49 out of the top 50 utilities use Twitter to engage with customers. All 50 have Facebook pages. Fifteen have mobile apps that help inform about outages, energy conservation and the like.
The Northeast Group LLC, a DC-based consulting company, completed research on the top 50 utilities and is offering the detailed report for sale. It caught my attention as one of my longtime clients for training and communication technology related services, Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, is listed as one of the top three social media users. As an early acquirer of the PIER System (my previous company), they have provided strong leadership in public communication and customer engagement--including aggressive use of Facebook and particularly Twitter.
The study rightly focuses on customer engagement, solving customer issues and enabling customers to do more with mobile apps. However, it does not address one of the primary reasons why utilities (and many others) should be using Twitter in particular: media management. Reporters--local and national--rely heavily on Twitter to report stories including major outages, lines down, outages affecting traffic or access and the like. If your utility is using Twitter to keep customers and others informed quickly enough, that feed will provide accurate information to the media and help combat inaccurate information that often arises from non-official sources.
The primary thing this study shows, however, is how much the utility business is changing. Smart grids, smart meters, smart phones, smart apps--all these things mean that getting power is becoming a much more personal experience. The connection between customer and provider is getting closer. Customer expectations, even demands, can often be greater than what organizations can provide. There is no doubt the customer expectations about responsiveness, service levels, wait times, tools to help manage power use, all these are rapidly expanding. It's good to know that many utilities understand this and are working hard to keep pace with these rising expectations.
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Earthquake in Southern California. No big news. People turn to social media to share information in an event--like an earthquake. Ho hum, no big news. Yet, as with each new major event or disaster there is more progress and more lessons learned. The LA Times article on social media and the La Habra quake of Friday, March 28, points out several interesting developments. As does Bill Boyd in his blogpost where he suggests that fire departments conduct "SMindshield Surveys" in addition to the "windshield surveys" he as a fire chief conducted.
I found it quite interesting that Dr. Lucy Jones, well known in Southern California as "the earthquake lady," finally decided it was time to get on Twitter.
Those of us promoting social media use (to listen and talk) during events emphasize the role of official voices in identifying and squelching rumors. Here's one quote from the LA Times article worth repeating:
"Places like Caltech and the USGS need to get on Twitter," USC social media professor Karen North said, "so that when the torrent of tweets go out talking about this earthquake's implications for future earthquakes, they can go into that communication channel and correct false information and lead people to facts."
Well said. Apparently the USGS is on Twitter and claims to use it to try to meet the need for instant information:
Scott Horvath, Web and social media chief for the USGS, agreed that there is an expectation for instant feedback on what happened. "We try to send out as much as we can, the basic information that we know that everyone is going to need," he said. "It's not efficient to wait for someone to respond hours after an earthquake happens ... and in between that time, if you don't hear what's going on, people can start coming up with their own stories."
Yes. Listen to these experts folks. Social media and particularly Twitter are essential in rumor management--which as I have said frequently, is now Job 1 for public communication management. Why, because in a void of solid information "people can start coming up within their own stories." And that can be dangerous.
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The mudslide in Washington state happened less than an hour from my home. But it seems a world away as we have been away in California. So what I have seen is strictly from the perspective of any other news viewer.
Bill Boyd is also a news viewer in this tragic event, but has the perspective of a former Incident Commander in the very group that is now responding to this crisis. His perspective is invaluable.
The one thing that strikes me about this event is the unfolding magnitude. One of the most important lessons in crisis management is to ask the question: how could this get worse? For several reasons. One is that one of the most common mistakes made early in a response is to answer the expected question of how big this is with what you know right now. And that very frequently turns out to be much smaller than the event actually is. Certainly there is a desire, for example in an oil spill, to not exaggerate or make it bigger than it is. But underestimating the scope of an event results in loss of credibility, loss of public trust and often, loss of your job.
The other problem is that when an event happens we focus on the event, not on what other things the event may trigger. Or even unrelated events that combined with this one make it go from terrible to unimaginable. The Deepwater Horizon spill demonstrated that because the initial problem was the explosion and fire on the platform. But things got a whole lot worse when the platform collapsed and busted the underwater line unleashing the unending flow. Similarly, the tsunami that hit Japan was devastating. But the devastation turned into world-changing awfulness when it resulted in the nuclear nightmare of Fukushima.
