Cameras Everywhere

One of my favorite web comics is XKCD. It’s highly intelligent, quite nerdy, and published regularly. If you’re not already a reader, and have a background in mathematics, this needs to be a regular stop on your travels through the web. (And if you need help deciphering it, like I do sometimes, check out this great ExplainXKCD site.)

The image above is taken from here on XKCD. The idea behind the comic is that many of the world’s mysteries are being solved, proven or disproven because evidence-making machines, specifically cell phone cameras, are nearly ubiquitous today.

What does that mean for your agency? Well, quite simply there are cameras trained on your folks all the time. Right now, even.

Our first reaction is that this is a bad thing. But is it? Not always, and maybe never. According to the NY Times, it’s been a boon for one California community:

The Rialto study began in February 2012 and will run until this July. The results from the first 12 months are striking. Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.

Our friends on fire scenes are seeing the same thing. Chief Boyd describes a fictional scene where images are transmitted online at the same time that a chief on-scene seems them:

Now fully engaged in unfolding events I can’t quite picture the exact location of this particular complex. So, I pull up aerial photos allowing me to see all four sides. Wait….. I can see a fire wall extending up through the roof near the address apartment. That’s good. Looking for more real time intel, I pull up the Washington State Department of Transportation camera network and quickly spot a camera pointed in the general direction of the “C” side of the apartment complex.

We will be on camera all of the time, from here on out. Those fictions that we were worried about? We can now get proof that they never happened. Those mistakes that we make will be broadcast for all of the world to see. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It just is. How we react will make all of the difference.

Filtered News

So yesterday, the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, had a baby. In case you didn’t notice. The Royal Baby, it was called by the Twitterati. And I’m not a fan. Royal baby, you hold no sway over me. But I can’t get away from him.

But I have solutions. I don’t really follow pop-culture following folks (death, disease and disaster all the time, baby!), I skip over news stories about the newborn babe, my RSS feed is delightfully tech-heavy. But he still mocks me, and lots of other people who couldn’t care less.

In fact, the Guardian even created this handy little tool to wipe the royal family and all of their baby-having ways off of the paper:

[A] small toggle near the top of the page that allows readers to switch between “Royalist” and “Republican” modes, the latter of which removes all reference to English royalty and their familial expansion.

My reason for bringing this up is it demonstrates what the future of news delivery and consumption looks like. Ten years ago the future king would’ve taken the front page of every major American and British newspaper and been the lead on every major newscast. You couldn’t have escaped it. But not today. Today there are people who are in touch and follow news who have no idea this is happening. They’ve successfully filtered their news to only be about those things that are most important to them, and nothing else.

This has huge ramifications for us in emergency communications. “Just put it on the news,” may not be the solution anymore. Not everyone looks at your news, not everyone follows your news. They follow the news that is important to them, and we’ve got to figure out how to access those networks.

The second point this raises is that we’ve been given a great opportunity. Most government communicators have a pipeline, wherein things get approved and shipped out into the world. One method of distribution. Everything in the same packaging. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Technology has advanced in such a way that we can divide, repackage, slice up and otherwise make available in dozens of formats all of our information. Dynamic tagging, specialized social media accounts, website target audiences, path mapping, the list goes on and on. But how many of us actually use these tools? How many of us allow our publics to choose which of our information they feel is important? Or do we force them to sit through everything?

Silence Is A Failure

Yesterday, we talked about the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 and how social media sped up the public’s interest in the crash. Today, we’re going to talk about when the disaster is known. About how doing things the usual way is a recipe for a bigger disaster.

The problem isn’t that people need life-saving information–especially in a situation like this. The problem instead is that people think you don’t care. We’ve talked several times about how, as communicators, trust is our currency. Trust is predicated on a belief that the person looking to be trusted understands, or emotes with, the person being asked to trust. If we look like we don’t care, who the hell would trust us?

And that’s exactly the problem being faced by Asiana Airlines now. According to our new best friends at Simpliflying, it took SIX HOURS for Asiana to post a response on Twitter.

They’re investigating? Investigating what? Then, two hours later, they issued a press release:

But that delay didn’t mean that people weren’t looking for information. Indeed, their Facebook and Twitter followings shot up (see slides 25 and 27) in a way that most of us in the emergency world wish ours would.

People were doing anything and everything to find information. And when they didn’t find it issued officially from the airline, they complained.

kirby facebook

And they’ve been reeling ever since. There is no sympathy for Asiana.

But the part that has killed them is more than their silence. It’s the blast of communication from others that has made them look so out of touch.

Boeing (slide 15), other airlines (slide 16), NTSB (slides 17 and 18, though, admittedly their star has dimmed a bit since the day of the crash), and finally San Francisco airport (who did a ridiculously amazing job keeping their customers informed of the situation). During this amazing outpouring of online empathy and information distribution, Asiana was silent. And it’s in comparison that what they did was so bad.

