Wednesday, November 30, 2011

25 smem destinations that matter ... let's get started

I introduced this series in a recent post. What would a top 25 destinations/sources of info on SMEM look like? Certainly, from a comms/PIO point of view ... This series is NOT a popularity contest but rather a list of people and their online efforts that matter to me and who provide some inspiration ... so let's started ...

At #25: Hal Grieb ... from Plano, TX ... a true pioneer of social media in EM and for responders. Whether on Twitter (@hal_grieb) or on Google+ , Hal's opinions carry some weight. He's included in Connie White's recent book  and put the City of Plano on the SMEM map.

His efforts were recognized with a "the Statesman Texas Social Media Award"

For all those reasons and his long-standing profile on #smem ... Hal holds the 25th spot on my list.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The power of the hashtag ...

How the #smem has become a virtual clearinghouse for sharing info on the impact of social media on the world of emergency management. 

About a year ago, a group of luminaries decided to gather their thoughts and share their experiences on how to advance the use of emerging technologies around the #smem hashtag on Twitter. The Social Media in Emergency Management acronym quickly became well known. In fact, some key people behind it managed to get a full day at NEMA's mid-year conference in March to promote social media.
And, yes, I'm the big guy talking ...

The #smemchat held every Fridays have continued to provide a platform for the sharing of experiences and information on the growing use of social media in all aspects of emergency management.

A recent case in point, highlights the benefits of using twitter hashtags to channel content on the web ... from blogs and other sources.

It first started with this post from Cheryl Bledsoe on emerging "good practices" in the SMEM field.
That post gathered lots of attention in the following days:

RT @DisasterForums: Are there best practices for social media use for Emergency Management - days ago - by  @FloodRiskGender on twitter

I followed up with my own blog post on what I described as "commonly accepted practices" and that got some attention (nearly 200 views ... which is big for my modest blog !). And it got picked up by my friend John Moore at Gov in the Lab
RT @likeaword: minimum practice for SM in emergencies | References @dcctayside @patricecloutier thx gr8 stuff #smem 

Now, what's interesting is what happens next. Ben Proctor from the UK added fantastic content on his own, very tactically oriented for first responders and targeting social media preparedness as a response tool. A great read.

Motivated by that response, I then wrote a further blog post on public alerting, warnings and tone ... and how social media factors into the equation. This proved to be one of my most "popular" post with lots of tweets, RTs and mentions ... in addition to being picked up again on Gov in the Lab. The point is ... when you stimulate conversations and provide thoughtful content ... people will pay attention. The results nearly another 150 pageviews ... 

But more importantly for me, my post spurred others into action ... including a post from someone who's made a meteoric ascent among the constellation of SMEM stars. Christopher Poirier's blog post on what PIOs face nowadays was bang on: the need for immediacy ... the positioning as a trusted source and the absolute necessity to engage in a dialogue using social networks. Brilliant, so much so that his piece ...was taken up by Gov in the Lab (again !) and in GovLoop.

Now, even if the trail ended there ... it would be phenomenal ... but as a further illustration of the diffuse cloud-based collaboration that is #smem ... another star James Garrow weighed in too on the concept of "digital first responders" ... 

Jim's post (@jgarrow on twitter) was insightful and did garner a lot of attention too (stats provided by Jim)
Quick stats: 108 blog visits, 13 tweets by me, 17 RTs, 6 replies, 27879 impressions (obv lots of overlap, 7486 imp from 1 tweet). In 15 hrs.

So, to me, the last few days have proven without a doubt, the tremendous power of Twitter and blogs as learning tools and professional sharing channels. If you add to that the role of "clearinghouse" provided by sites such as Gov in the Lab, Gov Loop and the new Emergency2.0 Wiki, the possibilities abound .... and I'm not even considering all the diverse groups in LinkedIn that are specifically tailored to emergency managers.

Welcome to a brave new world where you can make an impact, exchange views and learn from peers from all over the world ... without even leaving your office or home.

SMEM leaders: a Holiday series

The Holidays are a good time to take a breath, look around and realize what you've accomplished during the year that's ending. It's also a good occasion to praise to the hard work and contribution of those who make the broad smem (social media in emergency management) movement an ongoing source of inspiration for many of us. To get an idea, check out the #smem hashtag on Twitter.

Whether they are using social media as crisis communications tools, lauding the benefits of crowdsourcing and crisis mapping in disasters, pushing the envelope on the use of social network in emergency preparedness and recovery, a group of writers make their blogs, twitter and/or Facebook accounts, websites, wikis and others, true destinations of choice.

Over the course of the next few weeks, my colleagues Kim Stephens (author of Idisaster 2.0) and James Garrow (writer of The Face of the Matter blog) and I, will each come up with various lists of SMEM destinations we find worth visiting on the web. Eventually, just before the new year (we hope !) and after much debate, we will collectively come up with a list of TOP 10 SMEM destinations ...

Yes, we already apologize for those who'll be left out! But that in no way minimizes the contribution of all those who are promoting the integration of social media into emergency management, crisis communications and humanitarian assistance.

