LONG READ: I read 147 Facebook updates across seven pages to see how the Whaley Bridge dam crisis was communicated on FacebookPosted: August 16, 2019
Earlier this year a dam burst near the Brazilian town of Belo Horizonte and within minutes 40 were dead and 300 missing buried under thick brown sludge.
In the UK, its been almost 100 years since loss of life from a dam burst from any of our almost 3,000 dams.
In August 2019, it nearly happened.
Heavy rain at the Toddbrook Reservoir saw the dam overspill and the 170-year-old dam wall start to disintegrate. There were fears it would lead to the wall collapsing and a million gallons of water flooding down onto the Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge below.
An emergency operation kicked in with 1,000 people evacuated from the 6,500 population.
The plot was quite simple. Firstly, ump water out of the dam to ease the pressure on the damaged wall. Secondly, repair the damaged wall. So, fire crews crews pumped water out of the reservoir and the RAF brought in a Chinook helicopter to bring in bags of material to help shore-up the crumbling wall.
But how did people stay in touch?
And how did organisations reach people to get a message out in the seven days when the town held its breath?
How was there not mass panic?
The answer was a range of bush telegraph, word-of-mouth, phone, radio, TV and social media.
After seven tense days the dam wall was repaired and the water was pumped out, the was no collapse and the evacuated were allowed home.
Now the dust has settled I took a look at the role Facebook played in the operation to see what lessons I could learn. Turns out there’s a stack.
It was an incident played out on Facebook both corporate pages but also on station accounts and the community-run Whaley Bridge community page whose admin was a vital part of the local news network.
Traditional news sites covered the incident but I focused on fire, police, council, ambulance and the community Facebook page.
Yes, people in an emergency want to be kept updated through the corporate Facebook page
Mapping the main four corporate Facebook pages, Derbyshire Police, Derbyshire Fire and Rescue, Derbyshire County Council and East Midlands Ambulance service there were 147 individual updates which were shared 21,000 times with more than 9,000 comments and shared more than 19,000 times.
Often times, as a trainer of communicators I’m looking at ways to turn heads and get people interested. In this incident, there was no need. There was a captive audience of 6,500 Whaley Bridge people. The challenge was to get information out.
Of the four corporate pages, the most commented, shared and reacted to was the Derbyshire Police corporate page. This was no surprise as they were leading on the evacuation. Throughout the seven days they kept a running commentary with regular updates on the position of the repair and pumping as well as the evacuation plan and reassurance that those evacuated homes were being monitored. Other agencies concentrated on what they were doing and there was a level of sharing the police general updates.
The Derbyshire Police page was an information lifeline
From a distance, there was a number of things that worked.
Time stamping each update worked to build-in obsolescence. So, an update at 3pm was marked as 3pm on the image. In a fast-developing scenario this felt like a useful tactic to do.
Writing in plain English for Facebook. Each update was clear and concise. Each gave the impression the content had been specially shaped for Facebook. Each had a calm and informative tone of voice. This was not a press release cut and pasted but something for Facebook itself.
Updates had new first-hand content. People wanted to know what the issue was and what success looked like. Knowing that reducing the water levels was all-important images of the water level being reduced were important.
Replying to comments. With more than 7,000 comments over the seven day operation the comms team had their hands full. But commenting helped warn, inform and reassure the public. They were also able to respond warmly to messages of thanks.
Openness made a bank of goodwill. The operation didn’t go smoothly. There was an evacuation of 1,000 people and then the halt to the operation which let some people home to gather pets and medicines. That could have gone badly. What played out on Facebook was praise for the emergency services that helped them.
Updates were in real-time and regular. There was an appetite to update Facebook regularly. The impression given was that Facebook was a prime channel rather than an unmonitored after-thought. When there was an update it was posted. But the gaps were not too long.
But some of the best content came from devolved station pages
Sharing the sweets is something I’ve long argued for. By all means have a corporate page giving the official line but if you give the people on the ground the trust and training you’ll be surprised at what you find.