Take a close look at this mudslide, the response, the communications. Now go back and look at your emergency scenarios. Is there a failure of imagination in your planning? Have you considered just how massive the scale of some emergencies can be? Have you considered cascading effects, how one event can trigger other events causing the scope to increase dramatically? In communicating about the event, are you prepared to tell what you know while making it perfectly clear that you know very little and that the information will likely change--for the worse?
More stories are emerging of people finding out horrible things about the ones they love through social media and police scanners (sometimes shared through social medai)--and I don't mean bad behavior only. There's the famous story about the Vancouver, WA wife who tweeted about a car accident only to discover not long after that it was her husband's car. Her simple tweet: "It's him. He died." is a heart-rending reminder of the realities of instant news.
The military has unique challenges when dealing with social media. Their policies are among the best and I've commented here several times about using the military's social media policies as a guideline for agencies and companies. When my nephew was in Afghanistan on the front lines, we saw first hand how this worked. When he went suddenly silent on his Facebook page, his mother and rest of the family knew that something was up, because if there are casualties there was a moratorium on use of social media. This was to allow the families to be notified in official ways rather than discovering horrible news through Facebook or Twitter.
But, it doesn't always work that way, and the following tragic story shows how instant news sharing can add to the suffering of families. But it makes even more clear that it is just about impossible to put Pandora back in the box and that our communication plans need to take into consideration the reality that we will NOT control the timing or the message.
(My thanks to Doug W for alerting me to this story.)
I have said often that today rumor management is job #1 for crisis and emergency communicators. Why? Because you can't be first. No way, no how are you going to beat the passerby with a smartphone in telling your story. And the media will report the passersby stories a million times before you get around to getting approval and telling yours. But, what if the passersby get it wrong? What if the story the media tells isn't quite accurate? What if social media goes crazy with agenda-driven misinformation? You may not worry about it because those things never happen, right? Right!
So, rumor management is job one. You have the facts, you are the official voice, you speak with authority. But, if you have no idea what is being said, if you only get notice that something has gone terribly wrong when your phone starts ringing off the hook or your email account starts smoking from the traffic, you are far too late. Which means, monitor, monitor, monitor.
OK, all that to introduce an outstanding example of rumor management, in this case the rumor is understandable but potentially devastating confusion of identity. Cheryl Bledsoe writes the excellent SM 4 Emergency Management blog and tells how one local (Vancouver, WA--suburb of Portland, OR) responded when mistaken for a very different person.
This blog post is must reading for anyone serious about crisis and emergency communication. But, if you don't have the time right now (please read it later), here is Cheryl's excellent summary:
Expect rumors & misinformation,
You cannot respond too quickly with factual information,
Presence on social media gives you the ability to be involved in the conversation,
Avoiding social media means that you’ll be left only with phone/email options to dispel rumors which is far more tedious to work with,
Your profile picture can provide visual cues to readers as well, if simple and clear, and
Don’t fear the negative campaigns, but rather figure out what messages will turn those flames down.
Take a step back in time and ask: how has technology changed emergency management? From equipment used, to coordinating activities, to gathering information, to managing costs, to communicating with the public--technology has changed just about every aspect of emergency management and crisis communication.
And it continues. New innovations pop up constantly, and some of them, such as mobile internet devices and wearable connectivity (Google Glasses, Samsung Galaxy Gear) promise to further revolutionize what we do.
Let's look a little closer at two emerging technologies that I think you will be dealing with the near future: drones (or radio controlled aircraft with live cameras) and social media lie detectors.
I have a strong personal interest in drones as I picked up the hobby of flying radio control aircraft a couple of years ago. My son who is a professional film and video producer is now getting set up with a sophisticated aerial photography capability. This technology is big news in real estate sales as the ability to capture aerial views of homes and surrounding area is now very feasible without he expense of a helicopter or airplane. However, the FAA is being extremely slow in updating seriously outdated regulations that restrict commercial use of this technology.
I attended the AMA (American Modelers Association--not Medical) convention in Ontario a few weeks ago. On the agenda was a presentation by the guys from the "Roswell Flight Test" channel who talked about how drones are being used in fire, police and emergency management operations. If you have any questions, watch the video. As one simple example, using a FLIR camera on a drone allows fire fighters to identify hot spots in a fire and rescuers to find trapped victims under rubble.
