Archive for April, 2009

The medium is the message–swine flu and notification

April 30, 2009

I found this comment from a Ragan Daily Headlines article about swine flu communciation very interesting:

Several communicators at Texas Tech University say they are steering away from methods of communication normally associated with emergencies, such as text messaging or phone calls to students and staff, in favor of a less-panic-inducing approach. Texas Tech is in Lubbock, in northwest Texas, which is miles away from the closest confirmed cases in the state.

“We wanted to keep everyone calm, not overreact, not draw more attention than was necessary, so we’re providing an education-based approach,” says Lisa Low, senior editor of Web communications. “If it becomes an emergency, it’s a whole other response effort: We’ll text-message, and we’ll phone-call. We want to give everyone an opportunity to know what we know, and what information is out there.”

It seems a very sensible approach and one of the keys to swine flu communication is perspective, reassurance, avoiding panic. However, it is very interesting that sending text message or automated phone calls is considered “panic-inducing.”

The medium is indeed the message. If the public, or your students or employees beleive that you will only use the urgent means of direct communication for life threatening situations, do you eliminate the use of these valuable tools for lesser purposes. It seems the more organizations take this approach, the more ingrained it will be that if you receive a text message, start running and ask where later.Seems an argument can or should be made that these methods should be used for occasional test messages or even mundane messages to avoid the trap I see developing here.

Discussion anyone?


Swine flu communications

April 30, 2009

Yes, we are incredibly busy right now with multiple clients and agencies dealing with public communication about swine flu. Suddenly, a number of other agencies who have been investigating our system are showing urgent interest. I’m also preparing for a national teleseminar on swine flu communications that I’ve been asked to present by a major professional association. Anyone who has case studies–good and bad–to share please send them on to me, it would be much appreciated.

A few quick comments about what I am observing about communications today. I have to admit, Twitter is my best source for on-going information flow. CDC use of Twitter has been great but much faster info coming from the new news sources like /breakingnews that keep up a constant flow by consolidating news related Twitter feeds.

How to set the right tone for communicating with the public about the pandemic: follow President Obama’s lead. I was very impressed with his news conference last night. He communicated detailed information, emphasized to keep perspective, provided genuine reassurance, discussed specific actions being taken, praised his predecessor for the preparations that had been made. He just hit all the right notes in my mind. I do believe, based on performance to date, he may surpass The Great Communicator’s reputation for effective public engagement.

Keep perspective. This one is hard. One public health official kept trying to get the message across that 100 people die each and every day from the flu. In the US we’ve had one death so far from H1N1. It is a tough balancing act to communicate the reality of the scope when we don’t really know how far this will go. But it is important to keep communicating the facts including the limited scope of this thing right now, even while not downplaying the seriousness to those affected or the risks of much bigger outbreak.

Pandemic in the instant information age–that is what is really interesting here given what I just said about perspective. We live in a time not just of hair trigger outrage, but hair trigger panic. We live in a time of incredibly high distrust of those whose hands are on the levers of power. And we live in a time of virtual instant, continuous information flow from all over. The pandemic of public distraction and maybe even unwarranted panic may be more telling and potentially more dangerous than the virus. As an example, Pres Obama faced the question about sealing the borders last night. The cost and impact would be staggering. No doubt such an act would cost lives (as people need to travel for urgent health needs, etc.) You need to have serious basis for taking such a step. Yet, it is a question on people’s minds. I don’t want to downplay the risks or what is happening but the truly fascinating thing to me is how risks are perceived in the age of Twitter, social media and constantly present communication about dangers and fears.

Finally, swine flu goes to H1N1. What a lesson there. Can’t believe the effectiveness of the pork lobby in getting this change made to the degree they have in the midst of this situation. Lesson for all those industries that might have their name attached to a bad thing–work on it now, now when it is on everyone’s lips. If there is a loganberry flu strain, loganberry folks better get to work on it.

How fast is Twitter with the news? See for yourself.

April 28, 2009

If you want to see how fast Twitter can be in getting info out–and stunning unprepared government agencies in the process, look at this:

Twitter speed-crash

Swine Flu–now it gets serious

April 27, 2009

As I write this, Mexico has just announced 149 deaths to swine flu. And, a few minutes ago, that city was rocked by a 6.0 earthquake. 40 cases of swine flu now reported in US. World Heath Organization on brink of declaring a pandemic, elevating the status to 4 or 5. Travel advisories going out.

And I’m trying to write a new presentation for the emergency management group of one very large federal agency on the importance of Virtual Joint Information Centers .

Social media is absolutely abuzz with talk of swine flu. Here are a few resources that I am using to track and you might find useful as well:

gizmodo–map showing new cases (actually using google map tracking service)


Some good advice from a communications professional: BrianMcDaniel

Now a word about Virtual JICs:

A JIC is a Joint Information Center. The MANDATORY (under National Incident Management System) assemblage of Public Information Officers from responding agencies to gather in a physical location to work together to communicate about the response. So if the event is a pandemic, the communicators are ordered to get together in a room so they can get the message out to everyone else to not do as they are doing. Sorry, doesn’t make sense to me. Especially since it has been very well established in major events including Hurricane Katrina that a dispersed communication team can operate very effectively using appropriate web technology. What is appropriate web technology? Go here.

