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Over 50 miles away with a slide tray

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This week I flew to Washington D.C. along with three fellow thought leaders in the use of social media for emergency management/response.  Brian Humphrey, Lead PIO for LAFD, Mark Basnight, PIO for Charlotte, North Carolina FD, and Denis Gusty, DHS Alert and Warning program manager, and I shared our thoughts on the past, present and future of social media for crisis communications to a group of mostly federal officials from the defense and homeland security technical sectors.

True to my nature I fretted over the talking points and emphasis I thought important to share.  I tend to over think stuff.  I should have known better.  Several years of immersion in SM allowed me intuitively share my experiences and lessons learned.  It also helped being able to tap into Mark, Brian and Denis’s collective wisdom and shared passion. 

An informal show of hands revealed that about 3/4 were using some form of social media, mostly Facebook.  Perhaps 1/3 were using Twitter. We did not ask if they were using them  for personal or professional purposes.  But, I’m guessing the latter.  Brian moderated the session, brilliantly navigating through the crowd, fostering engagement and conversation that successfully mimicked virtual engagement with a crowd.  Instead of tweets or text messages, the crowd was encouraged to submit questions on index cards, and man, did we answer a lot of questions!

Many of the questions colasced around the mechanics of using Twitter:

 “How do you decide which hashtag to use during an emergency?”  (We try to find  the tag people are already using most)

 “What do you do first in deciding on how and when to send out your messages?” (We listen)

“How can you post a single coherent message across several SM platforms simultaneously?” (Mark and I use Ping_fm, and we use plain text, without Twitter symbols so it is easily understood by those using other platforms)

“What are the biggest legal challenges your organization has faced related to implementing SM use?” (Lack of policy and aggressive public document retention requirements)

“Aren’t you concerned about releasing inaccurate information that isn’t verified and vetted prior to being released?” (Yep, but the “crowd” is quick to correct and also pretty forgiving as long as the error is corrected ASAP)

“How do you determine the effectiveness of the messaging and measure how many people received it?”  (1 – We listen and engage, 2- we evaluate the “potential twitter power” of the followers who engage, and 3-we don’t track follower analytics in crisis)

“What SM tools do you use to monitor and engage?” (Tweetdeck for normal monitoring, and Tweetgrid and Twitterfall for high profile emergency events when a specific hashtag takes off.  Our agencies also use Facebook)

“What are your thoughts on the emerging virtual volunteer organizations like CrisisMappers and Ushahadi, who use GIS mapping technology in supporting crisis response?” (Some of the maps look cool, and while appreciative and hopeful that these ad hoc efforts can provide critical situational awareness info to responders and relief organizations, I have not read any clinical research that measures the effectiveness of the efforts or the products they produce.  The GIS map format is only one dimension in visually quantifying event characteristics.  I think much more work needs to be done in exploring and testing various methods of visually displaying information in a disaster…. Disclaimer…I also have not spent much time exploring this issue either)

 “What is the latest, greatest thing in the SM world?” (Google+ has created quite the buzz lately.  Not sure if it will take off, but it has a couple of cool features, Circles and Hang Out, that could enhance emergency response/management during crisis.  But, don’t focus on the tools!  Focus on meeting public expectations for fast, frequent and fostering engagement using anything at your disposal)

“What if you lose access to the internet? How do you communicate with the public?” (SM has simply added another weapon in our crisis information arsenal.  None of us should be relying on only one method for engaging the public during an emergency.  Something as simple as posting colored flyers at local watering holes can effectively relay information and help foster engagement)

“How did you convince your agency to use SM tools in crisis communications?” (We didn’t.  We simply started using it because the public was already gravitating to it)

“What are the feds doing in engaging SM in crisis communications?” DHS is working hard to improve national alert and warning systems that can quickly notify and disseminate crisis information.  FEMA Director Fugate is championing the use of SM within the federal government, but adaptation is slower than molasses in winter (my comment, not Denis’) J

Brian will be posting notes and comments from the session here: http://tcip2011.blogspot.com/

Many thanks to fellow panel members Brian, Mark and Denis.  I was humbled by their knowledge, eloquence and passion in meeting the public’s evolving expectations about how we communicate in crisis.  Pure class, and they represented the #SMEM community well.  Till we meet again boys!

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://jgarrow.posterous.com Jim Garrow

    Wow, just to get the four of you guys in a room together must’ve been a crossing the streams moment. I’m really, really jealous of the folks who got to sit in there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/albertelo Alberto Elizondo

    hello, i’ve been reading your blog for a while now and i’ve found a lot of valuable opinions and information. i’m an interaction design student currently working on my master’s thesis. i’m working on the emergency crisis and micro-blogging opportunities and would like to know your opinion on something you mentioned on this article.

    you wrote:

    “I think much more work needs to be done in exploring and testing various methods of visually displaying information in a disaster…. ”

    I was curious to know your opinion on this issue, what sort of exploring do you imagine? what hasn’t been done or tackled? what needs improvement? any help would be appreciated. if you would like to reply to my personal mail, please do so at: albertelo [at] gmail [dot] com

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.