LONG READ: I read 147 Facebook updates across seven pages to see how the Whaley Bridge dam crisis was communicated on Facebook

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

In summary

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 dan@danslee.co.uk.

 

 


30 days of human comms #62: Caen Hill countryside centre’s animal rush hour

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Caen Hill countryside centre is a charity in Wiltshire that encourages people to see for themselves country life.

The land is owned by Wiltshire Council but the operation is a not for profit organisation.

Their brief is to bring the countryside to the community and they use video amazingly well.

They have dedicated staff but they know the stars of the show are the animals they have.

This clip just brings a smile to my face.

The farmer opens the barn door talking about ‘rush hour’.

What rush hour is is a parade of animals all heading for the door to make the most of the day.

The farmer greets many of the animals by name, such as Cuthbert the goose and smudge the kitten.

It is entirely lovely. I’ve embedded the clip but you can see them here.

I’ve spent much of the last five years talking about what video can do.

A smartphone and permission to deploy it can lead to amazing content shot on video and posted online to reach new audiences. This video of animals on the farm does just that.

The video itself was posted to the video channel Tiktock as well as being shared on Twitter and then retweeted.

What is not to like?

Huge credit to Ben Whitehouse for spotting this.

 


30 days of human comms #61: The social care in action photo

The thing about human comms is that you know it when you see it.

When you see if you respond to it.

Good communications is a mix of targeting the head and targeting the heart. Numbers can tackle the head fine well. A well reasoned argument put together with skill can do this.

But the heart can often be a way to turn heads, change opinion and make a difference.

This social care picture dropped into my timeline and I love it.

Two older people who have been taken to the seaside by their care workers to dip their toes in the water.

A look of pure joy on their faces.

The years roll by and they’re remembering what it was like to be a kid with a ice-cold wave splashing on your toes.

It’s wonderful.

I say it, time and time again, but the most interesting content is not in an office.

Your best content are the human beings you have as staff and especially the human beings they are looking to serve.

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The orginal pic can be found here.  Dr Mark Redmond posted this image. His Twitter bio says that he is an academic passionate about social care. He has 2,500 followers but the image itself connected enough with people to be liked 13,000 times and shared 2,400 times.

Social care can often play things safely and not take risks. Having worked in  local government I can hear the pre-packed arguments against taking and releasing this image. Well done Dr Redmond for ploughing through this.

Social care has many problems facing it. Many are shaped by money. But without public support and understanding the debate for extra funding won’t get off the ground.

What made people share this image? Because its human.


NEW TACK: We’re mad as hell and we’re just not going to take it any more, so we’ll be polite, human and factual… a new approach to online snark

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There’s a change in the air with how the public sector is using social media. 

Back in 2008, a public body would get credit for even using the platform.

Over time, that changed. Train companies and others with spot-on online customer services raised the bar.

Trouble is, digital expectations grew just as public sector services were cut through waves of austerity. What the public sector used to do, they sometimes no longer do. That’s a tough message to explain. It’s led to a backlash of frustration, anger and abuse online and often the frontline is the comms officer updating social media. I’ve lost count of the number of people who just switch off in the evening where they used to try and help with customer service questions.

“I get told I’m an idiot 9 to 5 online,” one person who looks after social accounts for a council said. “Why do I want to switch on to get told that in my own time, too?”

My advice for dealing with snark online used to be to play the Uncle Keith card. In short, don’t argue with an idiot. To a passer-by its just two idiots arguing. Swearing? Have a zero tolerance.

But over time I’ve seen a new approach.

It’s a very human approach that draws a clear line in the sand. It calls people out when they are wrong and uses facts and humour.

Importantly, it’s an approach that very often goes down very well with people online. Using the crude measurement of likes and comments, public sympathy can be very often with the human and factual public sector response rather than the troll.

I’ve lost count of the number of times in training when I’ve showed people examples of this approach they’ve practically whooped with joy.

“That’s brilliant.” They say. “I wish we could do that.”

The reality is they can.

Of course, each response needs to be judged on its own merit. But if its factually accurate, polite, professional and maybe a touch witty too then, why not?

Some examples of the new polite, human and firm to snark

Example 1: Bournemouth Council

Take, Bournemouth Council. When they asked people to report potholes they were met with snark. Did they back down? Did they heck!

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Example 2: South Somerset Council

South Somerset District Council were sent an FOI demanding to know how their council tax was spent. The response is factual but also calls upon Ancient Rome.

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Example 3: Dorset Police

I’ve blogged this before, but it’s such a great example I’m blogging it again. They could have left this inaccurate piece of fake news but it was important to challenge it.

 

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Thanks to Tina Stokes and Kristian Ward for this.

Picture caption: Flickr / Documerica.


LONG READ: Why you should have corporate AND non-corporate accounts

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I was reminded of low level civil war happening that pits people in the same organisation against each other.

It’s the comms team against the rest.

In the red corner, the comms people who don’t much like the idea of people outside the team having access to social media. In the blue corner, service areas who glower at comms teams who don’t let them do what they want to.

“The idea,” one senior comms person told me, “Of giving access to social media to anyone outside my team and having a free for all just fills me with horror.”

A free for all would fill me with horror too. But some basic training can reap some really positive results. Let me explain.

Where non-corporate accounts can work well

During training, I often quote the Edelman Trust Barometer. A fine piece of work that points out that people trust 52 per cent of people who are ‘someone like myself.’ That’s significantly higher than the chief executive or any of the suits.