Here, there were two station Facebook pages, the Melbourne On-Call Fire Station page and the Staveley Fire Station page. More than 30 updates were shared from the scene and shared more than 500 times across the community.
This incident confirms the important role a responsible community-run Facebook presence can have as a force for good. It’s a reminder that one of the main places people get local news is local Facebook.
Eye-witness content underpinned the corporate message. Both stations created good eyewitness content at a time when the immediate peril had passed. Images of pumping operations and reduced water levels showed the message in action.
Eye-witness content from the frontline created content for the corporate page. In any incident that spans days people get tired and the thin red line can get tired and thinner. What you’d like to do isn’t always what you can do. So, to have fire crew creating content means you’re able to pull it and post it through the corporate page.
It showed the human face. The tired firefighters that have worked through the night gave an opportunity for the community to thank them for their efforts. What was striking was the messages of thanks and support. That must have had a value to firefighters tired after a long shift.
The Whaley Bridge community page was at the heart of it
The town has 6,500 residents and 5,600 members of the Whaley Bridge page. So well connected was the page admin was that he was in the room when the decision was taken to evacuate.
Happily, the page admin hung back to first allow the authorities to make the announcement that 1,000 people would have to move out as the dam was at risk of breaking.
The Whaley Bridge page was at the heart of the community network posting 74 times across seven days with 12,622 reactions and 2,180 comments and 2,647 shares. Rather than being a simple sign-posting operation to forward on the official police post the admin worked to reflect the work on the ground. The tenor of the posts was supportive.
It’s possible the task could have been harder if the page admin had had an axe to grind.
This is a reminder that the Facebook admin in the community is just as important as the local reporter. In many ways, they are more important.
It was surprising, given the role that Facebook groups play that there was not an effective Facebook group for the town. But with the page being an effective and well placed source there was no need.
On-the-spot content. The Whaley Bridge page was busily creating its own content from the town and in many cases from close to the dam itself.
Evidence worked. When people wanted to see evidence of progress the pictures that confirmed this did well. While the Chinook shots got lots of attention it was the shots of the water levels being reduced that really engaged with the community.
Re-sharing some corporate content but not all. There was plenty being put out by fire, police, council and ambulance. But only a selection of it was shared.
People responded really well to the people helping them. A blurred shot of a worker making a cup of tea in the requisitioned sailing club house was the most popular piece of content. An expression of gratitude to those who were helping them it is as British as a cup of tea.
They were flooded by journalists. Looking to speak to local people the Facebook page admin was inundated with private messages from reporters. So much so he was telling them to stop messaging. In a crisis, news desk used to despatch a reporter who would be directed to the local shop or pub to gauge community feeling. Now, they also head to the largest community Facebook presence.
Video helped to reassure and scotch rumours
The story boiled down to something straight forward. Namely, that the dam wall will break unless the water level is dropped to relieve pressure and the wall is repaired. So, footage of the water level dropping through pumping and emergency repairs was gold.
The best footage was from the scene. Rather than have a talking head at HQ telling people something was happening they had action shots. This was a brilliant decision and spoke far eloquently than a senior person. ‘Don’t tell us, show us,’ was a well followed mantra in the crisis phase. Drone footage showed this well.
Facebook Live from the residents Q&A. More than 40,000 people watched the session where residents could ask questions. This was a cracking idea and was responded to.
Putting up the senior people. The council had some early sub-titled video of the council Leader while the police and fire service at the end of things wrapped-up with the most senior people they had. As a strategy this was secondary.
Facebook as the largest social channel is integral to the messaging in an emergency.
Regular and timely updates to fill the vacuum are needed.
Comments need to be responded to.
The idea of don’t just say it, show it works well.
Devolved Facebook presences can come into their own for creating content that can be re-shared by the corporate page.
What came through the more than 170 Facebook posts from the incident was a feeling of community spirit and a collective holding of breath until the danger passed.
Those involved should feel a real sense of pride.
I help deliver Facebook training for people in the public sector. More here. If you’d like help give me a shout email@example.com.