Message to Emergency Management pros: Here’s why social media is important to you

April 24, 2009

Let’s face it. Most emergency management professionals are more than 45 years old. From their perspective, they have far more important things to worry about in preparing to respond to a major emergency than silly things like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like. They and their Public Information Officers (PIOs) are very clear about what has to happen to communicate with the public in a major event–they got to get a press release to the media and hold a press conference. The media is their “partner.” Do that, and the job is mostly done–oh yeah, answer some questions along the way.

I’ve had this conversation recently too frequently to tell. It’s how those in emergency management think about this world. I’ve been trying to tell them they are wrong, the world has changed. But now I have some serious academic studies to back me up.

The University of Colorado at Boulder, with Dr. Leysia Palen leading the research, is becoming a center for study about disaster communication. I heard several references to Dr. Palen and the studies at this university at the Booz Allen conference in DC last November. This release from the university documents the shockingly fast move of the public to online communications and particularly social media during major events.

The world has changed. No sense sticking our heads in the sand.

OK, so not all bloggers are toxic–a new study

April 24, 2009

You’ve heard me talk about “toxic talk,” the propensity of the social media/blogosphere/online community to engage in over heated, hyper-sensitive, hair trigger outrage and activism. Here’s an article about a study relating to bloggers comments about retail brands and comparisons to comments in the mainstream media.

A quick summary. Blog comments about national retailers were 41% positive, 31% neutral and 28% negative.

And while bloggers overall were a little more likely to say something negative than mainstream media and less likely to be positive, this comment shows a key difference:

Bloggers were more likely to have extreme negative reactions in their coverage, while the mainstream media was more likely to be “slightly unfavorable” or “intensely positive” when covering global organizations.

A few reasons why I think that is so: no accountability (at least for most), anonymity, and teh fact that they are not linked in most cases to ad revenue. I would guess that those who depend on ad revenue tend to be a little more careful about biting the hand that feeds them. On the other hand, it is often the outrageous comments that generates the traffic that feeds the ads.

Dominos lessons learned: no better advice given

April 22, 2009

If you read and absorb just one thing this year in crisis management, read this. Dominos’ team responding to the YouTube stupidity crisis took time out of their busy lives (they have to still be in response mode) to participate in the Ragan Social Media Bootcamp and share some lessons learned.

I can’t possibly imagine a more succinct or powerful message in crisis management today than the four key points they make. Here they are:

1) Establish Twitter account now (and/or other appropriate channels)

2) Be transparent

3) Respond–NOW!

4) Appreciate your customers.

‘Nuff said.

“We have children here getting mangled in the crowd…” Pepsi promo goes wrong

April 22, 2009

Sometimes I simply can’t believe this world we live in. Here’s a story about a Pepsi free ticket givewaway at Yankee stadium that went very bad. Apparently there weren’t enough free tickets so Yankee fans expecting a free ticket were miffed, to say the least. Watch the video. I can’t believe it. Well, yes I can. I talk here a lot about toxic talk, about the hair trigger outrage, how quickly people today seem to get ticked off and scream about how they are being abused.

If you watch the video you see the outraged woman very animated and then she says: “We have children being mangled in the crowd..” So the ticket shortage has turned Pepsi into children manglers. She concludes “The boycott starts right here!”

Alright, this is pretty extreme, but if you look at almost any problem that occurs today you get at least some of this outrage, this sense of being victimized, this anger against the brands and the big corporations.

Lessons for crisis communicators and senior executives. Yesterday it was Dominos. Today it is Pepsi. When will it be your turn?

How is news told in age of Twitter? Great example from Austin “hostage” situation

April 20, 2009

Is Twitter a good way to get news? Heck no, everyone says and still more and more are relying on tweets. Are citizen journalists credible? Heck no, but still what they are reporting is believed and believed believable until proven otherwise. Such is news today. And one role for journalists and established media to play is to help the rest of us know what is real and what is not. In my book (written in late 2001 I might mention) I predicted that that the media would evolve into a role of “truth filters.”

This article from Media Bullseye, written by a journalist, provided a vivid account of one local news situation in Austin. It shows the speed of the initial tweets, the rumors, how fast they spread and how one newspaper–fast on it feet and very impressive I must say–worked to keep up with the pace but also providing the kind of credible information we want and need from them.

Here is today’s journalism–the interplay of professionals and citizens, the use of new media and old media (a phone call to the police from the newspaper)–and how they work together for our benefit.

CNN, Dominos and Amazon–three case studies of the new crisis management

April 20, 2009

Kind of ironic I guess, but one of the best stories dealing with the crisis management challenges of the new media comes from the old media–the LA Times. Here’s a great summary of three major brands and how they all have had to face significant crises in the last while either caused by or related to social media.

For PRSA members, Kami Watson Huyse and I will be presenting on social media and crisis communications via teleseminar for PRSA. Still time to sign up I assume.

For those not able to attend, we will discuss ten things to help you prepare to respond to a crisis in today’s “twitch-fast” world as the LA Times calls it. It’s not just twitch fast, but it seems filled with people with too much time on their hands and too many things they are hypersensitive and just plain old angry about. Not a pretty picture–particularly if you have employees dumb enough to do what two Dominos employees did.