Social Media As Catharsis

Earlier this year, London experienced an horrific situation, where two men brutally murdered another with a machete. Just the description of the event is traumatic enough, but this attack was made all the more real by how it unfolded on social media. Akin to what happens during most disasters today, the attack was livetweeted by a bystander.

What the what? How does… What goes through people’s heads?! Why, in the face of death and destruction, do people feel the need to share these horrible situations? I mean, you can make a case in some disaster situations that social sharing of pictures and descriptions serves some public good: informing people further away about their families, updating emergency responders on the scope of the situation, providing warning on a developing and evolving situation. But a singular attack? TechCrunch asked a similar question after the Asiana Airlines crash earlier this year, too:

Right now, we are rubbernecking on a global level. Good news goes unheard as we fall into an eager chorus of shock and sorrow. Each of us has a choice of whether to simply parrot the problems our world inevitably faces or use our voice to try to solve them. Let’s think before we tweet.

The post is titled, Why Do We Endlessly Retweet Tragedy?, and the question is a good one. Why do we do this? What causes people to let everyone in on this terrible secret that they’ve witnessed? There is some research on why that might be. The situation isn’t completely analogous, but you have to wonder if disastrous shows, like Breaking Bad cause similar feelings. Why do we watch them? Why would we revel in the downfall of a science teacher into a meth kingpin? Scientific American explores the theories:

We often associate words like ‘fun,’ ‘enjoyment,’ or ‘escape’ when we think about our entertainment. These are all hedonic, or pleasurable, rewards of watching TV. But the work of Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University, has shown us that entertainment can offer more than enjoyment. In step with the positive psychology movement, Oliver and her colleagues have identified many eudaimonic rewards of watching depressing, stressful, or even horrific television. Eudaimonia is an experience that meaningfulness, insight, and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity. Eudaimonia might not make us happy, but it can enrich us, leave us feeling fulfilled, touched, and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves.

Tragedy is a deeply profound experience, and one that has the potential to affect each person for the rest of their lives. Given the humdrum of modern society, that excitement, that explosion of grief, fear and stress can be cathartic and allow us to feel more deeply, live more. To appreciate life. We share because we are alive, because we are feeling something greater than any other day. And if that’s true, there is nothing wrong with it. It’s a natural human reaction that is tied completely to emotions and deep brain functions.

So, what does that mean for us as communicators? It means that as much as we’d like to tell people to stop taking pictures, think before you tweet, stop making the situation worse, the public can’t. They are experiencing life–the bad part, yes, but still–they are alive and bursting at the seams with emotion and fear and dread and being able to talk about it is key to bouncing back from it. From being resilient. From recovering.

So when that next disaster happens, save your messages for what you’re best at and stop chastising the public for doing what might be in their best interest.

The Shrinking Of Media

I’ve talked about nano-news in the past, and how consumers (read: the public) have taken to digesting news in smaller bites. Well, like all good things in a free market society, as a market is identified the entrepreneurs follow.

My first example blows my mind. I’ve talked about short-form video a couple of times on the blog, but I hadn’t heard of how one organization, NowThis News, has used the 15-second long Instagram video tool to pass along news. Mashable reviewed the service here:

Since the launch of Instagram Video in June, media organizations have experimented with 15-second video as a news vehicle. However, there is a clear divide between the strategies of legacy news organizations and newer startups.

Traditional media organizations more often use Instagram Video to promote news content, rather than to break actual news. But startup NowThis News is flipping the social media/PR model upside down by using Instagram Video as its main vehicle to deliver breaking news and featured news briefs.

NPR, though, to their credit, are doing something similar.

The second half of the shrinking media story is about the scope of the stories. As 24-hour news networks came online, it allowed news organizations to broaden the scope of their operations and cover LOTS of stories. As time progressed, the coverage of those stories got more and more shallow. A mile wide and an inch deep, as the saying goes. But as the public got access to more sources of news, the blush of coverage that most national organizations could provide wasn’t enough anymore.