Ofcom’s ever useful media nations report was published this week with a usual trove of useful data.
There’s been extensive coverage of the wider findings of the TV industry but for me the value is drilling into the data on how video is consumed. This is the gold that can inform how comms people look to communicate.
‘Without data,’ data scientist W. Edwards Deming wrote, ‘you’re just another person with an opinion.’
So, here’s the data.
The Ofcom report focuses on TV, radio and YouTube without looking in detail at wider social media data. There is nothing, for example, on how much time people spend watching video on Facebook, for example.
I’ll blog the radio data separately but in the meantime, here’s plenty to get on with on video.
The most popular YouTube content of 2018? Paul McCartney’s carpool karaoke with 44 million views.
Now, here’s the data…
The average UK adult watches almost five hours of video a day
Dominated by live TV, the average UK adults is burning through almost five hours of video screen time every day. That’s around 35 hours a week.
The eye-catching figure for public sector communicators is the 34-minutes a day spent watching YouTube.
Conclusion: YouTube remains an important place to put content. There is a healthy appetite for watching content on the channel.
There is a split between younger and older demographics on how they watch video
Older people tend to watch their video content as live TV while younger people gravitate to watching video as YouTube.
For 18-to-34-year-olds, YouTube is the most popular means of watching video with an hour and four minutes watching the platform every day. That’s well ahead of second-placed Netflix on 40 minutes.
Elsewhere, the data points to eight to a majority of 15-year-olds preferring YouTube to TV.
Conclusion: If you are looking to reach an older or younger audience you need to tailor your content accordingly.
The most popular YouTube channels have been created by digital natives rather than traditional audiences
YouTube as a place is dominated by people making content that probably wouldn’t have got an audience twenty years ago.
Digital natives is the catch-all expression for vloggers and non-broadcasting industry content. Lean over your child’s shoulder while they are watching a screen and the chances are its the content that they’re watching. They’ve built an audiences based on generating engaging content and slowly building trust. They may not have the same slick production values as traditional broadcasters but that’s okay.
The learning point for this is that the traditional gatekeepers of video content – TV stations – have become not the only show in town.
News at five per cent is a small part of the pie and it leads to a question as to the effort chasing the traditional opinion formers.
Conclusion: Channels made by digital natives are the most popular channels on YouTube.
Young people are watching YouTubers
Children are often known as a hard-to-reach audience as they don’t consume traditional media in a way that we are at home with.
The Ofcom data drills down into exactly watching on YouTube with some useful data for three to 11-year-olds and then the older 12 to 17.
YouTubers are significant. These are vloggers who are creating their own content and often speak to the camera directly. It’s rough and ready content built because its the content that best reaches an audience.
Conclusion: Young people are unlikely to be on your organisation’s YouTube channel but you could reach them by going through channels that are popular.
The Media Nations report published by Ofcom can be found here.
I help deliver video skills workshops in-house and public sessions. Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or see the public workshops here.
I noticed a tweet this week that reminded me yet again the world of newspapers I knew and loved had gone and it made me slightly sad.
A reporter at the paper I worked at excitedly posted her promotion to deputy chief reporter with four years experience.
Four years is what I had walking into the same newspaper for the first time as a bog-standard district office reporter where I was ranked 15th most experienced in a district office of 15.
I don’t know this promoted reporter but a mate has worked with her, vouches for her and like her I wish her nothing but good luck.
But it made me think back about the world of newspapers I walked into in the late 1990s and how she’s missed out on the good days that have gone now.
The rumble of the presses
My district office was a Seventies building built off a busy road with offices at the front and a huge print hall tucked away at the back. In there, three print towers could produce 20,000 copies in the time it took to make and drink a round of newsroom teas.
A crowd of red delivery vans would wait impatiently outside for the production line to roll them bundles of the fresh-printed newspapers. The drivers would grab them, jump into their vans and ferry them across the Black Country. You could see, hear and feel the rumble of the presses if you timed your visit right. The smell of newsprint, oil and polish. It was a feeling for a printer to toss you one of the first editions off the press as they trundled by and read the story in ink not yet dry the words you’d written 20 minutes earlier that your blood pressure still hadn’t recovered from writing.
