The political conventions tell a powerful story about news and how people get their information today. But so does Hurricane Isaac. It's so relevant to those of us who find ourselves continually trying to convince very smart leaders that they just can't communicate the old ways any more.
An Associated Press story shows the TV audiences for these conventions have fallen off sharply. The Republican convention TV viewership dropped 23% from just four years ago, 2008. And the TV audience is older--of the 22 million who watched Ann Romney, 15 million were 55 and older. ONly 1.5 million were 18-34. During those same four years, the activity on social media around these conventions has exploded. Last year, both conventions combined drew 365,000 tweets. This year, just the Republican convention drew over 5 million. We can expect that number to be well over 10 million when the two conventions are combined, as traditional news media have been keeping score over Twitter activity and the Obama camp appears to be winning quite handily.
As we saw in the Olympics, news today is a rich combination of traditional media combined with an astounding variety of Internet-based media or information opportunities.
This article from Nieman Lab (Harvard), from a property owner intensely interested in Hurricane Isaac, does an outstanding job of showing just what it means to operate in a multi-platform world. One thing that is most interesting to me about this is the intensely local and specific nature of our search for information and how the new world of info sharing can meet that need.
While the news outlets, even the local ones, can address the general topic and provide information for a wide audience, it takes the new channels including social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, to help individuals get down to the nitty gritty information most important to them. This paragraph succinctly describes the intense need for information when the writer's soon to be house was threatened, and how the variety of highly specific, localized information channels, along with TV, provided the information (and reassurance) that she so desperately needed:
From my hotel room 70 miles from the coast, where my family and I were waiting out the storm, I quickly patched together from both traditional media reports and citizen tweeters what was happening. Searching Twitter for the hashtag #tornado and Orange Grove (the section of Gulfport where I hopefully soon will live), I came across a tweet from a weather chaser with a link to a video of windsdemolishing an under-construction home. The tweet gave no address, but another tweeter reported a tornado was spotted in Orange Grove. My home is built, so I knew it wasn’t mine. But I was worried it was in my subdivision, where many homes are in various stages of construction. It only took a bit more searching, mostly on my iPhone, to find out that the tornado-like winds caused damage quite a ways from the house that will soon be ours. Later, a TV report confirmed the address for the under-construction house, so I knew for sure it wasn’t near ours.
Right now I'm working on evaluating the communication plan for a mid-sized city. It's a fairly new plan. But it makes no reference whatsoever to the multi-platform, multi-channel world we live in. The plan still operates in the Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather world of press conferences, news cycles, and laborious approvals. Yes, it is easier to pretend all these changes haven't been happening. But, when it hits the fan and shove comes to push, you may find yourself standing out there handing out press releases that are four hours in the making and no one there to take them from you. The world has moved on.
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Every significant event reinforces the idea that how people get news today is very different from just a few years ago. Not different as in the difference between a 1954 Ford and a 1957 Ford, the difference is more like between a horse and buggy and a new Ferrari.
The political conventions and Hurricane Isaac provide further evidence of this great change. This article from Nieman Lab at Harvard University makes clear that we live in a multi-platform world from the perspective of a new property owner in the Gulf region trying desperately to get information. A few key points:
- Both traditional media, primarily local TV, and online sources are critical.
- An explosion of apps and online resources are becoming very important to those searching for information.
- Those impacted are hyper-local, meaning that their interest is highly focused, in this case on a particular house. TV in most cases cannot meet the need for this level of specificity, but social media and these new apps can.
The political conventions, like the recently concluded Olympics, also clearly show the shift in focus from TV to online, and particularly the interplay between them. This Associated Press article shows the incredibly sharp decline in TV audiences in four years—a decline of 23%! Of course, some of that may be attributed to the fact that Sarah Palin was a bigger TV draw than Paul Ryan.
But the even bigger change is the social media activity around the conventions. Where in 2008, both conventions drew 365,000 tweets during the convention, these two will likely go well over 10 million. Five million for the Republican convention alone.
Working on some communication plans recently demonstrates again that some very large organizations led by very smart people have yet to grasp this new reality. We live in a multi-platform world. It requires participation on those platforms if your objective is to provide much needed public information and protect your reputation. It requires exceptional speed—which requires a complete rethinking of your information development and approval processes. It requires preparation and pre-staging of information. It requires a continual feed through multiple channels—old and new.
If your plan has you preparing press releases the old way with burdensome and slow approvals, and wordsmithing of delicious quotations from the head cheese, you will find yourself out on the lawn four hours after you started your release, trying to hand it out to the press who have long moved on. Maybe the squirrels will like it.
It still doesn't seem real clear who is behind the anti-Muslim video that is causing violent anti-US protests across the Arab world. This New York Times article focuses on an insurance salesman from Hemet, California with a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric. This morning CNN reported the producer as a 52 year old Israeli-American real estate developer.
