Thanksgiving 2012

This year has been truly amazing. My family is happy, healthy and safe. Work has been interesting and fun. I’ve been given several opportunities to present on the topic that most interests me across the country to great and growing audiences. I’ve made new friends, while at the same time maintained, grew and reestablished existing friendships. I’ve learned more this year than I think I did during any school year.

I. Am. Thankful.

Years ago, there was a public health blog, Effect Measure, that had a nice little Thanksgiving tradition. On Thanksgiving, the author would give an update on the blog and thank the many people who he interacted with over the previous year. The story was that the (pseudononymous) author, while waiting for his wife to finish Thanksgiving dinner, started a blog on a whim. The result was wildly successful. I consider that the very first public health blog (without minimizing the amazing contributions of Jordan Barab’s Confined Space blog, which technically started first). The author’s gusto and pseudonymity gave me the courage to blog.

Nearly six years later, I still am, and I haven’t regretted one second of it. While I’ve never attained the success that many of my blogging heroes have enjoyed, I have no complaints. This is because I’m not writing for everyone. I’m writing for you. And me. And as long you enjoy what I write, and what I write is true to what I believe, this is a wildly successful endeavor.

So, without further ado, what’s happening behind the curtains: more than 16,000 views all time. While the most visited post is an old post on my attending the FEMA G-290 course, the post with the craziest trajectory is the one where I called for an end to the discussion about whether social media had a role in emergency response, The Inflection Point. The craziest part is that I’ve had visitors from more than 100 countries. I believe it, too, considering the amazing friends I’ve made overseas based off this blog and my Twitter. (I’ve even been given the reins to a phenomenal local government comms blog in England for the day!)

For those of you who like their TL;DR: thank you, for being you, for stopping by to see me.


The Impact of Twitter on Journalism

I saw this video last week, and instantly fell in love with it. It really made the rounds on the Internet this past weekend, so apologies if you’ve already seen it.

If you haven’t seen it, this is an amazing video by Off Book, a web series from PBS that explores cutting edge art, internet culture, and the people that create it. It’s a collection of short interviews with Web journalists who have found Twitter to be a useful tool in the job. The b-roll is a ton of journalistically-important tweets intended to demonstrate just how critical monitoring Twitter is to journalists.

Besides it being a really well put together video, it demonstrates a few things that I’ve felt were important for a while. First, we, as communicators, need to be aware of the tools that the press and the public are using.

Second, and more importantly I think, is the role that the press are starting to assume in this world. When information was at a premium and difficult to find, reporters held the role of information conduits. The public got information about the world and breaking news from the press. The press, thankfully, thought it important to ensure that they told the truth and told it objectively.

Today though, there is a glut of information out there, the public breaks news before the press even gets it’s pants on, and some news outlets have begun to act as balance points against other outlets (see MSNBC and Fox News). In that world, reporters have struggled to find their role. Should they strive to break news? Struggle to act as the sole distributor of news?

I think, because of their professionalism and specialized training, reporters should strive to be right. To be the distributors of confirmed information. To be the ones that separate the wheat from the chaff, investigate through the lies and misdirection, be the final word on situations. To cull through the firehose of Twitter, identify sources and confirm the story. That’s the impact of Twitter on journalism.


If you’ve seen my two previous posts (and you know about my snarkiness), you’ll have picked up on my naming of Post-tropical Superstorm (nee Hurricane) Sandy. Hey look, I did it again!

Boy, do I get a kick out of that name. It was a hurricane, which everyone understands. Big storm, spins around, lots of wind (the rest of the elements, like storm surge, aren’t reported). But then it wasn’t a hurricane. It was a Superstorm! … and it was post-tropical … and … there were storm surge warnings issued … and high wind advisories … and, wait, what the hell just happened?