So we’re starting to see organizations like Syria Deeply, that is cataloging the depth of a humongous story that could potentially affect us all. Utilizing content scraping and crowdsourcing, they’ve managed to bring a closer look from the international world onto the conflict in Syria. And the model seems replicable:

“We want to figure out how to make one topic in-depth financially viable,” Setrakian said. ” I’m not going to lean on ad revenue because I don’t want zit cream ads next to our refugee content I’m not going to lean on ad revenue because I don’t want zit cream ads next to our refugee content.”

Beyond working with enterprise clients, Syria Deeply receives support from The Asfari Foundation and the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Setrakian believes Syria Deeply has the opportunity to recreate the revenue model because it treats up-to-date information as insight, rather than just news. So far, she said, the cost of content has been pretty low, partly due to the high-volume of free content its been given from high quality news and information providers.

Traditional media, in case you haven’t heard, is scrambling to take adapt to the changing landscape. They get ridiculous computer screens and make hashtags and try to appear differently. The problem isn’t the veneer, though. It’s the change in the underlying contract between news consumer and news producer.

We no longer want to be subjected to what the news Producer (the job in the newsroom, not the general production machinery) thinks we’ll be interested in. We want our news, and we want it crammed into the real time constraints that we live with, not some half hour tripe full of teasers and commercials for programs later on that evening. Getting back to our free market example, once you stop producing a product that the public doesn’t have a need for, they stop buying it. Changing the packaging doesn’t change the fact that you’re no longer addressing a need.

Plain Language In Government

It’s a funny thing when government and politics get tangled up. Funny in an, “omigod, are these people adults or just seven-year-olds in suits,” kind of way. (Source: I live in the United States.)

Political leanings aside, these folks aren’t seven-year-olds. They are men and women who run the country. All of them have advanced degrees, extremely successful backgrounds, or the ability to successfully represent tens of thousands of their neighbors concerns and needs. They aren’t dumb people. So why is there such a disconnect on what should be a pretty basic point? The point I’m talking about is the debt ceiling. (Full disclosure: I am poor at maths, and poorer at financial maths.) This article from USA Today perfectly encapsulates the difference:

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., even argues that reaching the debt limit could help the economy, by showing the world the U.S. is serious about its debt problem. “I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets,” he told The Washington Post Monday.


Veronique de Rugy, an economist at the free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said …”I do not believe that past Oct. 17 the country’s going to hell,” she said. “But I agree that failing to pay interest on our debt has very serious consequences.”

Is breaching the debt ceiling a good thing or a bad thing? This shouldn’t be this hard, but it is. And lest you think this is just a politician bashing post, it’s not just them, it’s us, too:

A new Pew Research Center poll shows a majority of Republicans and many independents are just fine with the idea of not raising the debt limit by the Treasury Department’s deadline of Oct. 17.

Slightly more than half of Americans — 51 percent — say it is essential to raise the debt ceiling to avoid an economic crisis. That’s slightly more than the 47 percent of Americans who said the same last week.

There is a huge partisan split on this questions, with 37 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats in the new poll believing there would be an economic crisis.

But it’s not just this topic. The difference between Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act should be, well, nothing, but thanks to Jimmy Kimmel, we see there is confusion even there:

I have a theory of why this is. Our politicians are getting very good at branding. And they brand everything: the PATRIOT Act, Obamacare, the Help America Vote Act. Each is named to conjure specific images, particular feelings that are fanned and encouraged by the particular cable news channel viewers they are intending to reach. They are intended to sow discord and side-taking. Which inevitably leads to confusion.