It's reminiscent of the Salman Rushdie death sentence and the Muslim reaction to a Danish political cartoon. These situations bring into focus the culture clash inherent in our open, secular, democratic and free speech society in contrast to the cultural values of much of the Muslim world which has a view of sacredness and untouchability beyond the value of free and open speech.
But the point here is the impact of these on emergency management and communications. First, a lesson is obvious: viral videos can cause a terrible mob reaction. And that is something that emergency managers have to prepare for. How many have viral video mob violence on their risk assessments? While in the US we may not have the same sensitivities as the Muslim world, look at the reaction of one segment of our society when a restaurant chain owner said he did not support gay marriage. We too are susceptible to generating mob reactions that turn ugly and violent.
But the other point I wish to make is preparing to respond to false information that goes viral. This is known of course as rumor management but the job may have become much bigger than many of us thought before. A few years ago I was working in a large-scale oil spill drill and social media was just emerging, including the now common practice of posting videos and images. The drill scenario had no wildlife harmed by the spill. But I put in an inject where an angry activist in the community affected posted a video of some oiled birds, with the message: The company says no wildlife harmed. These poor birds beg to differ." The video (remember, this is an inject, not a real situation) presumably came from a different spill. But how were the responders to know? And if it was clear to them by analyzing the video that it didn't come from the affected location, how would they respond? And how would the social media crowd respond? Who would they believe? What would happen if the company said, no, that's not from this spill, and it turned out they were wrong?
You get the idea. What will do you when you are responding to an event and someone shows video from a different event with the idea that you are not telling the truth. How will you respond? What if a video of an agency head or company CEO purporting to show him or her in an outrageously compromising situation goes viral. When we talk about going viral, do you know how quickly that happens? Do you know the tools to use to determine the rate of expansion?
The United States government is in the midst of trying to control this crisis created by someone(s) intent on causing a problem. Secretary of State Clinton is doing her best to disassociate the government from this video. You believe her, I believe her, but that's not the question. Do the hundreds of millions of Muslims who already have a strong dislike for the US and predilection to believe anything negative about our attitudes toward Muslims believe her? Not likely. The US government, and that means all of us, have a huge social media crisis on our hands. Lives have been lost and more are likely being lost right now.
You may not face a social media crisis of this impact in your company, community or organization. But you almost certainly will have to deal at some point with crises of this type. Now is the time to think about how to respond.
If you are social media savvy, you are likely already quite familiar with Reddit. If not, I’d like to give you a few reasons to pay attention:
- President Obama used it effectively to steal attention away from the Republican National Convention.
- Reddit is called the “front page of the Internet”
- Redditors define “the Internet” like almost nothing else.
- Reddit gets about 3 billion page views a month.
- If a story is going to viral, there’s a good chance it will start on Reddit.
- For sentiment analysis at the extreme, it’s hard to beat Reddit.
- Acronyms created on or for Reddit will likely become mainstream.
- Reddit can be considered a limited meta-filter for social media and media.
- Reddit is remarkably engaging
- Reddit shows what’s on “the Internet’s” mind—at the moment.
1. President Obama conducted a “Ask Me Anything” session during the Republican National Convention, effectively drawing millions away from other social media engagement with the convention. Any site used by the politicians to undermine opponents has to be taken seriously.
2. Reddit is called the “front page of the Internet.” That’s a bold claim, but Reddit is a user-generated news channel. What shows up on the front page is based on Reddit viewer’s votes. That makes it exceptionally useful for monitoring.
3. Redditors define “the Internet.” I often refer to “the Internet” not to describe the network or the technology, but to describe the dominant culture of heavy Internet users. “The Internet” has strong values, strong ideas, strong political leanings, strong sense of participation—strong lots of things. “The Internet” does not describe the general world or even US population. Reddit’s users are predominantly male (84%) and in the lowest income bracket. But Reddit uniquely defines a sub-culture that is becoming increasingly dominant and the definer of political correctness. So people concerned about those things (and who isn’t that operates in the public sphere) tries to understand what those values and ideas are. You can’t do better than go to Reddit and look at the conversations. Sure, you will see vast differences, but you will also see certain ideas and values dominate. And Reddit is a site that can help define the values and priorities of “the Internet” better than anything else.
4. Reddit gets about 3 billion page views per month. Perhaps more important, the average viewer spends a remarkable 16 minutes on the site. Compare that with most site visit statistics and you will see the impact of this “front page of the Internet.”
5. If a story is going viral, it likely will start on Reddit. Because of who is on Reddit (mostly young men without much money but apparently lots of time on their hands), and because of how Reddit is structured (with votes determining popularity of submissions), this is where much that goes viral begins. That means it is very important to monitor when brand and reputation are at stake.
