Longtime crisisblogger reader and commenter Jimmy Jazz spurred my interest in the topic of social media, Iran and implications for crisis communications. I provided a few quick thoughts yesterday but asked Jimmy to contribute his thoughts via this blog. Thanks again Jimmy!
Title: The Voice of Iran
Many of us have been watching the events following the Presidential election in Iran unfold across the newspaper pages, the cable news networks and the internet. While protests and revolutionary fervor generally merit some coverage, these protests have been covered in great detail. Gerald pointed to why this is in an earlier post, and it’s been something we’ve talked about here a number of times—the actions are being coordinated via social media. Some are even going so far as to call this the “Twitter Revolution.” That the State Department would step in and ask a private company to change its established business practices to facilitate revolutionary speech is simply unheard of, but that’s exactly what happened. For most of the media and the general public, the Iranian protests will be all about how Twitter (mostly, but also social networking sites like Facebook) have become mainstream and are now regular communication tools that are used in crises. But we already knew that was going to happen. To those of us here, though, we’re looking for the next big thing. And, as Gerald hinted earlier, I think that next big thing is video.
The idea of citizen journalism has been around for, well, ever. Hundreds of years ago, community newspapers were published by community members. With the rise of the corporate media, news collection and dissemination was done almost exclusively by that corporate media. As social media has taken off, there’s been a move to supplement traditional, corporate reporting with this citizen journalism. CNN has their iReports and CBS has their EyeMobile, I’m sure others have some other way to get “on-the-ground man-on-the-street” reports. These reports, however, have always been supplemental—someone calling into the newsroom or text-messaging the show’s host. It wasn’t until the news van arrived that the viewers at home could actually see what was going on. Until now.
There have been calls throughout Iran to bring cell phones and cameras and video cameras to every protest and rally, to shoot continuously, to document everything. This effort has created a vast databank of images and videos that has brought the world into Iran. People around the globe see the massive protests and burka-clad women with green fingers even as the traditional press has been locked down in their hotels. The protesters are intensely smart and immediately started writing their signs in English to drum up support in the Western world for their cause—knowing that these images were being broadcast over the internet. And then a young woman was struck down by a sniper’s bullet (one of many so far, apparently). Two people close to her recorded the last moments of Neda Agha-Soltan; one got 40 seconds, the other 14. At least one of the videos was posted to the internet (I haven’t seen either, nor do I plan to), and Neda became the face of the Iranian Revolution, the Voice of Iran.
So, what does that mean for us? As crisis communicators looking ahead to prepare for our next crisis, we need to learn a valuable lesson from this. Our next crisis might not just involve people Twittering from the scene, or someone calling into the newsroom with a first-hand account—it might be live, streaming footage. Instead of a local reporter asking you for an update on the situation, or “what just happened,” they might just come up with a laptop and ask, “why did you let this happen.” I’m sure we all know which of the two is the more difficult question to answer. And as long as there has been crisis communication, we’ve never had that question posed first. We’ve always knew something was up and had time to formulate a response. Be prepared for your next crisis to be replete with pictures, tweets, and live video. Be prepared to be confronted with the worst possible view of your crisis.
I usually write about public health preparedness. From my standpoint, few things blow up or are out-of-the-blue disasters. We have slow-motion disasters. But even still, the prospect of video shot by the public and released without censor or clean up can change the tone of the response. Lately, we’ve been worried about pandemic influenza. Taking a lesson from the Spanish flu response, how would a hospital communications staff member respond to video of a flu ward where young folks wallowed and died, seemingly without care? Could we withstand the recorded voices of people calling the government for help and no help ever coming? Video of bodies contorting from nerve agent exposure? How do you—could you—respond to that? Tools like Qik.com, UStream.com and Justin.tv when coupled with video capable cell phones like the iPhone 3GS and the Nokia N97 all make that a very frightening reality.
I don’t have any solutions—that’s why I emailed Gerald. I figured if anyone would have an answer, he would. But he just told me to write a post on it. Thank you Gerald, for letting me drive for a while. And, not to get political, but I wish only the very best and safest resolution to the rallies in Iran. If violence must happen, I hope only that justice is served and that it ends quickly. My thoughts and condolences go out to the family and friends of those who have died.