How the Big Boys, and You, Should Be Measuring Communication Success

I like, as a government communicator, looking at what our friends in the private sector are doing from time to time. I know that lots of what they do doesn’t apply to our day jobs, but you can’t beat the impetus on their part to succeed. If they can’t get their consumers to change their behaviors, well, they won’t be working in this field for long.

Then when I see a huge, successful company like Coca-Cola changing the way they market, well, I tend to take notice. Take, for example, this recent blog post on the Harvard Business Review by Joe Tripodi, the Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer at Coke. The coolest part?

In the near term, “consumer impressions” will remain the backbone of our measurement because it is the metric universally used to compare audiences across nearly all types of media. But impressions only tell advertisers the raw size of the audience. By definition, impressions are passive. They give us no real sense of engagement, and consumer engagement with our brands is ultimately what we’re striving to achieve.

Mr. Tripodi says that cutting edge marketers look at that audience, or eyeball, metric to learn what the largest audience they might be able to reach—and that’s it. The real value is in knowing how much of that audience is interacting and engaging with your communications efforts. He credits this evolution in thinking to, without saying so directly, social media. Mr. Tripodi feels that consumers today feel the need to have one-to-one relationships with the products and organizations they work with. This change came about as a result of, and will accelerate because of, social media.

Today’s American media consumer is too savvy, too busy to be swayed by an information product that is passive, like a highway billboard. They understand that their attention and engagement is worth something to marketers, and they’ll make those marketers earn their loyalty. This change has been a long time coming (see the rise of direct mail political fundraising), and is now like an out of control freight train. Lead, follow, or get out of the way that’s for sure.

So, what does that mean for the marketers and communicators amongst us? Well, the private sector is already moving there. In five years, metrics like consumer impressions will be a starting point, not a selling point. The public sector, well, it will take us a bit longer, but if we don’t make that change our fact sheet/press release oriented communications will even more ignored than they are now. How can we catch up? Mr. Tripodi offers these suggestions:

  • Accept that consumers can generate more messages than you ever could. Accept that and use it to your advantage.

  • Develop content that is “Liquid and Linked.” Liquid content is creative work that is so compelling, authentic and culturally relevant that it can flow through any medium. Linked content carries the same messages through all channels.

  • Accept that you don’t own your brands; your consumers do.

  • Build a process that shares successes and failures quickly throughout your company.

  • Be a facilitator who manages communities, not a director who tries to control them.

  • Speak up to set the record straight, but give your fans a chance to do so first.


Stop Pretending You Control Any Information

Recently, there’s been a story tearing up the British tabloids that, for soccer-related reasons, hasn’t gotten much traction in the US press. A very famous British football star has been accused of an affair, and is currently in court as a result of this alleged tryst. The court has issued an injunction against naming the parties involved in the affair (specifically the footballer and his mistress).

The problem is, and folks in the emergency world are just starting to realize this, all you need is one leak and the entire “confidentialness” of the information is shot. One Twitter account has been posting details of the case, including the names of Ryan Griggs and Imogen Thomas. Others in the social media world have been forwarding this information to such a degree that Griggs’ problem has become the secret that everyone knows.

Mashable talks about the contortions the tabloid press is twisting itself into to comply with the order while acknowledging the scoop:

Over the weekend, the Sunday Herald, which is published in Scotland, printed a recognizable photo (above right) of the Manchester United player but did not name him. “Everyone knows that this is the footballer accused of using the courts to keep allegations of a sexual affair secret. But we weren’t supposed to tell you that…,” reads a caption beneath the photo.

Other outlets are beginning to publish the football star’s name, citing his Wikipedia page, Twitter and, as of this morning, MP John Hemmings as sources.

This issue has huge ramifications, most prominent in my mind is the court-induced impotence of the tabloid industry. It’s not like they don’t have enough problems, now they are the only ones who are forced to play by centuries-old rules. Hastening the end much? The second issue is about ownership of news. Emergency managers and CERC disciples (like myself) continue to cling to this (false) belief that we will be the first communicating about an emergency.

The old saying is that a lie will travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on. Should we change that to an on-the-scene tweet will make it halfway around the world before our vetted and approved half-truth gets its pants on?

One of the most prolific (and valuable) Twitter users I know (@TheFireTracker2) posted last night on this topic:

Citizens ping their personal networks FIRST for reliable info, and to validate official info. Official info isn’t “first” Realtime is.

And even if my intentionally-inflammatory saying doesn’t go viral, the fact remains that no one is THE source for information anymore. The courts and the media will figure it out eventually, let’s hope emergency managers do, too.

On CDCs Zombie Apocalypse and Why Your Communications Campaigns Stink

The CDC made a big splash in the last week or so with the publication of a post on zombie preparedness on one of their blogs.

Sober, staid government agency making a culturally-relevant, well-intentioned joke? Does not compute.