So what can we, as career government communicators, do about this state of affairs? Plain language. We might not be able to rename that thing in the news, but if people understood where we were coming from, and who we were and what our job was, think of the confusion we could avoid. Heading back to our original area of confusion, there are already calls for the Fed and the presumed new Chief to do a better job explaining what they do:

Since 2010, when Congress pivoted first to deficit reduction and then to gridlock, the only large, influential institution in Washington focusing on reducing unemployment and getting this tepid recovery up to speed has been the Federal Reserve. Yet the beneficiaries of those actions know very little about them. Outsiders like myself can help, but it will take a commitment by the Fed itself to really change that.

Do the people you work to help know what you do? Or are they swayed by political, divisive, rancorous names and cable news fights?

Guest Post: Hurricane Bawbag

Daily Record #hurricanebawbag Trends MapCourtesy of Carolyne Mitchell, who is a fantabulous Information Officer with the South Lanarkshire Council, we’ve been treated to a great story about the naming of winter storms. It also gives us the opportunity to see what happens in real life when government isn’t paying attention to the terms the public uses. With that, I cede the floor.

Jim’s Winter is Coming post about the naming of winter storms resonated strongly with us Scots.

Back in December 2011, Scotland braced itself for one of its worst storms in living history. The Met Office had forecast the storm and issued alerts. In Strathclyde, local emergency groups had been set up in most councils to discuss school closures, social care provision, flood alerts, road closures, tree removal and general contingency planning. On December 7, the day before the storm, the Scottish Government recommended that councils should close all schools. The Met Office not only prepared the public for the weather, the media was also prepared for a busy news day.

In the end the storm resulted in widespread disruption including 60,000 houses left with no power, travel disruption, storm damage to homes and cars due to fallen trees and airborne debris and police forces around the country had advised against travelling.

But the storm provided a challenge for emergency responders and many other organisations. As the social media lead for my council, I watched the day unfold and managed the council Twitter account from home as my daughter’s school was closed. By mid-morning the public had nicknamed the storm Hurricane Bawbag and it was this hashtag that was adopted by the majority on Twitter causing #hurricanebawbag to trend, not only in Scotland but around the world.

For those not sure about the Scottish vernacular, bawbag is slang for scrotum and is usually used as a derogatory term. It’s a mild swear word that children would be told off for using. Basically us Scots were throwing down a challenge to Mother Nature – bring it on wind, if you think you’re hard enough!

However, the police and most local authorities decided that bawbag was a wholly inappropriate for them to use on their Twitter streams and they, and the Scottish Government, went for the straight #scotstorm.

What did this mean? Well, most people were reveling over in the #bawbag camp with photos of the River Clyde bursting its bank in several places, film clips of journalists on sea walls just about getting swept away, a now infamous film of an escaped trampoline rolling down a street, an enterprising Glasgow T-shirt company printing #bawbag T-shirts before the day was over and American TV news stations reporting about Hurricane Bawbag without knowing what the word meant.

Meanwhile over in the #scotstorm camp, the authorities were publishing news of closed roads, closed bridges, how to report fallen trees and other important messages, mostly to an empty room.

And the moral of the story? Go where the people are – don’t try to shoehorn yourself into a hashtag of your own making because you don’t like the one that grew organically in the heat of the moment.

I recently spent a year researching the growth of the use of Twitter during emergencies by both the emergency responders and journalists in Strathclyde for my Masters dissertation. Although things have moved on a pace since I wrote it, it still makes for interesting reading. Lovingly entitled, From John Smeaton to #hurricanebawbag: The development of social media use during emergencies by Strathclyde’s media and emergency responders, it sits on my blog which sadly I haven’t updated since August, something I promise sort out asap.

You’ll also find me on Twitter and LinkedIn – let’s connect :-)

We Need A Distraction

In the last decade, there has been a huge explosion in the number of crisis communications experts. (And a similar explosion in crises. I wonder if there’s any correlation there.) Everyone and their mother has something to say about how some agency, organization, company, famous person or regular person should have reacted in their time of need. Cluckers as I’ve called them before, always seem to be there clucking at others’ misfortune like very concerned gossips.

