Yesterday, Gov 2.0 writer and advocate Alex Howard (@digiphile) posted about the U.S. State Department's intention to answer Twitter questions during upcoming press conferences as part of their "21st Century Statecraft Month". According to his post, the Tweets would be selected by State Department officials from one of their numerous official accounts and answered by the spokesperson during the press conference.
While Mr. Howard questions whether this is merely a public relations gimmick (and I agree), it successfully triggered the question for me of just what will disaster press conferences look like in the future as social tools continue to be embraced by emergency managers of all types and disciplines. While I doubt any emergency management offices are lining up to answer tweets during a press conference, it is probably past time for us to consider what tools can be utilized.
For instance, should all press conferences be streamed via a free tool like UStream? Should someone be assigned to "live tweet" the press conference on behalf of the emergency management agency? Is there a "virtual spokesperson" with the same authority to speak on behalf of your organization in social channels? How does monitoring get fully integrated into formal responses like press conferences? Like all social media integration, these tools take resources and comprehension that is not yet common place.
Press conferences are already challenging events - especially during a disaster. Social media tools may require additional resources, but ultimately will aid how and where emergency messages are disseminated, which is ultimately the point, right?
Privacy (or lack thereof) has been the buzz word these last few weeks as issues like SOPA and the corresponding blackout of certain major Internet sites has exploded throughout the Internet and nearly all social media outlets. This comes on the heels of Facebook's November settlement with the FTC about continuing to allow user data to be open and searchable and report earlier in 2011 about certain phones tracking the whereabouts of its users.
It certainly appears that privacy is dead (or at least losing the battle) in a social-based and technology-centric world.
But what does this mean for emergency managers? Should we stay out of the way and let technology advocates hash-out how much privacy (or lack thereof) is acceptable? Do we fight as an advocate against continued intrusions?
Or do we look for opportunities to leverage these new tools for good. This is the kind of issue that has and will always be challenging to emergency management. Do we maintain a clear and ethical stance of neither encouraging nor discouraging current trends or do we ride the wave and identify new ways to leverage these tools.
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Did you know that there were 9,420 Tweets per second on January 8th when Tim Tebow lead the Denver Broncos over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC playoffs? That's nearly 10,000 people who simultaneously wanted to talk about the same thing at the same time. It comes on the heels of the cultural phenomenon of so-called "Tebowing" that has been praised (and mocked) in a variety of ways including the crowdsourced website www.tebowing.com where individuals provide pictures from all over the world of people tebowing in front of buildings, underwater, submarines and many more.
So what does all this mean to emergency management? Far more than you realize.
Cultural phenomenons like Tim Tebow and his Tebowing can't easily be emulated, but they do often have similarities. They are most often interesting, unique, debatable, transparent, and (perhaps most important) they are genuine. These characteristics are often lacking in emergency management. Frankly, we are often boring and repetitious. We try the same things over and over and hope for some new results.
I applaud those organizations who are striving to be the local "Tim Tebow" by seeking out programs, opportunities, and presentations that can truly make a difference in your community. Unique and fun programs like the "Emergency Kit Cookoff" that was supported by the Arizona Emergency Information Network back in September or the gamification app "SF Heroes" released by the City of San Francisco in 2011. These are both awesome and noteworthy.
Tim Tebow and Tebowing may be gone tomorrow, but some other cultural phenomenon will replace it and another after that. Emergency managers may need to continue to seek out ways to mirror this process. Interesting. Unique. Transparent. Genuine. That's what we need to strive for to help spread our messages more effectively.
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If previous major disasters teach us anything about social media, it is that local government and emergency managers must already be engaged within the community on systems like Facebook and Twitter to truly leverage these tools and be the trusted, go-to source when an actual disaster strikes. While many emergency managers have accepted the need to use Facebook and Twitter, many still are unsure how to leverage these tools when "nothing is happening". So, I thought I'd share a few ideas for pre-disaster engagement:
PRE-IDENTIFIED HASHTAGS: Hashtags are one of the primary mechanisms to search and classify information on Twitter. Unfortunately, in most disasters hashtags are complete organic and defined by the crowd. However, there is a new strategy to pre-identify hashtags for use. For example, A few days ago, the City of Houston adopted this very strategy for impending severe weather. They identified hashtags like #powerout, #debris, #hail, and #wind to help filter their social media information.
TWITTER TOWNHALLS: Public gatherings (aka townhall meetings) have long been the standard to engage the general public on topics of interest. However, as the general public becomes more dependent on the availability and time-saving possibilities of technology, physical meetings have become less effective. As a result, there is a growing trend for Twitter Townhall meetings. President Obama utilized this functionality in 2011 as did several emergency management offices looking to engage communities before disasters occur.
STREAMING AND RECORDED VIDEOS: The ability to record a video or stream activity to an online video outlet (ex: Ustream or YouTube) has become nearly ubiquitous with inexpensive technologies and integration with cell phones. But emergency managers are often reluctant to use these technologies for anything more than traditional public service announcement videos. These technologies can be utilized (before the disaster) to introduce local staff, highlight activities, or introduce "behind the scenes" components of emergency management.
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