Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Atten-hut ... Now Tweet! Of war and social media.

Modern warfare is waged on multiple battlefields at once. From the streets and alleys of Fallujah or Gaza, to the open stretches of the Arabian desert to the jungles of South Thailand, men still fight for ground or air superiority.

But more and more, other warriors fight in different arenas. Cyberwar is a reality. We've seen it in quasi-open conflicts (Estonia/Russia), in open battles (Georgia/Russia), in the not-so-cold war and spying between China and the rest of the world. Now we're witnessing it as well in Gaza, Israel and other parts of the Middle East.

We're also seeing the emergence of a social version of the infowar ... where the fight is for the hearts and minds, of not only national constituencies, but international public opinion. Isreali "social warriors" are now the new cool kids on the block

The use of social media in modern societies is now so prevalent that it actually can become a tactical tool ... because we're humans and like to talk about what we're witnessing. That can pose a risk as Israeli authorities have deemed.

We saw in the Mumbai terror attacks, and we're seeing it again in Gaza and Israel, the crowd uses mobile tech and social networks to livestream/tweetcast the conflict. And this can be mapped quite accurately.

So what does this means for crisis communicators or emergency managers? There are clear parallels. As we've seen from Hurricane Sandy, our audiences can get pretty upset when they feel our response is not what it should be. Monitoring and engaging on social networks becomes vital to any operational activity so that the focus can remain on the response and not veer into political damage control.

Ask Governor Christie, Mayor Bloomberg, the American Red Cross and FEMA how important it is to win the "hearts and minds" of not only the people impacted by disasters but also a much larger set of audiences.

Do you have a social war room ready for battle? Ready to guard and defend your reputation the next time you're engaged in an operational response? You better be ... your whole mandate, your very existence, might be undermined by the false (or accurate) perception of a mishandled reaction to a disaster.

Remember, the three critical roles of the public information officer in a disaster in terms of pushing out info:

  1. giving out info that will help people stay safe ...
  2. giving out the info so our audiences can adopt the behaviours we want them to adopt (evacuate, shelter in place, prepare)
  3. and put your response under the best positive light ... the PR component of his/her job 
It's that last bit that is so often forgotten. The current social war, amid a very real shooting war, indicates how essential guarding your reputation against threats ... even in a preemptive fashion, is to the very success of your operations.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

10 reasons why there'll now be a before Sandy and a post-sandy in SMEM

There has already been a few solid analyses of the use of social media in emergency management (SMEM) as it applies to the response and early recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Few have been more to the point than this one from Gisli Olafsson of NetHope. We knew this was going to be different even as the exact extent of damages were unknown and as preparations were being made, as my good friend Kim Stephens points out

Whereas I had plenty of time in the fall of 2011 to undertake a full review of the use of social media for Hurricane Irene, I don't have that kind of time now. So, very quickly, here are 10 reasons (in no particular order) why I believe this storm marks a turning point for the SMEM movement.

  1. Yes, they are right! New York (and the surrounding area) is the centre of the universe. (at least in a legacy media sense). What was bound to happen was endless scrutiny of the preparation and the response. But also, many media outlets brought the use of social media during the storm to the front page. How people created their own networks to stay informed, ask for and receive help and much more. It's New York kind of thing now (SMEM) and one that won't go away! 
  2. Crowdsourcing the truth. From collectively identifying fake pictures on Instagram and other visually-oriented social networks, to debunking false rumours on Twitter and outing people purposefully spreading misinformation, the online truth squad was on duty. Social networks are at once the hotbed of all sorts of crappy things and the canvas on which the truth can begin to emerge. More on this from Patrick Meier.
  3. Crisis Mapping hits the big time. Media outlets, countless agencies, corporations and hundreds of digital volunteers produced a variety of maps on many topics: power outages, communications outages, availability of gas and many more. Here's a pretty good list. Volunteers gathered at crisis camps, hackathons and in many darkened living room to do some fabulous work. Whether all these maps made a valid contribution or not, the phenomenon cannot be overlooked.
  4. Some requests for crowdsourcing situational awareness enhancements, aggregating existing databases and mapping incidents on maps came from "high-level official sources". More on that later but this adds to the legitimacy of expanding the emergency management family to digital volunteers.
  5. Many governments, at all levels, used social media to communicate with their constituents before, during and after the passage of Sandy. Again, social networks (particularly Twitter) proved to be effective emergency information tools.
  6. Social networks became a true lifeline for many. Calls for help, offers to assist, or messages to let friends and family know "I'm OK!" ... were abundant. What's clear is that people turn to social media to share their experiences during a disaster. More then ever they do so through their mobile devices ...especially when power is out. Individuals, businesses, anyone with some sort of power, became an invaluable resource if they could let you charge your phone
7. Volunteer organizations with expertise in SMEM really made a difference. Whether they were officially requested (such as the NY Virtual Operations Support Team or NY VOST), or turned themselves into portals for all sorts of emergency and preparedness info (such as Humanity Road did) or remained the stalwart provider of life-saving, up-to-the-minute info (such as the New York City Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Service or NY ARECS), their presence on Twitter and other social networks was essential to the safety of many residents of the impacted areas. 
8. First responders and local emergency managers were very active. A new SMEM hero was born and she managed to help make the FDNY a beacon of hope for many New York residents in very difficult times. Dave Statter, from Satter 9-1-1 blog fame identified others who were active:
I know I am will be missing some, but here are few in my region I followed that seemed to be doing a very good job of keeping the public informed via Twitter: Alexandria, VA (@AFDCHIEF200), Arlington County, VA (@ARLINGTONVA), Fairfax County, VA (@FAIRFAXCOUNTY), Howard County, MD (@HCDFRS,@HCDFRS_CHIEF@KENULMAN), Montgomery County, MD (@MCFRS@MONTGOMERYCOMD), Prince George’s County, MD (@PGFDPIO@PGPDJULIE@COUNTYEXECBAKER ), Washington, DC (@MAYORVINCEGRAY@IAFF36).

9. the Red Cross Digital Operations Centre proved that organizations who dedicate resources to SMEM (especially social media monitoring) are best placed to play a role and fulfil their mandates during a disaster. 

10. Finally, FEMA's decision to highlight its social media rumour control activities brought to the fore, this absolute necessity for the operations of any emergency info centre or JIC. Countering rumours and misinformation, is now more critical then even, when news moves at the speed of social networks. False information can not only damage the reputation of any response organization, but it can also put lives in danger. 

There, you have it. Still not convinced that we've reach a critical moment in the evolution of SMEM? Read this post from my buddy Jim Garrow. So, it's time for us who work in EM and crisis comms to catch up with our public and the pioneers in SMEM. We need to adjust our posture to be able to deal with a flood of information that comes with any disaster.

Are you ready for the age of social convergence in emergency management?