It’s part of the science behind why things like Dave Throup’s Twitter account works so well for the Environment Agency.  You can see day-to-day content like this:

A web page presents tailored content on a topic. You want Baswich library in Stafford? It has its own webpage. You don’t have to sift through lots of irrelevant information. In the same way, a social media profile on a specific topic does the same job. I live in Brierley Hill in Dudley. So the Sergeant that polices the area is more relevant to me:

 

Sergeant Harrison has 1,617 followers and 13,935 people live in Brierley Hill. Even taking into account some of those followers will be fellow officers that’s potentially 11 per cent of the population. That’s compared to 8 per cent of the population – 447,000 – who follow the corporate West Midlands Police account.

Sergeant Harrison’s account works best when he talks about the bread and butter of what is happening in Brierley Hill. To a Brierley Hill audience that’s perfect. Would I sift through the noise of the corporate account looking for Brierley Hill? Probably not. But from the corporate account I want the big messages. And if it kicks off somewhere, I really want the corporate account most of all, please.

Earlier this month I was carrying out a comms review for a fire and rescue service. The community fire station’s page wasn’t engaging. It was rarely updated. But it did have 10 per cent of the population signed-up just waiting to be told things. The decision was taken to carry on but with extra training.

It’s not all plain sailing

Experience of looking after social media policy and delivery for a large council that grew from one to 60 accounts is that things don’t always go well. Over the last few years I’ve reviewed hundreds of social media accounts. Experience shows they fall into three categories. A third are useful and are prosper. A third need a hand and a third you should think about closing down unless they radically improve.

Not every devolved account will be great at sharing the corporate message and somtimes they will frustrate. But for me, it’s about accepting the balance. For me, the third that are doing really well outweigh the downside.

Research that paints a picture of the corporate v non-corporate

My eye was caught by a tweet from Police Oracle with ‘Officers better on Twitter than police PR teams report says: The study analysed almost 1.5 million tweets.’ You can see it here. The tweet prompted several devolved accounts to rail against their comms team. The only trouble was, the research doesn’t show that at all. To her credit one of the authors Miriam Fernandez pointed out in a tweet that it was wrong.

But what does the research say?

Funnily enough, it shows that there is a role for both the corporate and the non-corporate devolved account. They just do different things. If you want to read it you can download it here. Caution: there is a paywall. It is called ‘An Analysis of UK Policing Engagement via Social Media.’ It is by Mriam Fernandez, Tom Dickinson and Harith Alani.

The study looked at 1.5m posts 48 corporate 2,450 non-corporate UK police accounts on Twitter.

The researchers found that corporate accounts got higher engagement – measured as retweets – talking about roads, infrastructures, missing persons and mentioning locations. They got lower engagement on crime updates and advice to stay safe. They were found to broadcast more. The non-corporate accounts were less formal and were more likely to respond to questions.

A quick lesson for better engagement from the research?

  • Have a clear message with a concrete action
  • Know the message but also know the options to act.

What a good corporate account should look like

For me, there are two purposes for the corporate and the devolved non-corporate. The corporate can put out the central messages. It should be a Match of the Day highlights show sharing the best of the rest. It should be human. The comms team can set the direction. It can deliver the training. But the non-corporate team, service area or individual accounts are where the real gold will be found. So have both.


WINTER COMMS part 3: Eight ways to communicate with images in the snow and ice

Hey, remember when listening to the local radio station at 7.40am was how you found out about school closures? Good times. 

Today, things are much more complex. The public sector has the tools to talk to people directly. Information and also counter-argument. It is not enough to tell people with words. In the days of fake news you have to use video or images. I’ve blogged examples of video here.

But how about images?

Well, if a picture can paint a thousand words then use more of them.

An image from the frontline of a rescue

Macclesfield Police were involved in a rescue of a couple who took their baby for a ride and then got stuck in sub-zero temperature. The shot taken on a smartphone shows just what they are up against.

An image from the frontline of road conditions and a closure

A shot posted quickly by a frontline officer to the web can be shared swiftly.

 An image of stills from the traffic cameras

While the best content is outside the office there is a way to stay in the office and get something usable. Images of road conditions taken from traffic cameras acts as a warning. And you get to stay in the warm.

An image of text

For all engaging image can attract attention 80 per cent of people in an emergency just want text. This screenshot does just that and drives traffic.

 An image of conditions to drive traffic to the link

Snow and ice on the ground show the conditions people are up against.

An image of conditions as a warning not to travel

This shot of the North Yorkshire moors to anyone with common sense shows a picture of an impassable road. It works well on Facebook.

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A collection of images for reassurance

Shots of ambulance crews facing the odds reminds people that the service is still there and working hard.

 A sharable infographic

The irony of this NHS image is that it is shared on a council website. Which is the intention of making something sharable.

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WINTER COMMS part 2: Using a Twitter thread to communicate a complex point

It’s the winter and of course the council never treated the roads. Ever.

Only thing is, yes, they do. But icy blasts can see things deteriorate quickly.

Perth & Kinros Council made that very point using a Twitter thread. This is the convention of linking a series of tweets. For me, this functionality is a gamechanger as it moves things from 140 characters to as many characters as you like.

They used two shots from a traffic camera. One to show you the road conditions shortly after the gritter passed and then a new shot 45-minutes later. They used GIFs in addition to sugar the pill and reinforce their points.

So far so good. Now the first image. The road that’s just been cleared.

Then a GIF that illustrates snow.

Now the second picture of the same scene less than hour later.

Now the two of them side by side.

And a round of applause for those doing the hard work.

A complex point simply executed. Bravo Perth & Kinross Council. Well done their comms officer Lisa Potter.