One aspect of our increasingly connected world is that small mistakes or problems get blown way out of proportion (or, if to the right proportion, it tends to happen in minutes, far faster than anyone can reasonably react). Someone, somewhere termed this explosion of vitriol and clucking a Twitterstorm. Lots of tweets, noise, flash and like a real storm, it moves away quickly leaving the target broken and wondering what the hell just happened. A key part of those Twitterstorms is the feedback loop that maintains and amplifies the storm:

The perfect Twitter storm

Definition: a story that starts on Twitter and through a feedback loop with traditional press generates a significant amount of attention across a broad audience.

Best examples: the Blackberry email outage, the Topman T-shirt slogan controversy and the John Lewis Christmas TV ad campaign

And if you’ve ever participated in something like this, some crisis or disaster, you’ll know exactly the frustration of having to respond to same questions, the same tweets, the same criticisms over and over and over again, sometimes even days later.

And if you haven’t, you need to see this great listicle from Buzzfeed (thanks @MarcDrummond!) that details the 29 steps of a Twitterstorm:

1. Somebody, somewhere does something wrong.
10. Somebody starts a petition.
13. People start doing satire about it. [ed. note: cue Hitler photoshopped image)
18. Politicians jump on the bandwagon.
23. Focusing on the key issue, social media “experts” rub their hands with glee at a new case study to write about.
26. Until the next day a celebrity who’s only just seen it and can’t be bothered to check what the outcome was starts the whole thing up again.
27. Fortunately, at this point somebody invents a hashtag game and everybody gets distracted.

It’s this twenty-seventh point that I wanted to bring to your attention. And I say this with the EXPLICIT instructions to NEVER do this.

I wonder why some of those dirty, underhanded crisis communications “experts” haven’t started touting their ability to offer distraction. In this world of short attention spans (ed. note: SQUIRREL!), sometimes the tempest only lasts until something cooler, or worse, or better comes along. Media officers used to be forced to wait until the next news cycle, but now there is the potential to force interest from your particular crisis.

Think of how crisis communications experts would advertise it: I created the #ILoveWhenBoys hashtag and got it up to the third highest trending term!

But no, nobody would ever really do that. Would they?

Responsibility To Our Fields

Wow, its been a LONG time since I’ve done one of these. In this video, I’m talking about messaging about our government agencies, and whether we have a responsibility to our larger fields in addition.

I’d love to know what you think, so please leave me comments below.

Slow Down

freya-hammockReading back through my posts can be a bit depressing. I implore you to message all the time, using a variety of means, targeting specific groups but all groups, too. I want you to manage multiple online communities as well as, you know, actually do your job. I look at my job and see deadlines extending into the far future, job duties piled on top of job duties, social networks begging to be fed, conferences to attend, email backlogs; well, it can be depressing.

And, as much as we all know that this is no way for someone to live, I’m willing to bet that your own work-life looks strikingly similar to mine. And that depression feels just as real. Fortunately (or unfortunately, based upon how likely it is that you’ll be able to implement these recommendations), a recent interview with a Harvard researcher lays out what this means and what we can do about it:

During an interview, Amabile discussed how the ever-accelerating treadmill lessens creativity. “In the short term, people become less engaged in their work if their creativity isn’t supported,” she said. “They will also be less productive because they often can’t focus on their most important work. In the long term, companies may lose their most talented employees, as well as losing out because they won’t have the innovative products, innovative services, and business models that they need to be competitive.”

“Managers and employees need to work together to constantly prioritize, to figure out what is truly important, what they can forget about, and what can they push to the back burner in order to reduce time pressure. My colleague here at HBS, Leslie Perlow, found that, in a department of harried engineers, it was powerful to simply declare ‘quiet time’ in the morning, three days a week: no meetings with or phone calls to colleagues, no interruptions, no expecting immediate responses to emails. People were way more productive. They also felt less stressed and more satisfied with their work.”