6. Reddit is great for sentiment analysis—in the extreme. People on Reddit (unlike Facebook, Redditors are typically anonymous) have no problem sharing their opinions. Many certainly have no problem with rough, vulgar language or verbally abusing those with whom they disagree. So the expressions are often extreme. But, if you want to know how sentiment is trending and just how much outrage there is out there, Reddit is a great place to hangout—if you have the stomach for it.
7. Acronyms used on Reddit are likely to go mainstream—IMHO. (that means In My Humble Opinion). Confused by text acronyms or some used in email messages? You might want to go to Reddit to see what they mean and how they are being used. If you didn’t know that President Obama did an AMA, then you should definitely check it out. Here’s a good list of acronyms we all may be using soon.
8. Reddit as a limited meta-filter. Here’s what I mean: monitoring social media for emergency response intelligence as well as for crisis communications is becoming critical. But the sheer volume of information makes the task exceptionally challenging. The issue is “curating” or “filtering.” Find the needle in the multiple haystacks. You want actionable intelligence and info that you can use to set strategy. Reddit is a limited meta-filter in that because of how it works and who uses it can tell you quickly a lot about what is going on in traditional media as well as social media. It’s limited because of the demographic bent of the Redditors, but then social media in general is also somewhat (but much less limited). So, Reddit can help give you a picture of what is going on out there, as long as you clearly understand the limits and built-in biases.
9. Reddit is remarkably engaging. Here’s is where it is not a front page of the Internet. It’s the front page, plus the letters to the editor section, plus the comment section on every news site, (plus the comics section). Redditors spend an average of 16 minutes on the site. Redditors engage. They engage first by posting stories and watching the votes. They also engage by putting themselves out there with Ask Me Anythings. They engage by asking questions of those exposing themselves this way. They mostly engage by saying anything and everything about anything and everything. If you don’t think we live in a world of engagement, participating, interactive communication, then you don’t get “the Internet.”
10. Redditors show what’s on “the Internet’s” mind—for the moment. And that’s the point. Stories come and go with remarkable speed. News is so liquid today. A friend was on the top of Reddit for a few hours—that’s a remarkable amount of time (he’s the one who caught the dog while fishing in Florida). Stories come and go not in weeks, or even days, but in hours or even minutes. What is top now, is gone in a flash. The point is, this is the way of much news today. It may be exaggerated on Reddit, but not by much. That means for many in crisis and emergency communication, by the time they get to activating their plan and starting to communicate, the story is long told and the Redditors and much of the rest of the world has moved on to something immediate. And by immediate, I don’t mean something that happened in the past 24 hours. I mean in the last hour.
Congratulations to Jefferson County Sheriff's Office (Golden, Colorado) and the First Responder Community of Practice of DHS. Both have provided invaluable documents aimed at helping emergency responders improve communication with the public and stakeholders.
Jefferson County Sheriff's Office has been a leader in the use of social media and the Lower North Fork in March of this year provided an important opportunity to put into practice their preparations for use of social media in a large-scale event. Their blog, which was used extensively during the event, now provides access to exceptionally detailed reporting on their integrated social media strategy. I hope this document is studied carefully by every emergency management organization. It provides a road map for how to use a wide variety of social media channels and tools, but more important, how to prepare in advance when you see what is used, how it is used and how popular each of these are.
A few quick examples:
-465 tweets sent during the fire
- 6.5 million impressions of those tweets
- most popular received 46 retweets and nearly 90 thousand impressions (that's from one tweet!)
- Twitter followers jumped from 400 before the event to over 1800
- one follower tweeted when Jeffco asked for feedback: "It was fan-freakin-tastic! We are so grateful. We got 99% of our up to date info from Twitter and most of it from your feed!"
(How many of you have gotten those kinds of kudos for your public information efforts lately?)
The second document worth studying is from the Department of Homeland Security's First Responder Community of Practice. Called the Community Engagement Guidance and Best Practices report, it involved numerous emergency management agencies in identifying best practices for using today's social media to engage with our community's and stakeholders. Chief Bill Boyd brought this to my attention and he was one of many contributors. I have yet to look at both of these documents in depth, but I certainly like what I see of this one as well. Here's a tidbit:
Social media provides a platform from which agencies can remain
transparent with the community and from where they can share information about
activities, outcomes, questions, responses, and more. Social media can help agencies to build credibility within the community by
enabling ongoing relationship building, communications. Sharing best practices
with stakeholder groups and community partners on preparedness activities and
messaging, training and education, etc., can help agencies to establish a position of
competence, professionalism, authority and dependability that can be of inestimable
value in a crisis.
Transparency can also help to establish trust in the community on an ongoing basis.
Sustained relationship building, in real life and enhanced via social media, increases
the public’s familiarity with, and its acceptance of, the agency brand as a credible
I think these studies demonstrate the maturation of social media as a vital tool in the communicator's arsenal. Even as I say that I am reminded that there remain far too few response organizations, let alone major corporations and institutions, who have fully embraced the power and opportunity that these channels represent. Let alone prepare to deal with the downside that they also represent.
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