In late 2019, we live in interesting times.
So far this year we’ve had flooding, extreme heat and dams that almost collapse.
In the rest of the year we have the prospect of snow, ice and the impact of a possible ‘no deal’ Brexit with government modelling of food shortages, medicine shortages
Trust is low with around a third of us trusting government officials and journalists with politicians generally trusted by a fifth of the population.
So, how do you get across the need to prepare for possible future emergency?
With great difficulty it seems.
A tweet from Police Scotland appeared to set off a mix of alarm and mirth with the #GrabBag hashtag trending and BBC News picking up the baton online and in broadcast.
A number of police and councils have also used the hashtag along with #30days30ways to ask people to get ready in peacetime ahead of any emergencies ahead.
The aim is positive but in an atmosphere of mistrust, it can very easily go off target.
With some possible alarming days ahead its worth taking a pause to reflect on how we can pull this stuff off. It’s long been a frustration of mine that emergency planning is always 9th on the ‘to do’ list, never rises above that and gets ignored until its too late.
The #GrabBag content
Here’s a quick look at the content in and around the #GrabBag hashtag.
Well this is random and a bit scary, still, I’m taking bets.
— Paul (@fudpucker74) September 8, 2019
I think if police stations up and down the country are going to start simultaneously suggesting we pack a #GrabBag they should at least hint as to why. A zombie apocalypse is going to need a very different packing strategy to an AI takeover, for example.
— Amanda Jennings (@MandaJJennings) September 9, 2019
WTF is #GrabBag all about.
Why would we have to leave our homes ?
Monsoon? Forest fire? Hurricane?
I notice that the police and councils up and down the country haven’t said WHY we might need to evacuate quickly. I have never know a campaign like this and it is fucking scary.
— jen wood #My blouse is not big 😀 (@unojen_wood) September 8, 2019
But any good analysis should look at the data, too.
The #Grabbag numbers
Using Ritetag analysis, the hashtag had reached large numbers with almost 4,000 tweets.
The hashtag had also spiked impressively in the analysis.
However, the big problem with hashtag analysis is drilling down into sentiment. The US-based algorithm is incapable as yet of spotting sarcasm leading to a manual analysis of what people were really saying.
It’s safe to say the hashtag didn’t really perform as intended.
Sarcasm, worry and brand jacking emerged, the analysis suggests, and the original purpose of the hashtag was obscured.
The #Grabbag key words
The most frequently used positive terms were fine…
The most frequently used negative ones less so…
But what were the trends to a UK audience? I went through and counted a cross-section of around 150 to give a snapshot of the underlying sentiment.
The #Grabbag sentiment
Counting through the content, the sentiment was overwhelmingly parody with supportive tweets being outscored four to one.
The original tweets with the original purpose had been swamped by people who were either pouring scorn or were entertained by the idea of a #grabbag full of gin. Hey! Big LOLs! There’s an argument that any publicity is good publicity. I’m not convinced by that argument.
But there was also a more worrying undertow, too. Did the Police know something they didn’t? Shouldn’t people be more responsible? Who was responsible for all this? This is 2019, we’re talking about. There was even a flavour of newsjacking with big brands trying to cash-in.
So, armed with all this, what does it tell you?
Well, first up, I’m not going to suggest anything stupid like stopping tweeting. Police and local government people who tweet have my undying admiration. I used to be one. Whoever launched the hashtag should be applauded for trying to tackle a serious issue. But the episode does provide some teachable moments that we can learn from.
The public sector should still tackle the big issues
The temptation after adverse publicity is to go into a bunker and maybe delete your account. ‘No,’ and ‘no’ to that. There is a need to communicate in the places where people are. Besides, its a legal obligation for the public sector to warn and inform.
When things go awry I think Cadbury’s and Easter
Every year the meme re-surfaces that Cadbury’s have banned the word ‘Easter’ from their Easter eggs. It spreads across the internet like wildfire. It’s political correctness gone mad. Angry people bombard Cadbury’s with messages to say how outraged they are.