According to the National Weather Service, the energy source of the storm changed:

The primary difference between a tropical cyclone and a wintertime cyclone is the energy source. Tropical cyclones extract heat from the ocean and grow by releasing that heat in the atmosphere near the storm center. Wintertime cyclones […], on the other hand, get most of their energy from temperature contrasts in the atmosphere, and this energy gets distributed over larger areas.

Okay. Got it? I’m sure that clarification really helped the folks in the path of the storm understand the potential for record-breaking storm surge, hurricane-force winds and massive coastal flooding, don’t you?

In all fairness, the decision to not issue Hurricane Watches or Warnings was made with a specific rationale in place:

Rick Knabb, the director of the NHC, told reporters that the decision was made in order to minimize confusion in the event that Sandy was reclassified as a post-tropical cyclone before making landfall, which would have required that all hurricane warnings be canceled, and other warnings be issued instead.

Because I’m sure we can all agree that making sure that following the National Hurricane Center’s internal rules is of primary importance in the face of Sandy. The NWS has, rightfully I think, been dragged across the coals for this decision by the media and weatherfolks up and down the east coast. I have no idea if this naming/warning disaster had any effect on people’s evacuations, and I don’t think you could ever prove that one way or the other, so I’m very strongly not making that implication. But in a situation like this, don’t you think you’d want to try avoid taking any chances with misinterpretation?

To make matters worse, this isn’t the only ongoing criticism of NWS terminology. It seems that every spring and early summer, there are articles published all across the media explaining–and complaining–about the difference between watches and warnings. In 2011, the Washington Post’s phenomenal Capital Weather Gang published this great blog post calling for a new naming convention because research had shown that the majority of people, many of whom live directly in the path of weather where the difference between the two could mean life or death, don’t understand the difference.

So, what does this mean for us? Well, to me, this is a subject matter expert problem. While the thrust of this post is toward the NWS (who, frankly, perform a Herculean effort every day [ps, go NWS-Cherry Hill!]), this is a problem amongst all highly-specialized experts. Public health is just as guilty (don’t even get me started on swine flu vs H1N1 vs Influenza A (H1N1) swine variant). Structural engineers, geologists, scientists, all of them.

They are exceedingly good at what they do, and find beauty in the sublime bits of a disaster. Not because they are impressed with the damage wrought, but because they love what they do and are impressed by outliers. Just like when we communicators watch PR disaster videos over and over.

What they need is communicators’ help. It is incumbent upon us to take that nerd-speak and translate it into something that will promote action–NOW–amongst the public. Some PR person should have stood up and said, to hell with your rules, people know and fear Hurricane Warnings; they will move if we say it’s a hurricane, we should call it a hurricane.

If you’re that person, expect pushback. Your subject matter experts understand all of the bits and bobs and particulars that caused them to come to their decision, and none of it is wrong. But no one without their years of dedication, specialization and training will understand the nuance. It’s your job to advocate for those souls. Not standing up and fighting for this is the same as your agency issuing an egregiously wrong statement. Misunderstood is the same as wrong.

Moving Images

I think that one of the main things that really brought the devastation of Post-tropical Superstorm (nee Hurricane) Sandy home in a way that Hurricane Katrina didn’t until several days after socking New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was the pictures.

Think about how we used social media in 2005. Facebook was still just open to folks with a university email address. Blogs were the hot new thing. MySpace ruled the roost. Twitter wouldn’t even exist as Twittr until 2006.

When breaking news happened, we turned on the TV. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, you’ll remember that the media couldn’t get into New Orleans to show us what was happening. Folks like Fox News’ Shepard Smith were the first to actually move around in New Orleans and document the atrociousness of the situation. We, as the public, didn’t become truly invested in what was happening there until we could see it.

Contrast that with what we saw on Monday and Tuesday as Sandy battered North Jersey and New York City. Picture after picture after video after picture. All in real-time. All in shaky format. All heartbreaking. All documenting. All testifying.

