency response these days. It’s no longer just about saving lives, it’s about empowering survivors, too. By giving them the tools they need to be useful and helpful, we can not only hasten the changeover to recovery work, but also shorten the time needed for their personal recovery, for saving their lives later.

Communicating Risk Via Twitter

I like to downplay the idea of a 24/7 newscycle. I think the term implies that you have lots of time to get involved in a situation because it’ll always be there. The media will always be beating down your door, so you’ve got time to craft an answer. Instead, I like to talk about the 10-second newscycle. In my mind, that term implies that you’ve got ten seconds in order to get your side of the story out; after that, you’re just part of the noise in someone else’s storyline.

My change in terminology leads, or should lead to, a re-examination of the tools we use to live and interact in that new newscycle. Press releases don’t really have the turnaround needed, and besides, they’re the worst position way to push out risk communication messages (e.g., do this, not that). Twitter, I like to think, works really well for a number of reasons. First, it’s direct: I, the communicator, am talking to you, the recipient. Second, it forces us to be short and direct: short messages have been shown to be more easily uptaken. Finally, it’s easily share-able: it’s easy to spread messages amongst target populations who’ve already set up information dissemination channels.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw one of the best examples of where social media, especially Twitter, could have been used to do real risk communication. The Hoboken, NJ water main breaks.

I happened to be in Phoenix at the time, presenting at the wonderful Arizona Partners in Preparedness conference when I found out about it on Twitter (social media monitoring for the win!). Because I work in public health, I’m always interested to see how large cities deal with boil water advisories, so I try to keep an eye on how things are going. The job that the City of Hoboken did was excellent starting with this:

Their next tweet was about the boil water advisory:

Notice the time? Less than ten minutes from their last tweet. Fast turnaround. Small, chunked information that’s easy to digest.

Then I got into things:

Eight minutes later, they replied directly to me, letting me know the process for how they’re looking to get more information:

In the meantime, the worked to combat rumors by posting informational updates:

Once United Water posted the full boil water advisory, @CityofHoboken updated their feed with the link.

They provided updates through out the day on the progress and even reposted the boil water advisory a few times to make sure that as many people could see it as possible. And finally, and in a stroke of trust-building genius, they took the time to thank folks who passed along their message and thanked the City’s account for the tweets:

To me, this is the best practice out there. Gold standard that should be emulated. I think that it’s not too hard to imagine how I’m rewriting my boil water advisory script and pre-approved messages this week.

This is what I want to see when I’m done with my next emergency:

Mixed Messaging

Now, I don’t get angry very often. Most people who know me know that it takes a LOT to get me upset. (Read: me = pretty chill) So when I do get upset, it’s probably something pretty egregious.

Today, the World Health Organization’s Twitter account is what brought me to this point. Spittin’ mad, as they say out west.

As you may or may not have heard, there’s a new strain of flu kicking around in China. So far, it’s characterized by some pretty bad outcomes and lots of people who follow the flu are a bit concerned by it. The WHO is one of those organizations that’s thinking about it, and putting out information on what’s known about the disease. They’ve got a Frequently Asked Questions page on their website and everything. Even their Twitter account is pumping out quick hits from the FAQ and updates on the situation. Props to them, honestly. Five days ago I would’ve laughed if you would have tried to get me to believe WHO would be ahead of some disease outbreak. Then on the train ride home from work yesterday, I saw this:

Now, if that doesn’t seem like something to get too upset about (because, honestly, most of it is good advice), here’s what I said back:

You see, no one in the world right now knows what transmits H7N9 influenza. No one. Being that it’s an influenza virus, it’s a safe bet that it’s transmitted through oral secretions (e.g., coughs, sneezes, etc.), but we know next to nothing about this disease. Reading the WHO (remember, that’s World Health Organization, and lots of doctors work there) tweet, it makes it seem that so long as you don’t eat bloody food, you’ve got nothing to fear from the H7N9 influenza.

I got no answer. But I figured out why. Because they kept tweeting confusing messages about how food safety was a–no THE–way to prevent H7N9 influenza!

I continued to complain:

And fifteen minutes later, this tweet was posted, the last of the night from them:

What a horribly irresponsible thing to do. The sum total of the impressions of their “nevermind” tweet pales in comparison to the number of impressions from their INCORRECT food safety tweets.

And I stand by what I said, because it is me that will have to unravel the confusion in 1.5 million people who’ve now got to decipher if bloody food is the cause of a possible pandemic.

Shame on you, WHO, you should know better. Have you ever tried to unring a bell?