The only thing is that Cadbury’s haven’t banned Easter at all.
The chocolate manufacturer when this first happened where faced with a choice. Either ignore it or talk back. They chose talk back. Like a giant version of whack-a-mole their team mans the ramparts to try and tweet back to people who complain online.
@geordieron40 There’s no policy to remove ‘Easter’, it’s mentioned on the back! As a seasonal treat they’ll always be linked with Easter
— Cadbury UK (@CadburyUK) March 25, 2016
Active rebuttal in the manner of Cadbury’s when things have gone a bit awry is something to deploy. If the message out there is that the police want you to pack your bags because… something BAD is about to happen that feels like something to address.
Equally, it wouldn’t go amiss to respond to some of the parody tweets with a degree of wit and humour.
Yes, this means more resources.
Yes, it helps to direct people towards your message.
Get by with a little help from your friends
The public sector is great but often vital campaigns are launched in a corner of the internet. With #GrabBag, I didn’t see the combined might of the public sector combining. It would have been good to see partners, friends and the rest of the organisation come to the fore to amplify any explainer tweets.
Tapping into your internal comms and companies
If we don’t trust government officials, who do we trust?
Well, it turns out we trust our employers far more. Perhaps surprisingly, even those who think the system is failing them put their trust in their employers. The Edelman Trust Barometer puts 69 per cent of those with a cynical outlook as still trusting their employer.
That’s a massively powerful figure and one that invites a real re-calibration your message. Have a loudhailer. But add companies’ internal comms channels to your loudhailer. It’s also enlisting your own internal comms too for public sector organisations are not just big employers but they’re big local employers.
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.
There’s always moments when a new digital platform comes into its own.
In 2011, it was Twitter that really came into the mainstream during the London riots. It was where middle managers in the organisation and the public could find out what was happening.
Twitter and Hurricane Irma
In 2017, Twitter is the bread and butter of emergency communications. The US Government department FEMA have been using it and have been using this and the web to shoot down rumour.
— FEMA (@fema) September 8, 2017
In 2017, live video and Hurricane Irma seems to have made a similar transition.
Both platforms allow you to use your phone as an outside broadcast unit and stream to the internet.
Both platforms end up feeding in the media by providing eye-witness reporting from the scene. In an environment where fake news has undermined trust in text, video is hugely important for communications people.
Case study #1: Behind the scenes news room tour
A journalist takes a tour of the TV news room that is keeping people informed of what is taking place.
Case study #2: The calm before the storm
Residents took to walking around deserted streets to show what was happening.
Case study #3: The eye witness
Views from the balcony showing the hurricane as it is striking.
Case study #4: The professional storm chaser
In the US, storm season is met with enthusiasts chasing down tornados and extreme weather. People like Jeff Piotrowski have been using Periscope to connect with people and give a realtime sense of the storm.
There’s a school of thought that public sector comms people are a bunch of non-jobs who are a waste of money.
Their budget would be better spent on replacing windows or filling potholes, the argument goes.
Those who make that argument? They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Empty tins sound the loudest. Where were they when a terror attack struck Manchester? They were nowhere. Wheras the Public Sector in Manchester just as the people did responded.
As Google Trends shows, the spike of searches for Manchester and Ariana Grande whose concert was attacked is marked.
Where were the Public Sector communications people?
Late at night and for days after they were communicating with the stunned Greater Manchester public of 2.8 million, 65 million UK citizens and billions around the globe.
Thoughts should absolutely be with those who were killed and affected by the explosion. Thoughts too with the police, ambulance, fire and local government people who responded first.
But as a communicator who has worked eight years in local government I’m absolutely sparing a thought to the comms people too. There are some people in the industry who would have folded faced with this challenge. That’s understandable. A terror attack is a massive event. The response from Greater Manchester Police, Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue, Transport for Manchester, the Combined Authority, both Mayor’s teams, all parts of the NHS, Manchester City Council and others was sterling. No channel seemed to go AWOL. No-one seemed to have left a scheduled tweet in place.
