Leaving heads in the dust–one impact of Twitter and Social Media on public information

May 7, 2009

I just returned from a whirlwind trip to San Francisco and Atlanta, speaking to and working with Public Information Officers (PIO) from federal agencies to small town fire departments.  There is widespread recognition among many (but not nearly all) communicators of the tremendous change in public information management caused by increased use of social media and particularly Twitter. I am surprised and encouraged by the number of agencies who are already adopting and using Twitter and other forms of social media. But there is one universal obstacle and problem: the chiefs, the heads of agencies, the old guys at the top (hey, I’m an old guy so I can say that).

For the most part they continue to live in a world where they see the job of the PIO as sending out a press release to local media and answering a few questions. If it is a big enough event, the PIOs job is to organize a press conference so the head of the agency can stand on the courthouse steps and tell the world that he/she is in complete control.

While many in public information management are still struggling with how to adapt to the rapid changes themselves, they are quite honestly completely lost when it comes to bringing their superiors into this brave new world of light speed public information.

I don’t know how to solve it for them. I know people like me have to be speaking to the heads of agencies directly rather than expecting the PIOs to carry the message. But since we don’t often get invited to speak to the heads of agencies, PIOs and public affairs managers have to carry the water on this.

Here are key message points:

– Communicate fast or what you say won’t matter.

– The press release is dead and gone forever.

– Short, continuous bursts of information have replaced the well-crafted press release as the most vital form of public information.

– The website may be a far more important source of information than the press conference.

– Direct communication with key audiences is rapidly replacing messages sent through media “partners”

– The public will know about an event through Twitter and through the media (who use Twitter as a scanner) perhaps faster than the agency heads themselves

– Rumor management is becoming perhaps the primary job of the PIO and Joint Information Center rather than the initial or primary source of information

– Incident commanders, agency heads, elected officials who have their heads in the sand will probably only wake up after they have been through a major event in which they discover all these important points themselves.

Here’s my plea: take this list into your supervisor, your agency head, your incident commander and sit down right now and talk with him or her about this list. See if they agree or disagree. If they disagree, hash it out. If they agree, make sure you are putting the plans and steps in place to meet their expectations for speed from you.


7 Responses to “Leaving heads in the dust–one impact of Twitter and Social Media on public information”

  1. Jimmy Jazz Says:

    This research out of Pew blew my mind today. There is now public data that says that online communications (read: the internet) are the most useful way to get information in an emergency. And this was in a slow moving emergency, when theoretically TV, radio and print should have the advantage. In a time-limited crisis, I can imagine that percentage (usefulness) being even higher.

    The evidence continues to stack up. Companies and response agencies who aren’t taking advantage of the internet to respond are failing only their customers and constituents.

    Read here: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1216/swine-flu-internet-information-most-useful

  2. […] Leaving heads in the dust–one impact of Twitter and Social Media on public information Gute Tipps des Crisisblogger zur Kommunikation in Krisen. Ein paar davon: Geschwindigkeit. Klar, wer als erstes kommuniziert, hat zunächst die Deutungshoheit. Auch wichtig: Lieber kleine Kommunikationshappen (positiv ausgedrückt: live kommunizieren) als eine stundenlang abgestimmte Pressemitteilung. Und vor allem: Online ist wichtiger als Pressekonferenzen und Presseinfos. Ob der letzte Punkt so sehr verallgemeinert werden kann, erscheint mir allerdinds diskussionswürdig. Klar, Online gehört in den Mittelpunkt. Aber TV braucht auch Bilder…. (tags: krisenkommunikation howto) […]

  3. Right Said Fred Says:

    “Dead and gone forever?” Sorry, I’d need to see some underlying data to believe such a universal pronouncement.

    For example, does this apply to urban, suburban and rural settings? Large and small media markets?

    What are the media preferences in these markets? Is there enough social media use to justify such an approach in every market?

    Since e-mail is far more prevalent than Twittter, what’s wrong with a good “old fashioned” series of e-mail blasts during a crisis situation?

    There is no doubt the landscape is changing, and communicators must engage their CEOs. But posts like this one lead to lurching and overreaction rather than a well thought out strategy.

  4. anon Says:

    Traditional mass media has been dead for movers and shakers for a while. Those who are seeking out the best ways, with the best ROI, taking the least time, who want their information fast and complete…they’ve been on the web pretty exclusively for at least a couple years now.

    But you’re right, the press release isn’t dead, because there will always be people who don’t care to improve or change. I think, right now, it just depends on who you’re trying to reach.

  5. Jessica Junis Says:

    Now is the time to keep a good balance of ‘old-school’ and ‘new-school’. Before even considering what mediums to use for sending your message: Consider your goals and consider your target audiences! There should be a different message for each target audience. Determining what medium to use for your press release or key message should depend on your target audience.

    This day in age, we just can’t quite let go of traditional methods, but we much also embrace new trends. A good healthy balance of both old and new should be in all of our communication plans.

  6. Mikeharvey Says:

    Hey from Toronto, Canada

    Just a quick hello from as I’m new to the board. I’ve seen some interesting comments so far.

    To be honest I’m new to forums and computers in general 🙂


  7. If I had a buck for every time I came here… Incredible read!

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