Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Social media and public alerting

Events of the past few days (the school shooting in Chardon, OH and the tornadoes of Feb. 28 and 29) have once revealed an emerging trend: people won't wait for authorities to warn friends and family about impending danger or disaster, they'll do it themselves via social networks.

My good friend Jim Garrow made the point rather clearly in his latest blog post: 
In fact, some of the first reports of the shooting can be found on Twitter, posted by students as the shootings were occurring! This was before the school was locked down. Before the school’s emergency alert system was activated. Before the police showed up.
Fact is, our citizens rely less and less on us or official agencies. With the age of social convergence, comes a certain "empowerment" for people, based on this basic equation:
Mobile devices + social networks = empowered citizens + greater data/volunteer mobilization
This is a crucial fact. While official agencies debate on what role to give social networks (especially Twitter) in their alerting and warning strategies, the world is moving on and already uses them daily and for any sort of incident. So, until, and maybe not even then, CMAS gains a strong foothold in the mobile market, and PLAN becomes readily available, official agencies will almost always lag behind. Why? Because all of us have become sensors, alert nodes, and the initiators of our own alert networks.

I'm not discounting CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System) and PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network) ... I believe they will play an essential role in the overall alerting and warning systems of the near future ... Again, why? Because, survey after survey indicate that a growing number of people prefer to be alerted and informed via their mobile devices. More on CMAS in the video linked here.

So what are official agencies and governments to do:

  • move at the speed of their audiences (that means speed of Twitter) or be irrelevant
  • use the tools their audiences use (Twitter and text messaging)
  • monitor social media in an aggressive fashion to be able to discern trends, reputational threats and identify/dispel false rumours and information
  • and remember, citizens will always be first ... be first on the scene, be first to warn loved ones and first to put out their opinion about what's happened and your response ...
Now, if that makes you a bit nervous ... it should ... everyday, every incident, every emerging technology and their adoption by the public (Pinterest anyone?) brings new challenges ... but we don't have a choice. We need to keep up to be able to bridge the gap between the public expectations and our own capabilities and policies.

Comments sought and welcome as always ...

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 ! 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Expanding the reach of SMEM and bridging gaps

I had the great pleasure of having a skype chat with Francesco Ciriaci

@fciriaci on Twitter)  co-founder of CrisisCamp Italia and organizer of an upcoming SMEM forum in Bologna on March 27.

Francesco is a leader in the use of emerging technologies by volunteers in disasters in the European scene. A visit to his blog reveals why. Francesco contacted CrisisCommons to see how the organization could help in establishing a bridgehead for the promotion of the use of social media in emergency management in Italy.

Although he's already very active with different projects merging humanitarian aid and technology, Francesco wanted to hear more from the experience in integrating social media into emergency management from this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

He's particularly interested in the contribution that citizens and volunteers can make when disasters strike and building relationships with official agencies. You can read more about his interests via his LinkedIn profile.
I'm glad to highlight the kind of leadership that makes the whole SMEM movement relevant, not just in North America, but on a global scale. 

It's also another example of the role played by volunteer technical communities (in this case CrisisCommons) in developing relationships and capacities that would be of great service to areas impacted by disasters and the authorities responding to them.

Grazie Mille Francesco and buona fortuna!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hearing from a true innovator ... is inspiring

I had the opportunity this morning (thanks to @lance_valcour) to attend a meeting organized by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. The conference is about the use of technology to maximize effectiveness in an era of tight fiscal constraints. You can follow it via the #cacpict hashtag.

One of the key presenters, literally blew the minds of social media leaders in their own right (@t_burrows and @deputysloly) ... and mine as well.  Chief Inspector Elle de Jonge of the Netherlands National Police really showed how innovation, using the crowd and social media can make communities safer.

Here's a video that explains one of the project he's working on:
As the video explains ... it makes citizens fully participate in public safety and security. Under Chief Inpsector De Jonge's leadership, they have been able to develop a system to "grade" volunteers and how to assess their status as "trusted agents" ...

The implication for emergency management are obvious. From damage assessment to helping allocate response and recovery resources, this kind of system is becoming invaluable.

In short, where all resources are diminishing (staff, money) ... one resource is growing and that's the public's appetite to take part and get involved. So when projects come along what fully harness the intelligence of, and from, the crowd, they are to be celebrated.

I'm sure we can replicate such a tool for emergency management purposes. 

Well done ! Chief Inspector!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why crisis communications should be based on TRUST

We're in a brand new era in terms of crisis communications planning. The need for speed, rapid positioning and response has changed the "game" forever. Social networks are the driving force behind this reality. 