Professional. Informative and well judged. Not just in the aftermath but in the coming together and moments of reflection.
This is what gold standard communications looks like.
Clear, timely precise information under intense pressure for a sustained period.
Class, be like them.
When people talk about ‘non-jobs’ ask them how they’d communicate a terror attack and its aftermath. You’ll get a non-answer.
However, I was reminded by Stephen Waddington’s post about mental resilience in communications. It’s a timely post that asks people to look after their mental health. In the aftermath of huge stress, I’d hope that the organisations and individuals involved bear this in mind. They’re bright people. I’m sure they will.
Here are some standout lessons
The Public Sector is not a single thing but a number of organisations that serve a community. In the aftermath of the attack, organisations shared vital updates. Fire shared police updates, for example. The Mayor’s office shared a newspaper’s frontpage, for example. The strength of the Public Sector is the long reach and broad digital footprint. In an emergency share it.
There’s no question that the public far wider than Manchester identified with the content and amplified it.
Communications to say ‘you can get updates over here.’
One lessons of communicating in an emergency is for the Public Sector to signpost people to where the up-to-date information is. This happened effectively in the Westminster attack and did so again in Manchester. Here, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue acknowledged the incident and pointed people to Greater Manchester Police.
Communications to say ‘we’re on it’ part I
The Ambulance Trust dealing with the attack communicated via Twitter to say they were aware and ask people not to call on other matters unless it was an emergency.
Due to the incident in Manchester, please only call us for life threatening emergencies at this time. Thank you.
— NWAS NHS Trust (@NWAmbulance) May 22, 2017
Communications to say ‘we’re on it’ part II
Police acknowledged the incident as it was breaking. This is text book stuff. By doing this they flag-up they are aware and where to follow for updates. The days of waiting to sign-off a press release at a time of emergency is long over.
Police responded to reports of an incident at Manchester Arena. Please stay away from the area. More details to follow….
— G M Police (@gmpolice) May 22, 2017
Communication as a sharable image with need-to-know information
There’s every chance this image wasn’t made by the Public Sector itself. But the lesson this does show is that the key public information in the hours after the event WILL be shared as an image.
— RaevennanHusbandes (@AfroThunderRae) May 23, 2017
Communications as part of the investigation
Content taken at the time and in the aftermath helps police piece together what happened. This tweet encourages people to send their footage in.
— Terrorism Police UK (@TerrorismPolice) May 23, 2017
A video response and information update
As the aftermath became recovery, the issue turned to transport and what would be running. Video was used here.
Communications as mental health support for an entire city
If more than 20,000 people were at the Manchester Arena many more would have faced an anxious wait to see if their children, family or friends were okay. Updates to say ‘it’s not okay’ were widely shared.
— Richard Preece (@drrichardp) May 28, 2017
Communications to say ‘we’re bouncing back.’
A week after the attack, sporting events took place across the city. As this video from Mayor Andy Burnham shot and posted within minutes shows, it’s a city refusing to give in.
— Mayor Andy Burnham (@MayorofGM) May 28, 2017
Communication as poetry
Tony Walsh was invited to read one his poems not just in the event after the attack but at the Great Manchester Run.
Communication as an image to convey breaking news
Greater Manchester Police staged a series of raids and arrests across Manchester in the days after the event. A simple update and sharable image kept people informed.
Latest update pic.twitter.com/f4dF5aUto0
— G M Police (@gmpolice) May 26, 2017
Communications as infographic
Greater Manchester used an infographic to explain the scope and depth of the investigation.
Timeline of events on Mondays attack at the Arena pic.twitter.com/DINIv8KS7L
— G M Police (@gmpolice) May 28, 2017
Communication to say ‘we’re human too.’
If it’s okay to be not okay, it’s also okay to show your staff as being human. A Facebook timeline image shows the Greater Manchester Chief Constable embracing a member of the public. It’s genuine, warm and isn’t staged.
