There was a schedule, a rhythm—a battle rhythm. We as emergency managers and communications experts knew these times by heart. Do you know what these times are? They are deadlines. They are when the news was made. An emergency in the lulls between them gave you time to prepare, right before the bell and you’d have to face the media as you stood.
We understood emergencies to happen like this. Something blows up, a factory, a disease, a riot. We, as responders, find out about it and dutifully tell the media what happened. When one of those deadlines pass, they would tell the public. All very stepwise and understood. But it’s not this way today.
Today, to contrast the model, when something blows up, the first people to know are the public. They see the plant blow up, they hear about all of their friends getting sick on Facebook, they’ve got video of the crowd marching downtown. They tell us, either through 911 calls or posts to social media. At the same time, they tell the media. And they tell each other. So now, instead of a lead time to get our stories straight, we, especially our PIOs are being asked about a disaster we may not even know occurred!
I like to introduce this term now, because I think this is the best description of what we’re experiencing these days. Now, I know everyone is wondering when I’ll start talking about the “tweeter,” but this background will, I think, help understand why social media is such a monumental change in our world.
First, ubiquitous. Does anyone know what this word means? That’s right, it means everywhere. Like the air we breathe, or cars, or cell phones, or people who know who Honey Boo Boo is. Everywhere.
And what about this one? Be careful now, because media doesn’t mean the mass media. Before the mass media co-opted the term, media is just a pluralization of medium. Medium, like a copper wire or radio wave. It’s a means to transfer something, in this case information. The mass media, when co-opting the term, was the medium for emergency managers and government folks to transfer information to the public. Nothing more, nothing less. So all of that heartburn your PIO gets when they hear the word media is just from the mass media. If not for all of the things that they specifically do, media is just a process.
Put the two words back together and you’re starting to see why this is important. We now, thanks to social media, have the ability to transmit information anywhere and everywhere. And we do! Heck, I’ve been on Twitter all day so far! How many people have looked at their Facebooks? Congratulations, you’re contributing to ubiquitous media.
Now do you see why this change is important? We, as communicators, AREN’T NEEDED anymore.
The absolute best example of this change is captured in this AMAZING dual image. What happened in 2005 and again, somewhat unexpected, in 2013? That’s right, we got a new pope. These are pictures from St. Peter’s Square in Rome. What do you think the people in 2005 did when they wanted to relive the moment and share it with the world? Aside from individual sharing of images, there was no sharing. To relive it meant to depend on the mass media. This year? Each one of those lights, those phones, tablets, is a broadcaster. It is potentially someone with an audience and they are telling a story. Without the Vatican’s permission, or Brian William’s approval.
Now think back to our gatekeeper friends. The emergency responders and media who not only controlled WHEN information was disseminated, but WHAT information was disseminated.
I’ll betthey feel a bit like this. Like everything is spinning out of control. Like you’re strapped to a rocket and going 10,000 miles an hour and it’s going where ever it wants. Funny thing, thought, it isn’t just that it feels like you’re out of control. We, as emergency managers, actually don’t have any control! This baby is going 10,000 miles an hour, and we’re strapped to it.
Unfortunately, too many of our colleagues confront that feeling of spinning out of control like this,byignoring it. Unfortunately, that train keeps on moving with, or without us. People will still be taking pictures at St. Peter’s Square, still be tweeting amongst themselves, still pinning images of your disaster scene.
And now’s the part everyone’s been waiting for. Social media in disasters? Pshaw, Jim. Say it ain’t so! I can pick out any – ANY – disaster in the last couple of years and tell you about how social media impacted the disaster. Yes, impacted. Changed. Affected. Yes, social media acted up the disaster, not the other way around.
First up is what I’m calling the watershed event of social media and emergencies. Before Sandy, emergency managers could have feigned ignorance of social media’s use in emergencies. After the hurricane blasted the television screens, cell phones and social networks we all were glued to, how anyone can make that argument again is beyond me.
