I5 Bridge Collapse Public Information, Part One

skagitI”ve had the distinct pleasure of being friends with Marcus Deyerin for a few years now. In just one of his jobs, Marcus works as the public information officer for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team. If you followed the news last week, you”ll know that he had a pretty important job last week, especially after the 1-5 bridge over the Skagit River collapsed.

Marcus was assigned to be the PIO for the rescue portion of the operation and the first thing he did was post this on his Blackberry:

Just three minutes later:

And that began an amazing night of using social media to provide updates on a rapidly changing situation:

I”ll bet you”re wondering why didn”t he just release this information to the media and let them fulfill the role they usually do? Because of this:

Cell networks were down from everyone in the area being on their phones! Tell me you don”t foresee that happening in your emergency. As the cell networks calmed down, Marcus was able to get back on the phone and support the news organizations, but didn”t forget about the social media aspect:

He kept up updates for more than six hours that night. Through rescues and press briefings. This was a model social media operation.

What amazed me was how much the public was looking for this information. I noticed, on his first tweet that evening, that Marcus had 380 followers. By the next morning, after just an hour-long rescue operation, his followers had nearly doubled to nearly 700. Every one of his tweets was retweeted between five and ten times. And this was from a personal account!

I”ve asked Marcus if he could write something about his experience for posting this week, and depending on NWIMT, we should have a super series of posts. Keep an eye on this space for the latest!

Collaborators, Not Targets

Last summer, we posted on audiences a few times. First on how your audience is a lie, then about how to communicate when there is no audience. The idea behind those posts is that an audience is a passive idea. Someone that just sits there and waits for your message. Thanks to social media, there are fewer and fewer folks that we are trying to message that act that way.

As much influence I think I have, those posts didn’t really change anything. We still talk about target audiences. We still write fact sheets that ignore 95% of the people that might read them. We still talk at people.

Sarah Larcker, writing for Marketing:Health, had a great post recently called, “I Am Not Your ‘Target’,” that made me think of those posts and how far we still need to go to properly understand our publics and effectively communicate with them.

When we generalize to “patients,” we lose resolution. We lose the person inside that patient. And “sufferers?” No one is defined solely by his or her relationship with a disease.

Most polarizing of all is “target.” When we call our customers “targets,” do really we mean that? Do we mean to aim our forces at them and barrage them with messages? Do we expect this to be effective in a world where they can so easily ignore us – and form their own opinions of us?

In emergency management, we’ve undergone a similar change in how we understand our audience as well. They used to be victims. Something terrible happened and we came in and saved the day. But the current FEMA Administrator, Craig Fugate, changed what he called them a few years back. They were no longer “victims,” they were now “survivors.” Dealt a blow, they’ve persevered. They are now excellently placed to help out now, to be partners.

Just that change in how we understand our customers has engendered a change in how we interact with them. We now look to them to volunteer, to help out on scenes. They are a huge part of emergency response today, and they weren’t before.

We, as communicators, need to make a similar change. We need to change how we think about our audiences. That starts with changing what we call them. They are not target audiences; they are not targets to be shot at.

Given that our messages are part of a conversation today–a conversation that is dominated by what they say, not by what we say–they are our partners, our friends. Our collaborators. If they fail to pick up our messaging, it is because we failed to collaborate with them. If our messaging succeeds, it is because they have taken the seed we started with and have amplified it to success.

Much like Dr. King’s voice may have spurred action, it was what his collaborators did with that message that changed the world.

It Takes A Lot Of Work

A couple of weeks ago, the world conspired to give me LOTS of things to write about. This lead to a sort of natural experiment on this blog. I got to post–a lot. So for the first time, I got to test that old social media advice that posting regularly helps with traffic.

So I posted every single weekday, well, just about single weekday (except for two Tuesdays), for four straight weeks in a row.

(I can’t believe I’m going to actually show you my behind the scenes; a blogger never tells!)