I was as impressed by the roar of those print towers on my first day as I was on my last.
Everything about the place was saying: ‘Now. Now. Don’t be perfect. Be good enough and be accurate. We don’t have the time to mess around…’
Back then, news did not happen unless you read it in a newspaper with a cup of tea in your hand, on the bus or at home in your armchair.
That’s gone now.
And what I learned
I was lucky to have worked on newspapers at a time when you could still reach back and touch their golden age.
I learned what a story was, how to write it quick, how to get something on a screen and get it away. I learned the skill of writing expenses forms with the line ‘Wild Dogs on the Yew Tree estate on’. I covered more than 30 murders but can’t remember all but one or two. I wrote 3,000 stories in my time and many, many forgettable two par stories to get a page out of the door.
My newsroom was in offices perched at the front of the building. Glamorous it wasn’t. Underneath, was an old municipal tip, overhead were giant pylons and we were downwind from the Robinson Brothers chemical works. The windows were covered with grey film that reduced the view of a bright summer day to the murk of an October day in Grimsby. On the desks the sediment of old newspapers and council reports. A spike sat on each desk where old press releases were filed.
It was a tough place to work. At times it was vile.
Always we used ‘reporter’ to describe ourselves. Never journalist. I don’t know why. It was one of the many unwritten rules handed down by long-dead journalists whose unspoken influence was still felt.
Us reporters were led by Ken and Dave. Ken was a slightly plump bearded cardigan-wearing Welshman who had first started in 1968. Dave was a rounder reporter from the Black Country who’d started as a young man in 1976 but whose sporting muscle had long turned to extra ballast.
I’d have run through brick walls for the pair of them. We all would.
Looking back, it was the laughter of that newsroom I best remember and miss most. With the deadline gone, it was the jokes, stories and Marion’s incredulity at Dave’s fifth poker face re-telling of the story you’d first heard three years ago now embellished so much you’d forgotten what was actually true in the first place.
Together, Ken and Dave had more than 50 years experience between them leading an experienced newsroom. They knew in a crisis what to do and what to tell newsdesk. The enemy was never really the rival daily paper. It was always newsdesk.
That’s gone now.
The district office closed down a few years back.
Dave died a few years ago his funeral packed tighter than a council agenda. Happily, Ken still works in a council press office.
Looking back, I miss working with the pair of them and those in the team. I’m freelance now. I work solo. That’s fine. Nothing has beaten the team I once worked in. So, why bother?
Technology has changed.
That’s gone, too.
Digital readers outweigh print by 40 to one on Reach plc regional titles.
New ways to tell stories
Yet, I’m still fascinated at how to tell stories in a way that people will read, watch and hear. Maybe the combined print experience of our team wouldn’t actually benefit the multi-media news gatherers of today. They need to write for print, write for the web, write Facebook, write for Twitter, create and edit video, Facebook Live and blog. The deadlines are real-time rather than 2pm for the Sandwell edition.
It’s still exciting.
Maybe like pit-prop makers journos who began in print belong to a different era. But maybe that’s a lot of experience to lose and I worry when those at the top have little life experience to fall back on when the going gets tough.
I know I sound like an old codger but I can’t escape the feeling these newer reporters are missing out a little. As much as I enjoy today, I don’t regret a single day I spent on old school newspapers.
Yet, I get veteran Sunday Times editor Harold Evans when he wrote: “I love print but I’m intoxicated by the power and possibility of the internet.”
Picture credit: istock.
The early bird, it is said, gets the worm.
The early worm? It gets eaten.
Just a quick shout through the blog to let you know I’ve got early bird prices on two sets of workshops coming up that I think you’ll like.
I don’t normally post workshop details in the blog but you know what? What the heck.
There’s two sets of learning I’d like to tell you about. There’s an early bird rate until 9.8.19.