One only has to see images like this.
Poorly composed, terribly lit, completely without context or expertise.
Yes, some of them are silly. Some are fabrications. But is this bad? Any mental health folks here? Humor helps us deal with the absolutely unimaginable. This is a natural reaction in a medium that we’ve never seen at full bore before on a situation that is making us doubt the greatest city on earth.
This is normal.
How can emergency managers look at these images and not see that this is ground-truth. This is the intelligence every IC begs for in a disaster. With geo-location, we can see exactly what’s happening, exactly where it’s happening, and in many cases, exactly AS it’s happening. All we have to do is accept that the public can be our media and give us information.
Our second example is Joplin, Missouri. Devastated by an EF-5 tornado in 2011, it took two wonderful women and an army of volunteers to demonstrate the true power of social media in a disaster setting.
In the hours after the tornado touched down, two things were of primary importance: search and rescue, and information. Search and rescue is tough, but information is easy. And everyone had some, and pushed every bit of it out. Getting information was a problem. It was getting the complete picture that was the problem. The City of Joplin released updates, the Salvation Army had other updates, the Red Cross more still. Two women from just south of Joplin, in their frustration with trying to find complete information about the disaster, set up a Facebook page, using nothing more than an iPhone. They collected all of the information that they could from news reports, the internet, social media networks, everything. By midnight, they had a few hundred followers. By daybreak the next day, more than 10,000, within the day more than 40,000. JoplinTornadoInfo had become THE information distribution point. The Williams gals, and their volunteer army, worked with response partners to ensure that the info they were posting was confirmed and coordinated. At one point, the City of Joplin Facebook Page, while having grown due to the disaster, was dwarfed by JoplinTornadoInfo. The City decided it was more important to get information out to the widest possible audience and worked with JTI to act on their behalf. Not only was it THE information distribution point, it was the OFFICIAL information distribution point.
As response shifted to recovery and rebuilding, JoplinTornadoInfo continued on, similarly shifting from information distribution to community building. In the months following the disaster, no one crowed louder, or more deservedly, than JTI about every small success. And as the successes got bigger, the Page continued to live as an ongoing testament to the strength of the Jopliners. The Page continues today with more than 40,000 Likes and serves as a key cog in Joplin’s rebirth.
So, that’s all well and good Jim, but what does it mean for us? How can I, with a paleolithic executive, no support staff and less than zero dollars, do all of that? How do we get underway?
Well, it starts very simply. Learn about these networks. Watch what happens on them. Learn how people interact. What types of posts succeed. When is the best time to post. Who are the key players. What topics are verboten.
Once you’ve got a good idea, or at least some idea, of what goes on in your chosen social networks, start using it! No, not as EMA Agency dot com, but as you, Frank, Joe, Mary, Susan. Engage with folks whose work you appreciate or are doing innovative things. Do it on your own time, using your personal cell phone. If you want to subject your agency to your social media whims, you’d better be knowledgable about how it actually works and be a real user.
The third step is important, it’s the rationale for why your agency should be on social media. The reason this is step 3 and not step 1 is because the best way to find compelling data, anecdotes, anec-data and metrics is by asking the people who are the experts. They know this stuff inside-out and can help build rationale.
Now that you’ve got experience, backing and ammunition, this is the time to approach your executive. You should be ready to answer questions about why you want to do it now, how you’ll manage the burden, what you’ll do when things go sideways, questions about tone and posts and approval processes. All of your training has gone into this, so don’t let all of your new friends down! And there you have it: monitor, personal use, metrics, executive buy-in! It doesn’t really work as a rallying chant, but it’s a common sense way to approach this situation.
Please consider me a resource, feel free to reach out any time. I’m one of those nerds that loves this stuff and could talk about it all day. Thanks so much for your time and I hope you found this useful.
How We'll Experience Disasters
How We’llExperience Disasters James Garrow Philadelphia Department of Public Health
Aside from the very small minority of thosepersonally affected by a disaster,