You can see what that meant for my traffic here:


Those four weeks of over 500 views per week? Try to guess which four weeks I was regularly posting?

Now look at the four weeks prior. What do those four weeks look like? Not much of anything, right? Because I hadn’t posted anything.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is (to me) a direct correlation. Post more, get more traffic. Post less, and struggle to see that tiny little Views bar.

The lesson today? This stuff is HARD! You’re a communicator, which means that you’re underfunded, understaffed, under-resourced, and over-burdened by the amount of work you’ve got. And now I’m telling you that you’ve got to do more, more, more if you want to see success.

So now I ask you, have you experienced this? Is posting every day feasible for your organization?

How To Break News

breakingnews-15_600Feeling stressed over how to deal with social media in a disaster? You’re not the only one, that’s for sure. We already talked about how the media was dealing with how sped up news dissemination has become, and how they’re failing to keep up. This change isn’t a small one. It won’t require that a small change in how we, or the media, do business. Social media will bring about a fundamental rethinking of how we do everything; breaking news is just the first area where the effects are really being seen.

As we try to figure out how to integrate social media, it helps to look for people that are already using it to great affect. And, in my mind, you can’t get much better than the folks who run the @BreakingNews Twitter account (and website and apps). They started up with a few folks, editors, they call themselves, around the world who monitor online news sources. When something newsworthy happens, they are able to pick up on the local alarm bells and announce it to their global audience. They got so good at doing this that they were eventually bought out by MSNBC. (The article I’m going to link to says that they’re given complete autonomy at MSNBC, and they even have their own editorial and technology teams.)

Last week, BreakingNews General Manager, Corey Bergman, was interviewed by the tech site, The Verge, on how they’ve not only succeeded and got to where they are, but also the unique way that they approach the news. It’s an enlightening read for anyone interested in the future of media, and also drops in a few tips about how breaking news might affect government communicators.

You’re called Breaking News — do you feel pressure to be first? How do you balance that with accuracy? The Boston bombing story obviously tripped a lot of other outlets up.

With us it’s interesting — there’s pressure to be second. When someone breaks a story all eyes are on us to see if we’re going to cover that story. So there’s definitely a balance between speed and the ability to verify that something is real. And there are a number of factors that come into play. What source or sources have broken that story? What’s their track record? What are other sources saying? How likely is it to occur? What’s the history of stories like this?

There’s also a gut check. Does it feel right? If there is anything that doesn’t feel quite right we’ll wait a little bit. In this business it only takes a minute or two for others to chime in and others to begin reporting on it. So if there is any doubt about the truth, we’ll wait a beat.

Bergman also talked about the need for a sizable team that can be scaled up as needed–something NO government has today, unfortunately.

Running alongside that, all these different streams of information are coming in from Twitter and the wire services, and all the live feeds we’re watching. We’ll divvy up people to watch different live feeds, and as they began to discover new pieces of information they’ll put it into real-time chat. So one editor is in charge of making the call, and he or she is watching all these different discoveries come in from Twitter, and on the chat.

What you’ll notice running through the piece is the absolute focus on “getting it right.” They’ve realized, as a platform, that their reputation for ALWAYS getting it right is their most important currency. That’s their value added. They confirm.

It’s a lesson we all could learn, I think.

Joint Information Center Plan Update

This post is a bit of inside baseball, and most of my readers might not get anything out of it. Or maybe I can spin it. (wry smile)

So, when US government agencies respond to a disaster or emergency, they’re supposed to organize the response according to the Incident Command System. The part that’s interesting to me on this blog is the Public Information Officer box. What’s not shown is that the PIO can’t do it all in bigger responses (think website, community outreach, media relations, strategy sessions, etc.). So most places will bring in lots of PIOs and organize them into what’s called a Joint Information System (all of this takes place in a place called a Joint Information Center, or JIC).

