Sunday, February 26, 2012

Monitoring real-life events: a challenge

There was a tragic train derailment not too far from where I live today. In fact, the accident happened a block from where my in-laws live In Burlington, Ontario. Three crew members died, dozens of passengers were trapped in the wreckage and many injured, some seriously.
I learned of the accident soon after it occurred at around 3:30 pm. I soon got going on some ad hoc monitoring, principally on Twitter. The first thing i did was to look for the hashtags that were being used broadly. They included: #via, #viarail, #derailment and #burlington.

Some early notes:

  1. it doesn't take very long to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of info
  2. need to concentrate on the main #
  3. find someone else to gather/curate  info conveyed on Twitter: pictures, videos and media reports
  4. what's the criteria for re-tweeting information ? How do you deal with message pollution?
  5. which official sources carry more weight? 
I tinkered with Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, Netvibes for monitoring but, for me, the easiest way to actually try to keep track was by using Monitter.

Just a personal preference of course.

Now, for some observations on the communications response and the coordination of emergency information.
  • People will react from all around the world from a seemingly very local event ... so your response must be tailored to audiences directly impacted and those who observe from afar ... they both play a role in how your response will be perceived by the public. See how even SMEM guru Brian Humphrey got interested, all the way from California:
   Hi Brian - We cannot say anything officially until the investigation has closed. Apologies. ^RM
  • There is an absolute necessity to coordinate emergency information provided by different agencies and authorities ... at some point, we had diverging information (#of casulties) from the Mayor of Burlington, Halton Regional Police, Burlington Fire Department and others ... could have been confusing 
  • The people behind the @via_rail twitter account did a very good job under difficult circumstances ... they provided "operational info" on a timely basis.
   Thank you - new number established for this incident is 1-888-842-6141 ^RM
  • Where the lapse occurred was perhaps in coordinating the work done by the social media team with the webmaster and the media relations people. It took some three hours for the website to show anything related to the incident and about the same time for a news release to be issued ... things need to work in tandem to be truly effective from a crisis communications perspective as noted below:
  •  Reply 
  •  Retweet 
  •  Favorite 
  • · Open
  PIO messaging is dift than cust service. Can ensure clarity by having an 'official' & a 'talk' account

All this is kind of new for many organizations. I think in the whole, Via did a very good job informing its audience on one particular channel: Twitter (and their Facebook page was busy too with posts) ... but if they can improve, it's in the area of integrating social media in their plan.

It's great that they use and monitor social media ... but they shouldn't seem to do so from a small dark room ... apart from the rest of crisis response team ...or so it seemed to me at least ...

I'm sure we'll get some comments on this one ! 


  1. Patrice,

    Thank you for including my miscellaneous ramblings from Twitter about a tragedy that reaches far beyond the Providence of Ontario.

    While I was heartened and impressed by VIA Rail's Twitter personal responsiveness to inquiries [even if it was the digital equivalent of "no comment"], I found it perplexing that they seemed hamstrung or outright overlooked/failed in offering a baseline clarification as to what was clearly known [emphasis] to have happened.

    Not everything at once mind you - and certainly not the cause, but the undeniable basics: At least 3 of the 5W's could and should have been offered via the rail carrier's Twitter account from the outset, and could have been done so without compromising any investigation.

    In the absence of a simple explanation, millions needlessly contemplated...

    Was it a bombing focused on one - or more trains? An off-train event where a man with a machete attacked patrons at a train station? A militant group with machine guns holding the train hostage? A mass case of food poisoning from the Dining Car? A fire that raced through a Sleeping Car? An apparent collision at a grade crossing?

    Or... "an apparent derailment of Train #92, near Aldershot, Ontario with more details to follow".

    Of course, this would ideally be followed not only by facts, but by the pertinent negatives necessary to abolish fear, uncertainty and doubt.

    Clearly my comments are offered in 20/20 hindsight, and I was thankfully privy to many of the multiple channels of information that you were. But erasing those outside influences and looking solely @VIA_Rail on Twitter, I think it becomes clear that there was simple room for improvement, and that the hard-working folks behind and supervising that Twitter account deserve not only encouragement, but a clear message that more can and should be done in future crisis.

    Again Patrice, thank you for your time and patience with my missive.

    Respectfully Yours - and Speaking my Personal Thoughts,

    Brian Humphrey

  2. This comment from @kim26stephens :

    "Thank you Patrice for this excellent post. I find Brian's observations very interesting. When #SMEM was quite new, we applauded organizations for simply having a SM presence at all (any criticisms of an EM's social media content were often shot down for fear of scaring them away from the platforms). But when should we start to move beyond simple accolades for knowing how to use the tools and move towards a more critical eye regarding whether or not the organization is using the tools effectively? After all, effective public communication should be the goal, no matter what platform is being used to transmit the information."

  3. This comment from David Black ..."People will react from all around the world from a seemingly very local event ... so your response must be tailored to audiences directly impacted and those who observe from afar"

    I think this reflects one of the biggest shifts for crisis communicators. Particularly when you are alerting with SM tools, when you are trying to elicit some specific behaviour from the audience (duck and cover , etc). So much of getting your message right in order to get the right behaviour, relies on knowing the context in which the recipient of the communication will frame the message. How do you cover all audiences in 140 characters?

  4. Indeed... it was the same for me. This article was really excellent for all of us.