Now think about the emergency you fear. When you take six hours to approve a tweet or a press release, will all of your partners and competitors and surrounding counties and states and agencies all stay silent, or will they make you look bad?

Crisis Communications At The Speed Of Air Travel

sfocrashI like to impress upon people the idea that social media has sped up crisis communications. Where we used to talk about a newscycle, then a 24/7 newscycle, we now have a ten-second news cycle. Ten seconds is about how long it takes for me to pull my phone out, snap a picture and tweet it out. (I tested it, honest!)

The classic example of this type of news breaking had always been US Airways Flight 1549, which crash-landed in the Hudson River. A passenger on a ferry snapped the famous picture of people standing on the wing of the plane, awaiting rescue. That picture was posted to Twitter before FDNY boats were in the water. Insanely fast for the times.

This past week, we were reminded of how fast news breaks by the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214. A crisis communications consulting firm for the air industry released a phenomenal report detailing how social media shaped the disaster, and that’s where I’m pulling a lot of this post from. (You can find the excellent SlideShare of their presentation here, and their blog post here.)

This was the first mention of the crash anywhere online:

Now, if you notice the timestamp on that tweet and are familiar with the timeline of the crash, you’ll notice that the tweet was posted less than one minute after the crash. Simpliflying says thirty seconds post-crash. We now have a 30-second media cycle.

And don’t think that first impressions can be swallowed up by more famous people. None other than Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook stardom posted that she was supposed to be on that flight. A Samsung executive who was actually on the flight posted images of the burning plane just 18 minutes post-crash. But Krista, our original tweeter, was still the center of attention. According to Simpliflying, she’d been interviewed more than 4,000 times in the next 24 hours.

Many of the reporters reached out to her via Twitter. I’ve talking in the past about how reporters are using social media as sources, so think how far ahead of the story you’d be if you had some of those reporters in your Twitter lists and were monitoring them.

Definitely check out the Simpliflying post in the meantime, because I’ll be talking about how Asiana Airlines totally blew it (and how we make the same mistake) tomorrow.

You Can’t Hide Anything

US political watchers were afforded a special treat recently, courtesy of the Texas legislature and State Senator Wendy Davis. If you haven’t heard the story, Ms. Davis spoke for eleven hours in an attempt to delay voting on a bill until after the Texas Senate’s session ended, effectively killing the bill. True filibusters are rare, filibusters that long even more rare. But that wasn’t even the coolest part.

The coolest part was that Ms. Davis had a cheering section. Hundreds of people jammed the legislature in support of her filibuster. A Twitter hashtag, #StandWithWendy, was spawned and trended internationally. But that wasn’t the biggest part of her cheering section. It was the people watching on YouTube:

Months before Ms. Davis’s vivid protest, the nonprofit news organization [The Texas Tribune], based a few blocks from the state Capitol building in Austin, had gained access to the stream provided by state-controlled cameras there and set up a live YouTube channel for the legislative session.

While the same stream was also accessible through the Senate’s own Web site, that site looked almost comically old-fashioned compared with YouTube. Thus it was through YouTube that Ms. Davis’s filibuster was widely seen and shared.

More than 100,000 viewers were reported viewing the stream.

The great lesson from this episode? You can’t hide anything. We’ve talked about the power of YouTube before, when we looked at Governor Romney’s so-called 47% gaffe, but this is different for the streaming aspect of it. As we keep learning, that which we used to be hold back from the public, that which we used to depend on the mass media to repackage, that which we used to be able to delay and explain away, is now available live and in streaming color to hundreds of thousands of people around the globe.

You cannot hide anything. Now that we’ve established that, what do we do with that information? The best crisis communications consultants out there will tell you that if something bad is going to come out, you’re best to put it out soon and do it on your own terms. The corollary to not being able to hide anything is that you no longer can have any secrets. If it’s going to come out, put it out. If you’d rather not let the world know about something, stop doing it.

Heat Messages

So, it’s hot. Out west, back east, feels like everywhere. For those of us in public health and emergency services, heat is a big deal as it’s estimated that more than 650 people die heat-related deaths every year. And with weather experts believing these types of events will happen more often, this is something we should be preparing for.

And lots of forward-leaning health departments are out there messaging away on social media:

They’re doing a great job adapting traditional risk communication messaging to social media and doing it in a timely manner and using appropriate means. Kudos, really. But, do either of those tweets inspire you? Not the public health you, but the normal-person-with-fifty-things-to-do you. Probably not. They’re the right messages, they’re good risk communication, but in today’s media saturated world, is that enough anymore?

I don’t think so, so given that it’s a holiday, I’m taking some liberties with the blog and am going to post on what my heat warning messaging looked like last year. I had a ton of fun with it and picked up a chunk of new followers. I like to think it was an attempt to step outside of our traditional, staid, risk communication messaging; certainly not best practice.