Background aside, the JIC has been used in every big disaster in the last decade in a hugely successful fashion. Unfortunately, the folks that get the most opportunities to practice it are the US Coast Guard and US Environmental Protection Agency due to their role in responding to oil spills (which apparently happen with some frequency). Both agencies chair the National Response Team, a group of 15 federal agencies who coordinate to prepare for response to hazardous materials and oil disasters. In my estimation, they put out the very best Joint Information Center documents in the world. Just recently, they updated their JIC Model for 2013 (PDF). There were only a couple of really big, substantive changes that I could find, but both of them should be interesting to students of the field of emergency public information.

First is the addition is simply an acknowledgement that social media is a part of the work that we, as communicators, do every day and should be a key part of an emergency response. The NRT added a new Job Aid intended to help walk PIOs through if they should use social media, and if so, how to do it including some best practices. See the following for an example:

  • The use of social media should support the IC/UC communications, not drive them. As the PIO considers people who need information about the response, sometimes social media is a great way to communicate, but sometimes it is not.
  • Social media is a dialogue with the public as an information dissemination and engagement tool. It should be used as a two-way communication tool and not as a mechanism to “push” information. Be prepared to engage and respond to comments and concerns in a timely manner.

The second change is really inside baseball. Remember Deepwater Horizon? You can imagine the JIC that was established to support that oil spill. It was massive, spanned three states and dozens of media markets. They even got kudos for being open (showing the oil flow a mile underwater) and for using social media as a component of their outreach. But then, as usually happens when things go sideways, politics got involved. (If you’re interested in a lot of the backside dealing, see Gerald Baron’s great ebook, Unending Flow: case study on communications in the Gulf Oil Spill (PDF).) The Department of Homeland Security, at the request of the White House, activated the DHS Emergency Support Function (ESF) 15 (PDF): External Affairs. ESF 15 is intended to coordinate all messaging related to a disaster, and differs most significantly in two ways: inclusion of political figures as key stakeholders and focus on strategic messaging and control as opposed to tactical communication.

To the best of my knowledge (and I could be wrong here, call me out if I am), this was the first time ESF 15 was instituted over an existing JIC. The goals of each are different (strategic vs tactical) and the methods vary (especially around message approval). There was, well, some internal difficulties is probably how best to put it. Among JIC geeks, there was some real consternation about the future. If they set up a JIC consistent with their local or state plans which were probably built from the NRT guidance, would they get trumped and pushed out of the way if Washington stepped in?

Well, the new NRT model includes, as its first Appendix, one-and-a-half pages on the difference between the two methods of public communication and offered the following recommendations to help avoid the confusion that reigned during Deepwater Horizon:

  • ESF #15 is intended to support existing response communication efforts, not direct them.
  • NRT JICs are not meant to be absorbed into the ESF #15 organizational structure.
  • Effort must be made to achieve unity of effort and facilitate message alignment.

DHS? I think the next move is yours.

Social Media In The Health Field

Since we were talking about research a bit, I wanted to backfill a bit. I highlighted how to best use social media, but we forgot to address the question of why we should use social media. Let’s rectify that today. And we’ll use one of my absolute favorite datasets from the folks at the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The first thing to highlight is this year’s version of the annual survey on social media users, published on February 14th, 2013. The survey broke down demographics of social network use. The most telling chart they’ve got is this one:

landscape of social media users

Beyond that very focused look, the information about percentages of people that actually use social media is what is most interesting to me when presented as a case why government agencies should be online and interacting. Too often, government folks resist delving into social media because of an out-dated belief that minorities and traditionally under-represented demographic groups wouldn’t be able to access it. Yep, out-dated. Check this chart out and tell me where that belief stands today:

percent of users

Every “traditionally under-represented” minority group is over-represented in the survey. They use it more than those older, white guys. You know the ones, the older, white guys who traditionally make decisions about what format should be used to distribute information.

