As I watched twitter feeds on the fast moving fires in the San Diego complex late last week I was impressed with the use of Twitter by the City of San Marcos, one of the fire areas appearing to have the worst wildland urban interface exposure. I’m sure other impacted cities were using social media to get their message out. But, I was fixated on San Marcos.
Early on in the firefight I picked up on a tweet alerting everyone to the rapid spread of fire resulting from the strong Santa Ana winds. Within a couple of minutes, I found the trending #SanMarcosfire hashtag. Lots of local citizens posted pictures from various angles and distances, showing the fire’s size and proximity to neighborhoods. From a firefighter perspective it also showed the wind direction and speed (the smoke was laying pretty low, indicating strong winds pushing the fire). I also picked up on the City of San Marcos’ first tweet announcing evacuations;
Immediate Evacuation Issued for North San Elijo Hills, Discovery Hills, Discovery Meadows, and Coronado Hills. #sanmarcosfire
— City of San Marcos (@sanmarcoscity) May 14, 2014
Great work! I thought to myself. Undoubtedly, nervous citizens were closely watching the fast moving smoke column and steady stream of incoming fire engines, and feeling a wee bit of trepidation. Along with posting pictures, folks were using the #SanMarcosfire hashtag to express their concern for friends and family, disbelief at the fire’s speed and size, and gratitude for the work of first responders. As I watched the stream, I kept reflecting back to the first official tweet from the city’s Twitter feed. As a former IC who had to deal with forcing people out of their homes for their own safety, I know the legal, logistical and emotional baggage that goes along with it. Convincing someone they have to leave behind everything they cherish can be damn near impossible, and in many circumstances is, even in the face of impending doom. To combat this, public safety officials have to get creative, and use every tool in their crisis communications toolbox to compel people to take appropriate action. This first tweet was missing something; emotion.
Dr. Vincent Covello, a leading crisis communications expert frequently writes and lectures on the need to tap human emotion during crisis to effectively communicate, educate and compel. Yet, too often public officials rely on their normal bureaucratic jargon and passive voice sentence structure when talking to the public (notice I used the word “to” instead of “with”?). I was just as guilty back in the day. During overwhelming crisis, people tend to do what they do on a regular basis, and public safety folks are just as likely to fall into the same trap.
One of the great things about Twitter is it forces you to be concise. On the flip side, some people think the limit of #140 character inhibits expression of emotion. My response? PHRPPPPP….(that’s me blowing a raspberry). Concise words that often tap positive emotion include; help, care, love, trust, sorry, love, danger, hope, heal, save, safe, true, etc… Not to mention all of the negative ones consisting mostly of swear words. All of these words can pack a punch in a single tweet. So, in looking back on San Marcos’ initial evacuation statement, I think it could have been much more heavy hitting,with the intent of not only informing, but MOTIVATING people to leave their threatened neighborhoods. Something along the lines of;
People in North San Elijo Hills, Discovery Hills, Discover Meadows, Coronado Hills-in DANGER. Evacuate NOW!
North San Elijo Hills, Discovery Hills, Discover Meadows, Coronado Hills- Concerned for your safety. Time to leave is NOW!
Both of these pack much more of a punch than a sterile post. A couple more examples of posts that I thought could have been worded differently to better tap reader emotions;
— City of San Marcos (@sanmarcoscity) May 16, 2014
Not surprisingly, residents forced out of their homes want to get back in as soon as possible, and their angst can boil over if they do not feel their concerns are not being addressed in a timely manner. I’m sure some of this was in play when these tweets were posted. While there is no silver bullet when it comes to public messaging, speaking in plain English is one way to improve public communication. I’ve never seen the term “repopulation” before. It seems so clinical and sterile. What about saying something as simple as this?
Evacuated residents; Thanks for your patience and understanding. Working hard on a plan to get you safely home ASAP!
Evacuees, Glad you are safe, and will notify you how to get back into your home and business ASAP. We know it’s hard to be away.
I’m sure many of you can come up with even better messaging. But, hopefully you get my point. The City of San Marcos should be congratulated for their strong use of social media, especially Twitter during last week’s fire. But, I have two words for them and every other public agency who uses social media tools in crisis; Get emotional.