Firefighters waist deep in floodwaters

We never needed to become invested in Sandy’s devastation because we lived it. We imagined our family living there. We understood the fear. We wondered why the ambulances outside of NYU were just sitting there and NOT GOING YET!? We hoped people weren’t in those houses with floating pieces of the boardwalk banging against the side.

We didn’t have to wait for the news to get choppered in. We were there thanks to the survivors’ social media feeds.

The evidence for this is all over the Sandy lessons learned articles. Just do a search for Instagram and Sandy online. Mashable posted on this, passing along this quote from Instagram CEO, Kevin Systrom:

Users snapped 800,000 pics tagged with #Sandy, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom said Monday.

The Huffington Post noted that more than 10 images per second with a Sandy-related tag were posted to Instagram per second. And it’s not just a US-based phenomenon, either. Research done by The Guardian on the Queenslands floods showed that images were the most shared type of content out there.

The implications of the wide use of images during a crisis is as profound as the move to using social media itself. We, as emergency responders and crisis communicators, should be aware that any work we’ve done toward developing social media monitoring tools will increasingly become irrelevant. How do you expect to capture an image of your little problem exploding into a full blown crisis with some text-based social media monitoring tool (like Google Alerts, like Tweetgrid, like Topsy, like IceRocket)? How can you monitor social video apps like Bambuser or Viddy or Socialcam to gain situational awareness that your responders can’t get (like what would’ve been very useful in Breezy Point, Long Island)?

I think this development puts us even further behind the curve than we were back when we thought that social media was just a fad. Because back then, only a few people used social media and we could be expected to ignore the early adopters. Today, though? I’ve already shown you that images are the most shared of social media content, and people–in the middle of a freaking hurricane–are posting images in double digits every second. And there’s more than a few people out there that use social media these days. Add one part to the other, multiply by the third…

I don’t think this quote by Systrom will be true for very much longer:

It was “likely the most digitally captured event in history.”

The Inflection Point

So, yeah, Post-Tropical Superstorm (nee Hurricane) Sandy. That happened. Mostly sucked. Got lots of lessons learned to share. But let’s start with the helicopter/10,000 foot overview.

For those of you who’ve taken communication theory classes (and those of you who have breathlessly read and memorized all of my posts), you’ll be familiar with the idea of diffusion of innovation.

Diffusion of Innovation S-Curve

See that point right above the words Take Off? Where the slope of the curve changes (and the artist who made this chart had to change Microsoft Paint curve-y line tools)? In our Diffussion of Innovation theory, that’s called the “inflection point.” It’s the point where growth in adoption starts to slow down, usually because most of the people who would adopt that innovation have already done so. The curve levels off when there is no more adoption (like your grandfather and electronica music, it just ain’t happening).

That inflection point? We’re there in terms of social media adoption by emergency response folks. That’s what Sandy taught me. Everyone that’s ahead of the curve, even just barely, has already accepted that social media is a great and growing part of emergency response and they’ve begun integrating it into their work. The rest of the people who could conceivably start using social media (the emergency managers who just wanted to see some return on investment first, or were just waiting for the go-ahead from the executive) will do so now. Those who refuse out-of-hand will be seen as ineffective and out of touch. And since they all report to some executive (read: person who has to stump for votes and answer to the public), I don’t think they’ll be around much longer.

Why, (I imagine) you say(ing)?

Well, there are a few stories of social media’s impact during and after the storm destroyed wide swaths of North Jersey and New York City.

(Yes, that’s 25 different links, most of them from national media sources, specifically about the social media aspect of the storm–all positive to some extent.)

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a trend.

I think, beyond the obvious implications of actually using social media in emergencies, this event has real consequences for us. You know, the folks that have made a certain number of bones being the social media evangelist in their fields (like me!). No longer can we trot out the same old anecdotes about how one day everyone will be using social media in crises.

We’re there.

We now need to concentrate on teaching how to do it right. How to work with the public, as opposed to just broadcasting to them. How to make #SMEM into an everyday conversation, a key, normal, regular part of what we do before an emergency.