Communications as a captured Instagram street picture
An image on the street spotted and photographed by Greater Manchester Police and shared to their Instagram feed.
Sharing other people’s content
Manchester City Council shared this fund raising link. It doesn’t have to be your own content. It doesn’t even have to be Public Sector.
Making a city proud
So proud of my daughter Jordan – a Critical Care nurse in Manchester dealing with fallout of last nights attack. Our services do us proud! pic.twitter.com/XgXT3bqsNO
— Gary Sumner (@gsum66) May 23, 2017
Fire, storm, pestilence or just a burst water main, in an emergency local government can swing into action.
In the UK it’s known as emergency planning and in the US emergency management. Whichever part of the world you are in it’s the part of the public sector that has plans for every eventuality.
For a comms person, it’s often only when there’s a problem you’ll speak to the emergency planners. Don’t let that happe n. Make a pact with yourself. Go and speak to them as soon as you can and sort out what to do with social media. Here is why.
At localgovcamp in Birmingham this year Ben Proctor, who runs the Like A Word consultancy, ran an excellent session on emergency planning and the social web. It’s something he writes about well too. His blog is well worth a look.
Catherine Howe, who does things with Public I, made the closing but clear point: “Whatever you do put social media in your emergency plan.”
Of course, I reflected smugly, my council has. There’s 3,000 people following the our corporate Twitter stream. What could go wrong?
Overnight there had been a minor incident that I’d missed on my Blackberry which had ran flat. Thankfully, it wasn’t more serious. But it showed very clearly where we’re blindsided.
If only comms people have the keys to the Facebook and Twitter things can easily fall down. What’s the answer? Go to where the audience is. Give them access to the corporate account. They’re generally very sensible people and know what to say. If the situation develops you can always step in.
So, what sort of role does social media play in an emergency?
In a true disaster the web falls down before SMS. But people are instinctively running to it.
A tornado in Joplin – In in the Mid West US town when a milewide tornado struck, the community rallied by building their own space on the web. At first this was to search for missing people and then as the disaster turned to recovery it charted that phase too. The moral? People have the tools like this or this community Facebook page to build things for themselves. They’re not waiting for the council to do it. They just will.
The EDL in Birmingham – When the far right English Defence League first rallied they used Twitter to spread misinformation. The police monitored by were powerless. Third time they came they had an officer monitoring Twitter, Mark Payne checking each claim and then re-butting within minutes point by point.
Facebook in Queensland – When floods struck 3,000 comments a day were posted on the Queensland Police site. It took a 24-hour effort to monitor, explain and rebuff wild rumour.
The report into the Queendsland event singled out social media as part of a range of channels to take action with. Ben Proctor has blogged on it here. A key finding is to talk, prepare and practice. That’s as just as much relevant to comms people as anyone.
An interim report into the Queensland flood made a series of comments and recommendations. On social media it stated:
“As it may be possible for the public to post information directly to an official social media site there are concerns that a member of the public may post false information. For example, inaccurate information was posted on the Western Downs Regional Facebook page. However, where there are enough staff to monitor content social media can be a useful tool to respond to rumours in the community.”
Seven things comms people need to know
1. Share the keys – Give emergency planning an awareness of what social media is, encourage them to monitor and respond and give them the keys to the corporate feeds.
2. You can’t control the message – As if the main message of our times is needed to be repeated.
3. There’s a shorter turn around time to respond – Speed may be of the essence.
4. It’s not just about social media – It’s one channel of several. Important and growing but don’t think that everyone will be on Facebook.
5. It’s good for combating rumours – As a comms person that can save yourself time.
6. Journalists will follow and like – You can save time and effort by creating channels of communications.
7. If the balloon goes up it’ll take resources – Social media is free is a bit of a myth. The platform is free. The time spent to manage it, listen and update isn’t. The lessons of Queensland are that it can take up resources. But you do get valuable return on investment for doing so. Regular monitoring when there is a crisis is absolutely critical. Don’t link to a press release and forget about it.