Stepping outside of the academic white tower, and out of the gilded towers of the private sector, what does this look like for our lowly government communicator? Well, it’s a lot tougher to do, that’s for sure. We live in an era of government austerity. We’ve been asked to do more with less. And then we’ve had that “less” pared down and refocused. How the heck can we take three hours a week to just think and be creative when we can’t even make it through our forty-plus hours in a week?

The answer is, unfortunately at the beginning, more work. We need to identify where our efforts are most successful. What is it that you do that garners the biggest success? Is it responding to media calls, or blog posting? Is it posting to all of your social media networks, or just the one with the biggest audience? Is it cutting less used social networks or investing in automation tools? Is it fighting your detractors or supporting your supporters? We need to take an honest look at the work that we do and focus on what works. What will work next. Make our “less” be worth more.

How? Take a look at the work that Fairfax County has done to revamp their website. All driven by data and metrics, they’ve streamlined the process and made it easier to update content that’s being used more often, and put other stuff on the backburner. Now they can focus on what their community is looking for, and take a blessed minute to slow down and be creative.

There are tools out there that will allow us to see where we’re successful. Facebook Insights, Twitter Analytics, Tumblr Analytics, and those are just the easy, free ones that I have bookmarked. Once we have a sense of what works and what doesn’t work, maybe we can stop doing what doesn’t work and really, truly, do more with less.

Bite-Sized News

For years now, folks have been bemoaning the death of the attention span. One of the most famous of these pronouncements came all the way back in 2008, published in the Atlantic:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

And in the interim, social media and technology have just sped things up:

The study by Lloyds TSB insurance showed that the average attention span had fallen to just 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes 10 years ago.

But the over-50s are able to concentrate for longer periods than young people, suggesting that busy lifestyles and intrusive modern technology rather than old age are to blame for our mental decline.

This shorter attention span has evolved how people digest information, especially news. There have been lots of studies to investigate what news should look like, especially as the mass media struggles to figure out where they live in today”s world. This study from the Guardian seems to confirm that:

People are checking the news more frequently and for shorter amounts of time.
Forget news reading. Today, it”s all about “news snacking,” meaning people are checking the news more often and typically on mobile devices. 75 percent of readers with smartphones and 70 percent with tablets check the news more than once a day.

It”s all about aggregators.
According to the study, 73 percent of those surveyed said they use aggregators intensively, up from 33 percent a year ago. Use of branded news applications (such as leading national dailies), on the other hand, decreased from 60 percent to 40 percent in the same period.

Social media is on the rise for checking news.
The report also indicates that people are increasingly checking sites like Facebook and Twitter for news updates; 43 percent of readers now use Facebook to check news, an increase of seven percent from last year.

Gerald Baron has been an absolute leader in examining this field of “nano news,” as he calls it. He”s defined it a couple of times, “Defining Nano News,” and “NanoNews—understanding the new news environment. “

But my reason for posting these links is to implore our government communication friends to rethink how we talk. Looking at yesterday”s post on using images, made me wonder why images were so important. I think it has something to do with this idea of snackable content, or nano-news. The old saying is that pictures are worth 1,000 words. Are images how people are more quickly digesting information?

Thinking about information that my Department puts out, I wonder, is it truly snackable? Can someone stop by on their phone and digest the information in less than five minutes? Or do our fact sheets require an in-depth reading of inches and inches of text? Are they snackable? Now what about your fact sheets?

A Moment Of Silence

One of the very best conferences in the land started yesterday. And it started off with a bang. In one of the very first pre-conference workshops, Dr. Cynthia Baur of the CDC (she”s one of the world”s preeminent thinkers AND doers in the field of health literacy), said the quote above.

Now, I”ve said just this for a long time: there is no general public. The general public has voluntarily carved themselves up into tiny little fractions of groups, each self-identified by some demographic that can change over time, isn”t necessarily exclusive from other demographic identifications and allows people to adopt multiple identifications all at once.