On June 20th and 22nd, I went on what I called PhillyHeatWalks. I rolled up my sleeves, loosened my tie, grabbed a bottle of water and headed out to take pictures of hot people. (Literally hot people, I made no distinctions about their physical attractiveness.) Here’s the first set, here’s the second. I was looking for people at famous Philadelphia spots, doing their best to stay cool during 90+ degree temperatures. Kids in fountains, folks with umbrellas, stacks of ice-cold water bottles, empty parks. I wanted to make our recommendations more than just a fact sheet. I wanted to bring it into reality. Show people doing those things we talk about. I don’t know how successful it was, but I’m going to do it again.

But it’s not just me doing cool things on social media trying to spread the word about being safe in the heat. In fact, yesterday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment did something I’d never seen before: a Twitterchat on the heat!

Now this is, or should be, a best practice. Any time there’s an event that is generating public interest, we should be ready to discuss it openly and frankly with the public. Give us a chance to give our approved risk communication messages to the interested public. I might follow their lead during our next Excessive Heat Warning!

Finally, the following is a video by a veterinarian who is trying to get folks to understand why you shouldn’t leave pets in the car during heat events. Normally, those types of videos would include a talking head and some facts about how much the temperature in a car can rise in so many minutes. Dr. Ward, though, wants to show you. And the effect is powerful. Certainly more powerful than our bland fact sheets.

Will Tech Kill The Digital Divide?

broken rail bridge by bahia hondaThe digital divide is a scary idea. It is the idea that as information moves away from offline and toward online, those who don’t have access to those online channels lose access to that information. Lose access to services. Lose access.

The people who would be most negatively affected by a digital divide are those who need that access the most. The poor, minorities, the elderly, the traditionally underserved. (Also note, I’m only talking about in the States now; I have no background in developing countries.) So we should make sure to ensure access and information is in as many places as possible, which is a good thing! Increasing access to online information is another good thing, and programs like Philly KEYSPOT are great ways to do it.

But I believe that dichotomy (online vs. offline) is a great oversimplification of the problem. There is a digital divide and research bears it out. Minorities, the poor and the elderly do not access the internet at home as much as other demographic groups. Broadband access is but a small percentage of what whites get. But, as I’ve said before, minority groups still use social media, and the fastest growing demographic groups access social media are the elderly and poor. So where is the disconnect? Is there a divide, or not?

Well, like all good public health answers, it depends on how you ask the question. If you ask about going online at home, on a desktop or laptop computer, using a non-dial-up service, there is a divide. Because computers and broadband access are expensive! But when you ask if people get online, there is less of a divide. And the reason why is probably sitting on your desk, in your pocket or in your purse right now: smartphones.

[U]sage of smartphones as a primary internet access device is highest among several groups with relatively low rates of traditional internet and broadband adoption—for example, those with no college experience as well as those with relatively low income levels.

One of my favorite health thinkers, Raed Mansour, recently posted on this dichotomy, and opined that many in public health view our lack of reaching traditionally underserved populations as a technology problem. That we spend too much time focusing on using the latest and greatest. Raed shoots back, saying:

[W]hat we really have is a public health problem and not a technology/data problem.

We should never rely on only one communication tool to solve our problems. We also shouldn’t avoid a tool that is so commonly used in our vulnerable populations and by their influencers.

Too often public health communicators, focused on providing information to traditionally underserved populations shun digital outreach because of an increasingly outdated view of how people access digital resources. There will always be a place for boots-on-the-ground outreach and offline communications, but to ignore the fastest growing communications pipeline because of a non-evidence based technophobia is doing a disservice to folks who continue to get the short end of the stick.

Reaching The Deaf And Hard Of Hearing

This should be an easy one, right? You’re a Public Information Officer. You organize press events. You even know about your agency’s translation services. So what do you do when you include members of the deaf and hard of hearing communities in your live messaging? You call in a sign language translator (ASL here in the states, BSL in the old country).

Dust off hands, next problem. Right? Well, not exactly.

You see, I run a sometimes regular Twitterchat on using social media in public health (#sm4ph) and our last chat was all about reaching special, vulnerable and other traditionally under-represented populations using social media. And we had an absolute rock star join us, Neil McDevitt. Neil used to work at FEMA and is now the Executive Director of the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre. Neil was impressed by the ASL interpreter in New York City during Sandy (Hi Lydia!), less so by the ASL interpretation services done by the Pennsylvania folks. His reasoning?

Both places had the right idea, but the implementation is where the problem came in. Think of that single small recommendation, telling the camera folks to be sure to stay wide shot to get the ASL interpreter. How much further could Pennsylvania’s message have made it? It’s a subtle thing, but something we as seasoned PIOs should know about and take into account.

Of course, as great a job as Lydia did, the bar was recently raised with regards to ASL interpreters. A woman named “Holly” nearly stole the show at this year’s Bonnaroo music festival, signing along with Wu-Tang Clan, among others.