I just purchased a "drone"-- a small quad helicopter with built in HD camera with the SAFE easy-flying technology for $150. It is simply amazing. It's the Blade 180QX from Horizon Hobby. For $180 (you'll need the special transmitter for this SAFE system as well) you can learn for yourself the capabilities of this important new emergency management tool.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that social media is a critically important tool for emergency management. Not just to reach out to the media and directly to stakeholders, but to gather vital response information. Patrice Cloutier and Bill Boyd and I have been spending a lot of time in the past year working with clients and conducting webinars on social media monitoring for emergency management. But, one of the biggest challenges is filtering for truth in all the noise. It's one reason why so many senior managers are resistant to taking social media monitoring seriously. There is much that can be done with good training to help a team sift through the noise to find the invaluable signals. But there is more and more help available in new technology here as well.
One promising venture is coming from the UK's University of Sheffield. Bill Boyd offered his always thoughtful and entertaining take on this as well. The Sheffield team is leading an EU effort to develop a social media "lie detector" of sorts. The announcement helps understand how they are approaching this challenging task, and can also help understand the approach your social media monitoring team needs to take:
The EU-funded project aims to classify online rumours into four types: speculation – such as whether interest rates might rise; controversy – as over the MMR vaccine; misinformation, where something untrue is spread unwittingly; and disinformation, where it’s done with malicious intent.
The system will also automatically categorise sources to assess their authority, such as news outlets, individual journalists, experts, potential eye witnesses, members of the public or automated ‘bots’. It will also look for a history and background, to help spot where Twitter accounts have been created purely to spread false information.
It will search for sources that corroborate or deny the information, and plot how the conversations on social networks evolve, using all of this information to assess whether it is true or false. The results will be displayed to the user in a visual dashboard, to enable them to easily see whether a rumour is taking hold.
What I'm really looking for, however, is an automated system where a drone goes out and takes a picture of a Tweeter so you can compare it against a big data data base of known liars. (Just joking, of course!)
But the emergence of new technologies that will change our world and the way we do business shows no sign of abating. If you are interested in keeping up to at least some degree in this area, Brandon Greenberg's blog DisasterNet and his newsletter are top-notch sources.
It's a sort of man bites dog twist when reporters write stories highlighting effective communication from the police or fire service. There are typically more complaints than kudos. But Howard County (Maryland), like Boston Police earlier, has earned a well-deserved complimentary editorial from the Baltimore Sun on their use of Twitter during the recent Columbia Mall shooting.
I didn't follow the shooting and the use of Twitter during this event, but I did check Howard County Police's Twitter account when writing this. What struck me was the conversation. They are monitoring, getting questions and comments, responding, anticipating more questions and carrying on an on-going conversation. Some of that conversation is with individuals (DMs or Direct Messages) but all of it is public. And it all leads to the impression that Howard County Police consists of real people doing their best to serve the community and share the best information they can. That's called engagement and is the model for how it needs to be done. Not just when the nation's eyes are focused on you, but each and every day.
Kudos to Howard County and the leaders I know there who have pushed on this and made it happen.
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Like most of my fellow Washingtonians, I'm still pinching myself to make sure that Super Bowl win wasn't just a fantasy. It's just unreal. From the pre-game hype it looked like the game was Richard Sherman against Peyton Manning--but such is the nature of media coverage. Real life is far richer than that.
But, this isn't about football, it's about VOSTs. Cheryl Bledsoe (fellow Washingtonian but not so much a football fan) shared on SM4EM blog that she and fellow promoters of the VOST concept used the Super Bowl as an excellent training opportunity.
Virtual Operation Support Teams are one of the most important developments in emergency management of the past decade. They come out of the understanding that "it's not my emergency" anymore, that the public has important roles to play in responding to disasters and that digital communications makes such participation possible and necessary. VOSTS are most specifically used to provide the additional much-needed manpower to monitor social media, analyze and provide important information into the operational and communication response.
As Cheryl's post states, VOSTs have several important purposes in a response:
These purposes may include:
Finding pictures of damage throughout a local community,
Looking for comments from people who need 9-1-1 services, but can’t call 9-1-1 for some reason,
Looking for trending complaints or concerns about emergency response,
Tracking community-led recovery initiatives,
Watching the feeds of official public safety organizations for key messages to amplify, and
Sharing personal protective recommendations with the public.
I've talked to several in crisis and emergency communication about VOSTs and I tend to get a shake of the head response--good idea but how in the world would you make that work?