Think about me and all of my unique interests as an example. I”m interested in public health, emergency management, horror movies, punk rock, Philly happenings, social media, running, tattoos and video games. Name me one other person you know that does all of those things (no, really, I want to meet them). Outside of work duties, I don”t follow the national or local news at all. Am I in the general public? What about you? What interests do you use to define yourself?

That information you”re putting out? The one written for the “general public?” Does it fit into my interest spectrum? Probably not. And it probably doesn”t fit into lots of other interest spectrums, either. But why do we keep writing for the “general public”?

Like most things, there”s a rational reason why we started messaging this way. It has to do with the history of our information dissemination pathways. Government communication to the wide public really took off as mass media was reaching the height of it”s popularity and utility. If you wanted to talk to the public in any widespread fashion, you could knock on doors, or send a release to the mass media. And the media made no bones that they were the way to reach everyone. There”s no need to develop specific messages when you”re just talking into a great big, fat pipe.

Things have changed a bit, though, if you haven”t noticed. People have diversified where they get their news from:


People have found that big, fat pipe no longer satisfies their need for relevant information. And they”ve since moved on to targeted, specific, interesting information and news. And yet, we still write like the mass media is the only way we can get information out. The general public only existed when there was one way to get information. With a plethora of ways to get information today the punk rock, zombie movie fan, public health professional set has chosen to ignore your messages designed to appeal to everyone from eighteen-year-olds, grandparents and mothers of young children.

So let”s bow our heads for a minute and put this out-of-date idea to rest, finally.

Nothing’s Happened

One of the great exhortations, one of the absolute must to-do’s given during emergency public information classes today is that you have to let the media know when your next update is coming. Lots of folks even go so far as to say, “when I know something, you’ll know something.” (And between me and you, I’m a big fan of that.) But when you do those pretend little exercises in the afternoon of the class, the instructor always tilts her head at the end of your “press conference” and asks, “When will we know more?” And before high-fiving his newly-roped-into-this teammates our spokesman dismissively says, “We’ll have another press conference in four hours.”

Nobody asks what do you do when nothing’s happened. Almost without fail, these exercises are quickly developing scenarios that will have updates in a few hours. But what about when the situation is slowly developing. So slowly that, like a drop of pitch, updates are few and far between? I’m looking at you public health. How do you tamp down expectations and tell people, “Nothing’s happened,” and reasonably expect them to not believe you’re hiding something. I mean, people are dying here, man!

Well, Kevin Jump, on the other side of the pond, says we need to make updating about nothing the norm:

And this is the problem – as it turns out (because I had to go), B&Q [ed. note: a sort of Home Depot] is open normal hours on the bank holiday, but their site doesn’t tell me that, because nothing has changed so they have ‘nothing’ to tell me.

A simple “we are open as normal on bank holiday Monday” would have answered all my questions

This reminded me of my little election experiment last week, when I looked at a few random councils to see how they had done elections. Once or twice in the process I went to a county council website, and found nothing about elections at all. That’s because counties run elections on a four year cycle, and this year was (for these councils) not one of those years – so no elections. The districts had elections, but the county sites didn’t tell me that (quite a few county sites don’t acknowledge the existence of the districts).

We’re too much focused on making sure that the media knows what’s going on. Hence the exhortation to make sure they know when things have changed. They’re not interested in what’s not changed. Non-changes don’t bleed, so they don’t lead, so to speak.

Instead, we need to focus on our publics. We need to let them know the information that is relevant to them, not just interesting to the media. No less a blogger than Greg Licamele has said something very similar in a great post recently:

The whole public affairs enterprise needs a different focus if we want to remain relevant to the people we serve rather than becoming more irrelevant to journalists who have a different purpose.

What do you do when nothing’s happened? Make sure that everyone knows, not just the people who increasingly don’t care.