Now for those of us in the health field, the rationale for getting into social media is even more compelling. These next charts are taken from the Pew folks’ Health Online 2013 report. The goal of that survey was really to find out the behavior of what they call online diagnosers. These folks have used information they’ve found online as a critical part of how they interact with the their doctor, in many cases even using the internet to prompt them to go see a doctor:


Additionally, they found that:

Eight percent of internet users say they have, in the past 12 months, posted a health-related question online or shared their own personal health experience online in any way.

Even more impressively:

[O]ne in four adults (24%) says that they turned to others who have the same health condition during their last bout with illness, essentially the same finding as in our 2010 survey. One in four internet users (26%) have read or watched someone else’s experience about health or medical issues in the last 12 months. And 16% of internet users have gone online to find others who might share the same health concerns in the last year.

The final report I want to highlight is on mobile health. They key part of this study are these following statements:

Fully 85% of U.S. adults own a cell phone.

One in three cell phone owners (31%) have used their phone to look for health information. In a comparable, national survey conducted two years ago, 17% of cell phone owners had used their phones to look for health advice.

While this has HUGE implications for those of us who do emergency health messaging, it has even bigger implications for EVERYONE who does health messaging and information for this reason (taken from last year’s Digital Differences report):

The rise of mobile is changing the story. Groups that have traditionally been on the other side of the digital divide in basic internet access are using wireless connections to go online. Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.

Like I said last week, the research supporting what I, and lots of other online geeks, have been saying for years is starting to come around. The research is there, we just have to find it.

The Power Of Communicators

As we start to get into the possibility of another pandemic, we’re faced with the need to explain it to the public. All of our risk communication muscles should be getting ready for battle (while hoping that we don’t need to actually use them!). The first thing we need to do it come up with a name: what the heck should we, the media, and the public call it? (Is this a fetish of mine? We’ve talked about it for coronavirus and hurricanes thus far.)

The reason I keep talking about names is because they are so powerful. Aside from the Sandy it’s-not-a-hurricane-we-have-to-use-other-warnings disaster, there can be real consequences because of the words that we choose to use. We’ve all heard the swine flu to H1N1 flu ordeal, but besides confusion (which is admittedly something to avoid, duh), the damage can be much worse.

Gwen Ifill, writing for PBS Newshour, understands the power of how we describe things, and what’s it means in real life:

Wednesday was the worst of it. A suspect was arrested, we were told. He was in custody, we were assured. And the only description of the suspect was that he was male and “dark-skinned.”

I tweeted this: “Disturbing that it’s OK for TV to ID a Boston bombing suspect only as ‘a dark-skinned individual.’”

And the hounds of Twitter hell were unleashed.

Conspiracy theorists on the left applauded me for what they saw as right-minded commentary on race in America. Conspiracy theorists on the right denounced me for what they saw as wrongheaded commentary on race in America. Both were wrong.


The wrongly-labeled color of the suspects’ skin immediately conjured images in everyone’s head. It confirmed bias where there was none, leading to a fracturing of the conversation, yes, but the worst was what it did to arm-chair detectives (and maybe even real-life detectives). Folks like Sunil Tripathi were pulled into the fray, smearing, fingering, jabbing at their good names. All because one of us, a communicator, slipped. Surely you can imagine the ongoing fear in the muslim, “dark-skinned” community, especially after the last decade of hate crimes directed at them.

This is the power we have. We can literally move mountains. Positively if we’re thoughtful, negatively if we’re careless, and unproductively if we’re unclear.

I like to think that we are learning our lesson. The CDC and WHO both got ahead of the naming problem of H7N9 influenza and released recommendations for calling it avian influenza A(H7N9) virus. A mouthful yes, but the only people who saw that name were the researchers and public health folks who communicate with clinicians. In a released document, they made allowance for alternate uses. Ways and situations it was appropriate to call it something else: H7N9. While this certainly isn’t going to do anything about news anchors shooting their mouths off, I think it’s an admission that the words we choose have real consequences and we need to consider all situations and listeners when we speak.