SOCIAL CRISIS: Using Twitter in emergency planning

A rather marvellous moment of digital serendipity happened the other night.

Walking back from a late night meeting at Walsall Council House a police car sped past with sirens and blue lights on.

Absent mindedly I tweeted that I wondered if this was @pcstanleywmp. He replied:

A short time later @pcmarshallwmp chipped in:

That’s just a bit mad. But in 2012, in Walsall in the West Midlands it’s not as surprising as all that. As a local government press officer, emergencies land in our lap. Even when they’re not directly ours. Here’s some thoughts on social media in an emergency.

Bigging up West Midlands Police on Twitter

For some time the West Midlands Police force have been trail blazing with their use of digital channels to connect to the people they serve.

The payback comes in many ways but when the chips are down it comes by having a ready made channel to shoot down rumours. Andrew Brightwell from Public I blogged a cracking piece on how Wolverhampton Police joined with bloggers to help explode myths. You can read it here.

One of those bloggers was Steph Jennings of Podnosh whose site wv11.co.uk was in the frontline against the rumours worked around the clock on Facebook and Twitter. Their Facebook page drew 200,000 hits in a week. That’s just an incredible figure.

Post riot lessons

Last summer, not long after the dust settled there was an informal meeting between police, local government and bloggers to see what worked.

It became clear that in a time of crisis people just wanted an authoratative voice. The role of local government comms people was not to stand by but to retweet on Twitter police messages. That’s a big step to take but an important one.

Lessons in rumour scotching

At the excellent Bluelightcamp In Manchester  there was a brilliant session from researcher Farida Vis.

She spoke about analysing six rumours and how they went away. Heard the one about the tiger on the loose from London Zoo? Or Birmingham Children’s Hospital being attacked?

Farida mapped all of the tweets and drew some interesting conclusions. First, you sometimes need to scotch rumours repeatedly. Especially if they’ve gone viral. Secondly, often rumours are shot down by trusted people online. In teh case of Birmingham Children’s hospital, it was Andy Mabbett – @pigsonthewing on Twitter – who pointed out that the hospital was directly opposite Steehouse Lane Police station, so it probably wasn’t true.

She also posed the interesting point that we need to identify trusted people in the community for times of crisis. That’s an interesting thought but I’m not sure if we’re there yet.

You can see the reseach and some excellent data visualisations here.  Farida Vis is on Twitter as @flygirltwo.

Post riot lessons put into practice

Within weeks that lesson was put to the test in Walsall when 150 homes were flooded in Streetly.

The first mention on Twitter was at 6.13am when PC Rich Stanley then tweeted that there was flooding.

As the picture built, confirmation that 150 homes were involved was tweeted at 7.54am.

There was misinformation from people but what was striking was that this was drowned out by the multiple retweets of the police messages.

On election day in Walsall in 2012, part of the town centre was evacuated by police because of a security alert. We retweeted the @walsallpolice stream which did a great job in keeping people up to speed. It wasn’t anything major in the context of other events. But it did have a major impact on the town.

There’s a storify here.

SEVEN things you can do for public sector crisis comms

Here are the lessons learned from the Walsall and Wolverhampton police – blogger debrief, from practical experience as well as from Blue Light Camp. Feel free to agree or disagree.

1. Talk to your colleagues in the emergency services. When it’s not busy. Establish if and how they are using Twitter.

2. When an incident starts, use Twitter’s search function to see what people are saying.

3. Use Twitter’s search functions to seek out what fire, police and any other official channels are saying.

4. Retweet the official streams only. Monitor but don’t RT non-official streams. They may or may not be accurate.

5. Think web first. Before you get the press release signed off agree 140 characters to put onto Twitter. Even if it’s a holding statement. It’s fine to say we’re investigating reports of a chemical leak at a council building if that’s what you are doing.

6. Scotch rumours before they spread.

7. Keep scotching rumours. It may take several times as rumours re-ignite.

Picture credit

Police car http://www.flickr.com/photos/laughingsquid/6319901926/sizes/l/in/photostream/


EMERGENCY COMMS: ‘Whatever you do, put social media in your emergency plan.’

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.

Creative commons

Fire http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5075758029/sizes/m/in/photostream/