Seriously, when is the last time the CDC was the subject of multiple non-funding-related stories in the Wall Street Journal? H1N1? Vaccines and autism and liability? Never for a good reason, that’s for sure.

Why the change? Well, the ridiculous zombie angle is probably why, but I argue that it’s an informative difference. (Though public health departments have never gone wrong with a bit of zombie-related humor before, see Oregon Public Health here.) People are tired of the same old dry, boring, finger-wagging communications that are increasingly anachronistic in today’s media-saturated world. Media consumers are too savvy, too busy, to be shamed into healthy behaviors (the latest research shows these types of ads, though satisfying to public health planners frustrated by decades of being ignored, may do more harm than good).

This campaign is instructive for public health educators all over because it shows that being culturally-relevant and understanding of what’s popular and being consumed in the public (see the large number of zombie movies and TV shows that have done exceedingly well in the last decade) can be infused with public health messaging to great effect. No one can say that the messages contained within the post are wrong, or could be clearer; it’s just that they’ve got this zombie wrapping.

And folks, that makes all the difference. Doctors with coats that match the shade of their hair wagging fingers begone!

And then there’s this great line in one of the Wall Street Journal articles:

Best of all for Khan, who admits to posting the blog without approval from government higher-ups: his real message seems to be getting through.

Not that I would EVER advocate for health educators going rogue, it makes a certain subtle point that this is the most quickly read (lots of readers in a short amount of time) article on CDC’s website. More than life-threatening outbreaks, more than peanut butter recalls, so many hits that it crashed the server. Mid-week. A public health server. From something other than age and lack of use.

Is there something correlation between that level of success and not running this by the same people who’ve been crafting public health messages for the last thirty years? Like I said, I would NEVER advocate that. And my Coast Guard instructors last week didn’t talk about guerilla marketing at all, either.

And if you can’t go around them, there’s always the ROI argument:

Fortunately, the zombie apocalypse preparedness campaign cost “zero,” Khan says — or rather, no more than it costs to come up with a regular public health blog post.

Which I think hints at another reason why most public health messaging campaigns fail.

The Changing Nature of Emergency Public Information


Taken from a recent presentation by Gerald Baron, this is a great, simple representation of the fundamental change taking place in emergency public information.

It reminds me of a story from a training I took yesterday on the NRT JIC Model given by two Coast Guard PAOs. One of the PAOs related a story of a minor oil spill he responded to early in his career. The response issued a press release on the spill and clean up; he felt that if they didn’t, only a handful of people would have known about it. They considered not even issuing that release. Do you think you could have a spill in a navigable waterway today and seriously hope that no one notices? Exactly.

Fundamental change.

The Public Information Go Bag Updated

In the past, I’ve talked about building a go bag for public information
. The
idea came from the FirePIO blog, and
was supplemented by the great Mike Staley from CDC. Well, now I’ve got an update. I’ve got a
brand new bag, as Mr. Brown would say.

Everything listed here is in addition to my more general preparedness stuff
(e.g., whistle, blanket, flashlight, car kit, etc.) and is supposed to
specifically support a public information emergency response. Not everything
listed will be useful in every situation, but it works for me (consider a
public health emergency vs. a conflagration or law enforcement response or
corporate/PR crisis). I think, though, that the bones are there and this kit
will enable you to grab and go into any JIC or war room ready to contribute.

The reason it’s taken me so long to follow up on that original post is
because I’ve been struggling with storage. I wanted something that was
compact, easy to grab, and could hold everything with a minimum of fuss.
Thanks to a post at, I think I found
something that works: the AmazonBasics Universal Travel Case. Just $15, and I got it within
two days, it carries everything.

Case closed

Case open

Here’s what I mean by everything:

  • Flip-type video camera (Kodak Zi6)
    with 4 GB SD card (for four hours of continuous recording)
  • Old digital camera with 4GB SD card (can hold hundreds of high-quality
  • Virgin Mobile Mifi card
    (Converts Sprint 3G network into wifi for up to five devices; great deal
    when I bought it: $40/Month unlimited bandwidth with no contract. Pay $40
    when you need it and you’ve got access for a month.)
  • Two Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks
  • Two Fisher space pens, slightly modified
  • Griffin PowerBlock dual USB charger
    (can charge both my iPad and my iPhone at the same time, or the Mifi and the
    emergency iPhone battery
    at the same time, or any combination thereof)
  • Magnetic Joby GorillaPod tripod
    (This can hold either the digital or the video camera and connects
    magnetically to anything metal—like hand rails, street sign poles, file
    cabinets, you name it. Great for setting up, hitting record and walking
  • Two USB to iPhone retractable cords (for charging iPad and iPhone)
  • One USB to microUSB retractable cord (for charging Mifi)
  • One USB to miniUSB retractable cord (for recharging iPhone battery)
  • Two extra SD cards (2 GB each) in a case
  • SD card iPad Camera Connection kit (for transferring photos and
    videos to the iPad for editing with Photogene iPad app and use)
  • iPad VGA connector (for
    hooking up to projectors)
  • Business cards and emergency responder ID
  • Typed and laminated list of emergency phone numbers and email addresses
    (just in case)