For professionals, the challenge is real. The need for monitoring is constant, from the moment the "story" breaks until minutes, hours and days later when online conversations shape how your response will be perceived by the public, 

In a way, the very role of the crisis communicator has been transformed. Crisis planners are "facilitators" more than "spin doctors" ...  Our plans need to be SOCIAL ... take into account how the public drives the agenda. 

But to reach the public, to help "facilitate" how perception is shaped in a favourable manner, we must based our planning on TRUST.  In this case, trust stands for: 

  • Timeliness: you need to be able to respond to an incident within minutes ... very, very soon after the outset. You need the ability to monitor conversations and discern if the opinions are being shaped in a positive light for your organization.
  • Responsive: use the right tools, the right platforms to convey your point of view depending on the platform where comments are shaping stakeholder/public opinion. Use the right tool to reach the right audience. Have the right messaging available to address the incident (see message mapping) 
  • Unhindered: your team must have the authority to start responding right away. Have you delegated authority to get things moving? Do you have to get things approved (and wait long minutes/hours) before you can react? 
  • Systemic: a crisis communications frame of mind must be implemented throughout your organization. Anyone can become (either on purpose or by accident) the "face" of your response. Ensure everyone knows the basic rules/procedures in your plan. 
  • Targeted: any crisis communications plan that still identifies legacy media as the primary audience is bound to fail. This simply move too fast to rely on your relationships with reporters. As stated above, the crowd and their conversations, now shape the story. Ensure you have the ability to be heard on the same platforms where the crowd is engaging and debating. Your message needs to be able to compete (era of message control is over ...) 
In the end, it's simple. To be credible you first need to be heard and believed. You need to talk to the right people and appear to be (not just be) responsive to their needs. When you've done all that ...then, perhaps, you have a chance to be TRUSTed ... 

That sums it up ... Should we all go back to school ? 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Swarm journalism and the future of crisis communications

The blurring of the lines between professional news organizations and reporters, and citizens reporting on event through social media, means a necessary change in your crisis communications response posture.

The death of singer Whitney Houston brought great sadness to a lot of people but also provided yet another example of the power of social media in how people get their information. While the question of the veracity of news being "broken" on social networks is being debated, organizations should not miss the following essential points: 
  • legacy or traditional media are no longer the primary audience in your crisis communications planning 
  • news move at the speed of social media ... instantly, from everywhere to everyone 
  • any organization must have the ability to monitor social networks and respond on the same platforms within minutes 
  • holding statements are done ... (especially if they're issued an hour or more after the first tweet ...) and should be replaced by constant (in routine situations) and ramped up (when the crisis comes) engagement on social networks from the moment the crisis erupts ...
The traditional lines between professional journalists and citizen-reporters are blurring by the day.

This video from Mashable on the latest tool to allow media to manage news comiing from social networks sources is only a sign of the rapidly evolving process where information created, distributed, consumed on mobile devices by all sorts of people, professionals or not. While it's not an easy process for legacy media, the tide is just too strong for them to resist ...despite their best efforts.
This means that organizations can no longer ignore the social aspect of any crisis. If they do, they severely hamper their capability to respond and engage effectively. The "head in the sand" approach certainly won't work.
So, when the "swarm" of social reporters, news outlets and your stakeholders are talking about you .. on social networks, on the air or with clients and rivals, you need to know, you need to be present ... and that means using social media .... or you can decide to ignore the crisis ... and go down with your ship ... (or not ...!) ... that's where leadership matters ... 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The value of dissent and diverging views

The last few days have been very interesting for anyone monitoring the #smem hashtag. In a nutshell, camps have formed over whether or not to live tweet (or use any other live social networks) during exercises or not. Also, whether it's relevant to play in an open or closed loop ....

That discussion culminated with last week's #smemchat where opinions exchanged were certainly heated ones but valid points were made on both sides of the debate ...

I welcome dissent and challenges to generally-accepted practices ... those of us who have been involved in SMEM for a while don't pretend to hold the Truth as handed down from Mount Sinai ... Well, I certainly don't ... I have opinions on how best to do things and I share them freely ... but I'm also smart enough to accept new ways of thinking when they're relevant and make sense. In fact, it might be a bit early in the process of integrating social media into emergency management to talk about "best practices".

Frank exchanges of opinion, open and heated exchanges are what make things go forward, stimulate new thinking and get more people involved. In fact, collective and mass-acceptance of a single point of view can stifle that very progress. Does that mean I can't have an opinion and defend it robustly? In my view, social networks and mobile technologies have forever changed how we respond to disasters; they have democratized emergency management and made crisis communications an immediate concern for any organization when an incident occurs. Does that make me an extremist? 