I can always be bribed with fine wine ... just kidding! We hope you'll find our efforts interesting.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Of emergency warnings and being convincing.

I've finally gotten around to reading Amanda Ripley's fantastic book on how people react to disasters and crises. Her work, "The Unthinkable: who survives when disasters strikes - and why" is one of the best reads I've had in a while.

With gripping anecdotes punctuating scientific fact, it's both entertaining and educational. Her analysis of risk perception and how it affects behaviour highlights the many considerations we must evaluate when planning how we'll communicate during a crisis. 

One section really struck a chord with me as a former broadcast journalist and now, as someone involved in emergency information planning and delivery:
"After 9/11, studies showed that the more hours of coverage adults and children watched, the more stress they experienced. In general, TV makes us worry about the wrong things. Your brain is better at filtering media hype when it is reading. Words have less emotional salience than images."
Now, i'm not neuroscientist, but I always thought that establishing an emotional connection was a better way to get through your audience. Maybe I've been wrong all those years. 

I also wonder how you transfer that notion in today's world where social media are become part of more and more public alerting and warning strategies. Do you go for the logical tone in your messaging? Do you adopt a more engaging vocabulary? Do you want to stimulate a dialog? Even when warning people of an impending danger?

A 2008 Australian federal government document offers tips on how to craft efficient emergency warnings.
It identifies the following as your objectives (and there is nothing wrong with these ...):

Emergency warnings are intended to achieve two outcomes:
1 Inform the community of an impending or current threat.
2 Promote appropriate responsive actions.
 Be very clear about whether you need to achieve one or both of these outcomes when writing an emergency warning. 

 The document goes on to talk about the different steps people go through to process and digest the information you're putting out. A key is finding the right tone:

It is a dialogue with the community, not a command situation. In most cases you are seeking co-operation with a suggested action, not compliance with an ‘order’. This is best achieved through recipients being convinced by the information they get that a course of action is the best one for them to take.
Your role is not that of a ‘King’ to issue orders – a better analogy is to be a marketer who is selling the product of ‘appropriate action’ and needs to convince the audience to accept the advice. 

Now, to go back to my earlier point on the role of emotions, how can we best use them to ensure we're heard and acted upon in the vast social media sphere where many conversations are ongoing? How are you heard above the din?

I can remember with vividness the immense (to my mind anyways) change of tone just before Hurricane Ike in 2008. A few years after Hurricane Katrina, it seemed that things were not as before and that authorities were doing all they could to ensure that the "hardliners" opposed to any mandatory evacuation heeded some pretty dire warnings. Listen to NBC's Brian Wiliams at the very beginning: 

Do these very dire warning work? Well, studies conducted after Hurricane Ike hit the Galveston area indicated some mixed results, let's just say ...

It's an interesting question: why do people chose to stay, notwithstanding what type of warning you give them? Might humour be a better tool? 

I'm really interested to see how various jurisdictions handle this conundrum.

Comments welcome! 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Best practices in the use of social media in emergency management: too soon?

Cheryl Bledsoe wrote a very good post this week on her site about the lack of any verified "best practice" in the use of social media in emergency management. While I agree with her in many ways, I think that some of the observations during disasters in the last two or three years, point the way to what I'll call "commonly accepted practices".

Here's an excerpt from Cheryl's post:
The real challenge is how can you measure the tangible results from the relationship-based dynamics that occur on social media.  It is my position that we have few “best practices” yet in the #SMEM community, but rather “good” and “developing practices” that are yet to be replicated enough times or in enough jurisdictions to reliably call them a standard.
I believe that one obvious such "commonly accepted practice" is the use of social networks (Twitter and Facebook in particular) as emergency information tools. Some examples really demonstrate the benefits associated with using social networks to communicate with vast audiences during disasters.

The most recent is during Hurricane Irene in late August 2011. The officials of Fairfax County in Virginia clearly understood the fantastic power of a fully integrated digital media presence marrying social media, blogs and website integration. In a span of five days (from Aug. 25 to the 29), the measured a dramatic increase in their reach:

  • nearly 51,000 views of their new emergency information blog
  • 335,000 views of their posts on Facebook
  • 3,000 % increase in the number of views on their emergency management web page.
This helped county officials keep their residents informed. It will also pay dividends in the future with more than 3,000 new subscribers to the Community Emergency Alert Network. These results certainly look impressive to me. The lesson to learn: a full integration of web, blog, social networks AND mobile.
Making info available to mobile devices during a disaster is now a must. Full report here.

Another example can be found in the extraordinary work accomplished by the Queensland Police Service earlier this year during the floods that hit that part of Australia. The following excerpt from their report on their use of social media is telling of their outlook:
Our social media strategy centered on public communications and community engagement issues. This was arguably during the most difficult period of natural disasters in the history of Queensland with more than 90 per cent of the state disaster-declared. Through the use of social media, we were able to communicate directly to the people of Queensland which was invaluable, helping us become more effective in supporting and serving the needs of the community

 In the 24-hour period following the flash flood of January 10, 2011, the number of “likes” on the QPS Facebook page increased from approximately 17,000 to 100,000. This same day the QPS Facebook page generated 39 million post impressions, equating to 450 post views per second over the peak 24-hour period.