As Cheryl states, to make VOSTs work you need to create a team and build its capability before any event happens. There are now 31 VOST teams operational and the leaders get together monthly on a conference call to discuss progress and share ideas on how to make it work. To join in you can email Cheryl at email@example.com.
We'll also be discussing VOSTs in our continuing series of Social Media Monitoring free webinars. More info on agincourt.us, or email me for information about upcoming live webinars and accessing videos of the two past webinars, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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One of the most important developments in social media for crisis and emergency management has been geolocation. This just means you can know, in at least some cases, exactly where the social media post--particularly tweet--is coming from. If some ten year old falls in an empty well (as actually happened in Australia a few years ago) and tweets "help, I've fallen and I can't get out" she doesn't need to send her lat-long coordinates. Her smartphone will do that for her.
There have been some terrific social media monitoring platforms that provide a valuable service in combining key word and hashtag searches with the geotagging available when smartphone users allow it. (Only about 30% do.) These platforms include Swiftriver, Geofeedia, Bottlenose and I'm sure many others.
Twitter is now offering a "nearby tweets function." And Hootsuite using its Hootlet applet lets you click a "Tweets Nearby" button when you use Google Maps to look at tweets near any location. (I've uploaded a couple of screenshots showing this function on Google Maps and Twitter using nearbytweets.com.)
These are important developments, because I think there is a big difference in going to a platform such as Hootsuite or Geofeedia to get this kind of information versus just using the tools you are currently using such as Google Maps and Twitter and having those functions seamlessly available. Not to mention--free.
I'm hoping this added power and convenience will make social media monitoring just a common and expected part of any crisis or communication activity--even daily activities.
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A few years ago, a friend and board member of my company who was an oil industry executive, talked about "go to jail" jobs. He said a lot of senior leadership positions in the oil industry were now jobs that carried the risk of jail time if things went wrong on their watch.
That was borne out in the first major crisis I was involved in, the Olympic Pipeline accident. The GM of the pipeline company went to jail for six months. This despite the fact that the accident, like many, was caused by a very strange confluence of a number of factors, many of which he had absolutely no control over and which, if they had changed just a bit, would have prevented the accident from happening.
Now I am shocked, appalled and saddened to find out that farmers also have "go to jail" jobs. This article from NBC News tells about the sentencing of two young Colorado farmers from whose farm tainted cantaloupes emerged that resulted in a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people. The farmers narrowly avoided jail time, instead are sentenced to five years probation and a large fine. The reporter/editor of the article clearly feels this was a gross injustice. Look at the headline and focus of the article.
It is a horrible tragedy that 33 people lost their lives, including the 92 year old "spry" victim whose son is so disappointed in the result. If there was intent, if there was criminal negligence, if there was an established pattern of callous disregard for harming others, I could see the calls for treating these farmers as criminals. But, even this very biased article makes it clear there was no intent, no pattern, no callousness. There was a mistake, or mistakes made. The farmers are called "salt of the earth" types.
I will withhold further comment on the sad state of our justice system, and our society, and the state of our media. Instead, this situation requires the attention of anyone who is in a business or government position where action or inaction could harm others. And that is a lot of you.
First, the lesson clearly is to look at all your plans and procedures and make certain you are doing all you can to prevent such things from happening. That is the value of such a great tragedy and the shocking outcome. Preventive measures will greatly reduce the risk, but not eliminate it. And when, despite your best efforts, something goes horribly wrong, what do you do?
This situation creates a dilemma for crisis communications. In the pipeline accident the company was "lawyered up" to the max. But, it made sense despite the severe impact on reputation. The company went bankrupt, but gasoline continues to flow through the pipe. Now farmers and others have to look at the legal implications when something goes wrong. A sincere apology with acceptance of responsibility is absolutely necessary to avoid turning the media and public against you. And a highly negative public atmosphere is just what a plaintiff's attorney or prosecuting attorney wants when selecting a jury. So, it makes sense to be transparent, empathetic and forthcoming. But, such admission in our great nation, is going to be used against you in court. So, you end up walking a very fine line--or saying nothing. Your best defense in such a situation, is the reputation equity you put in the bank before the accident occurred.
Farmers, processors, shippers and retailers all need to take note. There are things that can go wrong and people can be harmed. If you are the one standing at the end of a complex chain of coincidences and mistakes, you are at risk. Now is the time to prepare.
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