And here’s how I have everything stored, by section:

Left pocket:

Left pocket

Top right pocket:

Top right pocket

Bottom right pocket:

Bottom right pocket

Behind right pockets:

Behind right pocket

And for size comparisons, here is the whole thing next to my iPad:

With iPad

With iPad askew

When combined with my iPad (which has image editing software, video editing
software, document editing software, PDF editing software, email, internet
access, social media accounts and all of my reference materials), I’m pretty
sure I’m ready for just about anything.

Like I said above, not everything here is necessary for everyone, and there
are things that you might need that I don’t (PIO armbands, for example). But
hopefully this will give you a start on what you may need.

Writing for the People

I am lucky to work with some of the smartest people in public health. Really, world-renowned in many cases, and more often than not, we hire people more intelligent than those whose role they are filling. Very, very lucky. And I’m reminded of this every time I read something written by one of my colleagues; it is invariably well-reasoned, well-organized, thoughtful, comprehensive and engaging.

And then, many times, I have to rewrite whatever it is they wrote because only a public health professional can understand it.

(And don’t let anyone tell you that rewriting a scientific piece for a general audience whilst still keeping the information correct isn’t a skill. It’s hard!)

I recently came across an article that talks about the need to target public information pieces for the public they’re intended to reach. The author argues against the idea that the work we do is “dumbing down.” In fact, he says that by not writing at an appropriate level, we are making our audience feel “dumbed down,” like they can’t understand something that is obviously important enough for someone in government to write about it.

I really appreciated this description of what subject-matter experts do when they resist rewriting of their prose:

The writer is hiding behind their words, using them to conceal a lack of appreciation and respect for their audience and a lack of understanding of their topic. They are revealing their limits and fears – and they are not getting their message across.

So, while I’ve never run into someone who’s vigorously opposed changing written materials, I know that there is some level of resentment felt. And I’m sure there are people out there who don’t appreciate why things are being rewritten, and may take that frustration out on communications staffers. The fact that dense materials are still available on government websites is a testament to the lack of plain language acceptance.

My suggestion, if you’re in such a situation, is to reframe the problem. We’re not dumbing down language, we’re increasing the influence of the document by ensuring that everyone who sees it understands it and can implement the recommendations the subject-matter experts have developed. We’re making sure that everyone, regardless of level of education or language, can fully appreciate all of the hard work and time the subject-matter expert has put into developing the content. If people can’t understand it, they’re not going to read it or heed it. And in fields like public health and public safety, that might just be the most important part of the equation.

All the News, However You Can

There was a really cool story that came out of the tornado outbreaks a couple of weeks ago having to do with emergency communications that I felt I had to pass along, if only to force you to update your media monitoring strategy (though I obviously hope it does more).

With the latest advancements in tornado predicting equipment and technology, it was possible for local television stations to give up-to-the-second take cover recommendations—oftentimes before the National Weather Service could make those warnings. The problem, though, is that the wind and damage caused by a tornado often precedes the tornado itself and can damage power transmission lines; and well, turning off people’s TV. The local television stations were in a bind as to how to communicate the adjusting prediction models and tell people in real danger to take cover.

So, they diversified. If they couldn’t send messages via TV, they looked to other methods of communication. Like radio:

“When the area started losing power, we were simulcasting on our radio partner WUSY-FM,” said Derrall Stalvey, news director at WRCB Chattanooga, an NBC affiliate owned by Sarkes Tarzian.

And social media:

“Even without power, people had access to Facebook and Twitter and we had two employees dedicated to nothing but updating social media in addition to the station website. That’s another way people were hearing about warnings.”

“We did several reports via Skype, several where our reporter was in the field and literally did a live report through smart phone. Does it look as good as an HD signal? Absolutely not, but it’s a lot better to have that than to have nothing.”

The best part of this multiplatform simulcasting?

“We had people tell us stories about hiding in the bathtub, the power off, watching us on their iPhones, hearing the reports and warnings,” Henderson said. “They saw it as a lifeline.”

What does this mean for you and your operation? You’ve got TVs in your EOC and JIC for media monitoring, right? Well, what if the news is counting on using social media and radio for the breaking-est news? Do you have a radio in the room? Someone monitoring it? A station to monitor the Facebook and Twitter feeds of all of the local news stations? A person (or persons) to do that monitoring?

From the public’s perspective, this is great news. You get the latest news where you are (even in a bathtub with your whole family) when you need it. But from a responders point of view, have you updated your plans to account for all new avenues of monitoring? If not, what are the consequences of that? When seconds count, are you ready to receive the message?