Why this success? Because in many cases, the usual channels from other government agencies were not available so residents turned to a trusted source to get the info they needed to stay safe. What were police doing? They were providing a constant feed of details and updates on Facebook and Twitter. They also monitored social networks to quickly dispel rumours and counter false information ... and they engaged with their audiences by responding to online queries, Twitter replies and Facebook comments.

 A similar report was prepared for the flooding that occurred in the State of Victoria. It also shows the strength that social networks can bring to communications during a crisis or disaster.

These are just a few examples, in just one aspect of emergency management. I'll come back to further explore the use of social media in preparedness, response and recovery. Emerging practices abound,just take a look at the recent Hurricane Irene social media after action report.

In fact, I'd dare say that we are on the cusp of widespread acceptance of the use of SM in EM. This means that sooner or later, common procedural, policy and operational features will emerge thus moving us into the realm of "best practices". Things move fast, it might be as soon as the next major disaster.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Follow up to the SMEM camp at NEMA

I had the opportunity earlier this year to attend the SMEM (social media in emergency management) camp which was held in conjunction with the mid-year meeting of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) in Washington DC.

It was a fantastic opportunity to meet with, and learn from, some of the leaders and champions in the adoption of social media in emergency management programs across the US. It was also a very interesting forum for emergency managers to get immersed in the world of social media. A perfect symbiosis. 

I also authored part of a report, focusing on SMEM in Canada. The report was made possible thanks to CNA and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in support of the CrisisCommons and the SMEM Initiative communities,. The full report can be found on the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

I've been asked to expand on one of the report's key recommendations:

Exercises and real-world events: Continue efforts to integrate social media tools and data into response exercises. These efforts are critical not only to understanding the value of social media, but also to creating a level of comfort in their use by emergency managers. In addition, efforts to capture the role of social media and the response of VTCs through post-event analysis and after-action reports should be funded and formalized before an event occurs.

Although just a few months have gone by, the SMEM landscape has already changed considerably. The NEMA meeting followed the triple disaster in Japan (earthquake, tsunami, Fukushima) by a few days, We could already see that social media was playing a growing role in those disasters. Another illustration of this here.

This phenomenon accelerated during the spring and summer of 2011. Severe weather events in the US spurred enormous social media activity. From Joplin to Tuscaloosa, agencies, volunteers and citizens turned to social networks to get news, push out information and coordinate relief efforts.

But to my mind, it was Hurricane Irene which marked the turning point in the generalized acceptance of social media tools by governments, emergency management organizations and volunteer groups. The following from a previous post here, sums up my reasoning:

  1. Hurricane Irene seemed to mark a turning point for the acceptance of social media by emergency management officials, certainly as an information tool. The use of key social networks was widespread. Combined with the alerts and notifications blasted across legacy media and other means, its was a pretty thorough blanketing of emergency information and preparedness messaging.  They even moved into the realm of crowdsourcing damage assessments.
  2. I'm grateful social networks played such a key role because the coverage of legacy media (particularly from major TV networks) was for the most pathetic and alarmist (to my shame as a former reporter ....) I've seen in a long time ... with reporters often seemingly thinking that their "valiant" efforts to show the impact of the storm were the story ... and when New York City wasn't devastated, it became about the storm that wasn't ...well, Irene left her mark. The people of Vt, NC, NJ and other states are sure feeling her wrath ... Here's a piece by Gerald Baron on the media issue ...
  3. There were lots of crowdsourcing and crisis mapping efforts underway. One key objective of our after action report will be to look at coordination efforts in that regard. Another aspect of our work will be to help assess the validity of these efforts and their usefulness. More on this topic in this blog post.
In real life, we already see extensive use of social media throughout the whole emergency management spectrum: from preparedness to recovery. Slowly, this is also becoming true for exercise purposes.

Stacy Hypes, wrote the following in a blog post for the University of North Carolina's Center for Public Technology.
Emergency drills should include practicing using the appropriate social media tools to communicate with the public.
 FEMA just conducted a nationwide test of the EAS yesterday. Many organizations are reviewing their alerting and notification protocols to include social media in drills, to test how they can increase their "reach" during an emergency.

The use of social media, Twitter in particular, can prove problematic during exercises as outlined by this post from Cheryl Bledsoe, one of the true luminaries in the SMEM world:

This becomes really challenging on Twitter because of the 140 character length restriction.  In some exercises, I have observed the following:
  • People retweeting the messages and stripping out the “This is an exercise message” portion
  • Intermixing exercise messages and real-world flooding information
  • Use of an exercise hashtag that was not clearly understood during the exercise, resulting in questions & confusion among observers
Tools have been developed to keep the exercise scenario in a closed loop and still be able to drill social media injects and play. Weber Shandwick's FireBell is such a product. The organizational social networking platform Yammer also offers opportunities to drill social media privately.

We hope that the launch of the report by CNA will spur further debate and integration of social media into emergency management programs at all levels. The truth is that more and more organizations are doing it, leaving you with starting blocks so you don't have to reinvent the wheel.

Good luck !