I think not ...I've said many times that the people of #smem are some of the smartest folks I know ... I've learned more in the last couple of years since my online engagement began with this collective, than in the previous decade ... BUT ...I will cease to take part if I feel that respect is not at the heart of the debate on #smem and #smemchat ... I have not seen that happen yet ... I don't think we will (despite some close calls perhaps ...) because the people involved recognized the value of this tool.

So, all "extremists" welcome ... even the most neutral of centrists ... the least dogmatic and all those in between ... 

Until Friday's #smemchat (12:30 eastern time) ...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

When command and the people at the top get it ...

There's a growing consensus among EM and crisis communications professionals that social media has changed how your response must be staged or, at least, what needs to be added when you respond.

Yet, there seems to still be some reluctance to adopt social media as an effective emergency management tool. While many practitioners see the value of social networks as information channels, many still ignore the potential to inform their decision-making process. Just think of the valuable contribution the crowd can make in enhancing your situational awareness

So when the top EM person in the US says that social media is now an imperative and that speed is key, the hope is that more people will listen. Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA, put it very succinctly in a recent article. When he looked back at the delays following Hurricane Katrina, because official assessments took time, he compared it to a more recent disaster where social media played a key role:
When tornadoes ripped through Joplin, Mo. in May 2011, FEMA had enough information--although imperfect--from Twitter and Facebook to suggest that the situation was dire, said Fugate.
"The 'official' part is overplayed," said Fugate. "If you want to make social media real you have to see [the public] as a resource rather than a liability."
My good friend Kim Stephens recently referred to a great interview with the former Commandant of the US Coast Guard Thad Allen. The admiral made it clear where he stands on the use of emerging technologies and public participation. In a nutshell, his position is that SM brings enormous benefits to the response itself but also in terms of openness and transparency by governments and agencies:

" ... you need to be able to get that information out in a timely manner because if you aren't, there's generally a perception that there's information being withheld or you're not being open and honest about it. ... Here's what I tell people: it really doesn't matter what you think. It really doesn't matter what your position or your policy is in government or a company. The public can participate in these events because there's no barrier to entry on the internet. 
If you're not out there and you're not interacting and you're not providing information, then the public is only going to hear what is said from people who are trying to observe it from where they are, and they may not have complete information. Each government has a responsibility to put the entire picture out there.
So, there you have it, most of us can only hope that we'll get this inspired leadership and recognition that we must move at the speed of our audiences and use the tools they use to be effective. It should be an easy point to make in times of very tight fiscal constraints: social media allows you to more effectively deploy resources to respond and recover from disasters. 

Here's more from Admiral Allen on social media (again, thanks to Kim Stephens)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How social media are impacting news organizations and what it means for EM

How are news stories put together? What role do social networks play in what becomes news and how the stories themselves are told? 

These are some of the issues I address in my guest blog in Emergency Management Magazine. The blog post has been made even more relevant by recent articles on how large news organizations (SKY, BBC and CNN) handle social media. 

Don't hesitate to tell me what you think!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Superbowl: a good way to test your social media monitoring chops?

There is no doubt that the tweet traffic during the Superbowl (and all other posts on social networks) will reach levels similar to those following a major disaster.

A good way to test how you can keep track (or not ... and in itself ... that can be revealing too) of what's being said ... A suggestion: try to follow tweets/topics related to security or first responders. How to go about it?

  1. set up your monitoring ... are you a fan of the dashboard look? think Netvibes ... Or do you prefer to scan between columns? think Hootsuites, Tweetgrid or Tweetdeck ... for more on how to go about it, see here ... and here's why it's a good idea.
  2. find out which hashtags and other topics to follow and keep an eye on .... especially those who apply to the stuff you want to monitor in particular ... you can try Social Mention and Kurrently to get started ... think outside the box: search by location .... use Trendsmap, GeoChirp and related tools  See tweets and trends on maps.
  3. Add to your sources of info ... go to to follow (whenever you can) what's being said on tactical radios near the game's site
  4. filtering info: some basic tips here to help reduce overload ... filter hashtag columns on Tweetdeck and other tools ... the grand-daddy of filtering tools is Swiftriver and another useful tool DataSift.
  5. Finally, if you've made it this far ... try your hand at basic crisis mapping ... with crowdmap ... visualize the info you've aggregated so far on a map ... 
A useful tutorial:

Let me know how it works !