Case Study: Reaching the Public Before the Fire Reaches Them Province of B.C. Forest Fire Digital Strategy 2009 Purpose For the Province to be able to connect directly with the public in a rapidly changing emergency situation, such as a forest fire. Scope/Context In 2009, the British Columbia provincial government had a strong internal emergency response structure but was not yet active in the emerging social media sphere nor did it have any official guidelines in place. Challenge Relying on the static website as the hub for emergency information meant that it could only be updated during office hours. But forest fires happen around the clock. The provincial government needed a way to get vital information about evacuations and alerts out to the public instantly. In addition, it was clear that conversations about the forest fire situation in B.C. were already taking place in the social media sphere. But because the provincial government wasn’t present on those platforms it was losing an opportunity to educate the public and stop misinformation. Actions To respond to the immediate need to provide real-‐time information the communications team created a Twitter feed (bcgovfireinfo). The Twitter feed incorporated the hashtag #kelownafires, which was already being used online, so that government’s information would be part of the conversation. The Twitter feed was used to share real-‐time information, correct misinformation, and drive traffic to important safety information on the provincial website. Citizens were finding the Ministry of Forests website too dense and difficult to navigate. The communications team then created a Wordpress site, FireSafeBC (now Emergency Info BC), as a client-‐centered portal for information on forest fires. This site was simple and interactive, with limited text per page, concise navigation and prominent photos, videos and maps. The Wordpress site housed everything from the latest evacuation orders to important safety information. Staff were able to update it whenever necessary, ensuring that it was always contained the most up-‐to-‐date and reliable information. Because of the high volume of questions and conversation occurring on Twitter, the communications team decided to create a BC Forest Fire Info Facebook page. The Facebook page still provided real-‐time information, but focused more on engaging with their audience. The majority of the traffic on the page consisted of people asking personal questions (Where is the smoke coming from? Is there a fire near my house? Where am I supposed to go?). By responding to personal questions, the team was able to reassure its audience and stop misinformation from spreading.
The government used a Galaxy model – with the Wordpress site as the hub, and Twitter and Facebook as satellites to engage the public and drive them to the hub. All three of these channels were integrated into the wildfire ad campaign. By using a multi-‐pronged approach: advertizing, media and social networks, the government was able to raise forest fire awareness. Results Through its social media campaign the government was able to: • Provide a single ‘face’ of government during fires that threaten communities. • Provide needed online support for local municipalities in times of emergency. • Maintain coordinated messaging across different organizations, even when the fire season got busy. The public response to the provincial government’s social strategy was overwhelming. On Twitter the government was able to connect with other emergency organizations instantly, re-‐tweeting their information or clarifying information. Reporters were able to follow the feed and get real time information. And the government was able to increase awareness of campfire bans and driving conditions by broadcasting information. The Facebook page took off as the users started to take ownership of it. It became THE place on Facebook to connect about forest fires in B.C., which meant that people started connecting with each other, not just with the government. They also became a self-‐moderating community. The page did have a moderator policy, but it was seldom invoked, as users would instantly chide those using the site improperly. The government received strong support and approval for its use of social media during the 2009 fire season. The public thought the government was being proactive by using social media to connect with citizens and were positive towards the government online. Best Practices See it from public’s point of view – All the tools were created in response to a public need and with the user in mind. This determined the look the type of information of each site. Go where people are –The provincial government went to where conversations were already happening – Twitter and Facebook – and joined in. Be mobile – The tools needed to be updatable by anyone, at anytime, anywhere. Using social media meant that staff did not need to be at a computer, they could be in the field with a mobile device or at home (during evening shifts). Break down silos – All relevant partners were brought on board, so that the Ministry of Forests wasn’t acting alone. By looping other relevant provincial ministries into the planning stages the communications team was certain their channels had accurate information and support. Operationalize – Before the fire season was over, staff training had been developed on how to use the tools, and guidelines were created to manage content. This meant that more people could participate in managing the channels without the channels losing their personality.
Conclusion In times of emergency the public looks to the government for direction. The British Columbia provincial government’s social strategy provided clear leadership and instilled public confidence because the government went to where its audience was already active and provided them with valuable real-‐time information.