Vital Facebook Skills
Facebook remains the absolute behemoth. If you’re a communicator in 2019 and you don’t know how to get the most out of this platform give your head a wobble. We’ll look at the algorithm and how you can create content that ticks the right boxes.
We’ll look at Facebook groups and we’ll look at how to get the most value for money from Facebook ads.
I’m delivering this with the excellent Sarah Lay. The early bird rate is £145 + VAT compared to £195 + VAT. The early bird rate lasts until 9.8.19.
Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Birmingham.
Sandy Park, Sandy Park Way, Exeter
Essential Video Skills for Comms
I’ve loved delivering this these past five years. It has been a joy and a delight.
Video has proved to be a changing feature of the landscape and its important as a communicator to know when and where to use it. The days of chucking five grand at a video have long gone but when you can shoot video with your phone, why would you?
We’ll look at how to plan, shoot, edit and post video with cutaways, titles, sub-titles, filters and logos.
I’m delivering this with the excellent Steven Davies. The Manchester early bird rate is £145 + VAT and London £195 + VAT. The early bird rate lasts until 9.8.19.
Edge Street, Manchester
NCVO, Kings Cross
If those days work for you that’s great.
If you’d like to know about an in-house workshop drop me a note email@example.com.
This week you may have come across the Twitter rant unleashed by the employee of an MP.
Gareth Arnold took the unusual step of handing his notice in by posting thread of tweets from the account of Jared O’Mara MP he had access to.
It was oddly polarising.
It was greeted as a glorious ‘f*** you’ to every bad employer.
Or it was a piece of revenge against a former friend with a history of mental health issues.
Or it was a glorious stunt.
Or it was a piece of poor communications.
The debate was extensive and I’m not going to add to line-by-line debate of the now-deleted Twitter thread. Since the thread was posted Jared O’Mara has publicly declared that he’s taking time out to resolve his mental health issues.
For me, on rflection this is a mental health issue. I’m not adding to the debate. On a human level the bloke needs time to restore himself. I get the need for the people of Sheffield Hallam need a fully-functioning MP.
If ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ is a thing it needs to apply to MPs too.
But on a very wide broad point the story does touch upon three universal truths.
Never let disaffected staff have the keys to your social media
The sign-off was swift and brutal and reminded me and several others of @HMVtweets from six years ago. Back then, a member of staff live tweeted a mass sacking as she still had access to the account.
The idea of letting a member of staff sole access is slightly alarming. Link the Twitter account to the email of a grown-up and look at two step authentication.
There is a point in every Twitter pile-on when its not funny anymore
A car crash online is inherently remarkable. It draws attention. You can’t stop looking. There goes the car smashing into the fruit barrow. Lols! There’s apples everywhere! There goes a phone box! Fantastic! But when it comes into contact with human beings it starts to be less funny.
Once there was a PR who tweeted that she was going to South Africa but that it was alright, she wouldn’t catch AIDS as she was white. It was really stupid thing to post. Anger led to an online mob forming. The mob was waiting for the plane to land.
At some point the punishment outweighs the crime and the joke isn’t funny anymore.
Mob rule is never pretty and I’m not sure there is ever a role for it.
Jon Ronson was right
In his seminal book ‘So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed‘ Ronson traces the lives of people who have been affected by being shamed online. There is a moment of clarity in the book when Max Mosley is interviewed. The former Formula 1 Big Cheese successfully sued the News of the World for claims he took part in a Nazi-themed orgy with five prostitutes. An orgy and five prostitutes? Yup. He fessed up. But he drew the line at ‘Nazi themed’ and won the case.
For anyone else it would have been career limiting. For Mosley, it wasn’t. Why? Because what he got up to in his own time was up to him, he argues. He doesn’t feel shame. And if there is no shame felt there is no internet shaming.
This explains Donald Trump and populists like him.
What would have ruined a career 20 years ago can be brushed off if you don’t feel the shame that really should go with it.
Picture credit: car crash / istock