Constant Disasters and Our Mental Health


I don’t think anyone would say we live during a peaceful time. Bad news permeates the airwaves and broadsheet. This isn’t exactly new, of course (though there is some evidence of an increasing number of weather-related disasters due to climate change), but our perception of this bad news has changed.

We no longer experience disasters third-hand. We experience them in real-time, in living color, with no filter or delay. The advent of social media and mobile devices has brought disasters into our living room, on our bus rides, into those moments when we are quiet and peaceful.

This phenomenon is something that really started on 9/11. Because of the breaking nature of that disaster, the fact that it took place in the city with the most media in the US, and the delay from start until terrible, terrible finish means that many of us were watching at some point. In the days following, the news media showed loops of the disaster, over and over, attempting to try to make sense of it all.

And we haven’t stopped with the violence and tragedy since. The first picture of the Boston bombings I saw was of a blood-stained street. We all remember that iconic image of the children in Newtown being lead through the parking lot, covering their eyes. The images are burned into our memory and while most of us grieve and move on, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes those images hurt more than is healthy.

Liz Halloran, of NPR, published a piece recently that (besides being an example of how I wish I could write) described what we’re putting ourselves through:

But this time, in our full-on, post-Sept. 11 surveillance society and freshly Twitterized media, we were able to experience each event in excruciating, exquisite detail.

Through the saturation of social media, we were also able to experience it equally, whether reporting from the streets of Boston or the scorched explosion site in Texas, from newsrooms in New York or Los Angeles or Berlin, or from our own living rooms and college dorm rooms.

This week, these awful events have cemented the reality that the media is now everyone, anyone with a computer or a smartphone, a Twitter account or a Facebook page.

Ms. Halloran speaks of the public, of the great us. While I’m obviously concerned about them, my first concern is with those of us who work in this field. Who, whenever the bell rings–anywhere in the world–get on social media and start tracking. We see all of the images. All of the video. The stuff that doesn’t make it onto the news. From the ground. From the scene. Shot by cell phone cameras that look scarily like our own. In neighborhoods that look scarily like our own. By people who look scarily like we do.

We know it’s wrong. And the research bears out that this isn’t healthy. But we don’t need research to know that. We have the nightmares. We check on our kids in the middle of the night, just to make sure they’re sleeping peacefully. Unfortunately, there is no critical incident stress management team or experts for wounds inflicted via social media. This is a great tragedy in the making.

It’s also an opportunity for behavioral health supports to take the lead after a disaster. Not on a scene, but in the world. To support the public, to support the responders, to support the virtual responders. And maybe we’re seeing it already?


Setting the Record Straight

Given last week’s post on getting the news right, I think it’s important to acknowledge that “truth” can be a subjective term. Not in the sense of my truth versus your truth, of course. More in the sense of the truth being a process that we arrive at over time. For example, when an explosion happens, no one knows the cause or resulting damage right away, we learn that over time. When a new disease starts making people sick, it takes public health folks a while to figure out who it is making sick and how best to avoid it or heal it. They aren’t lying, they just haven’t made it to the truth yet.

Mass media, I think, works very similar to this process. Something is said, usually wrong, and eventually, as time passes and more information is obtained, the truth is arrived at. Social media, as I say during my presentations, is almost another iteration of media and suffers from the same problem; and I’d say it’s worse because of the low-threshold for publication and wide variety of users.

The difference between the two (social media and mass media) is that social media has access to a LOT more information and thus has the potential to arrive at the final “truth” more quickly. In addition, the mass media throws around slogans like, “The Worldwide Leader in News,” and tends to imply in their reporting that once something is reported, it’s the truth. Full stop.

Is it clear now where the problem comes in? Where the disconnect is? When the mass media is trying to out-Twitter Twitter with breaking news, they’re reporting the not-quite-truth. The not-finished-and-ready-for-publication truth.

I was reminded of this dynamic thanks to a post by Jon King, on his blog about public sector transformation. He brought up a great point about the recent AP Twitter account hacking, that even though the tweet about an explosion at the White House was wrong, social media has a trick up it’s sleeve that the media, with their this-is-the-final-truth reporting doesn’t have: the great ability to self-correct.

Jon lays out the case here:

If (god forbid) an explosion did go off at the White House, there would be multiple messages with photos and video flying around the twittersphere within moments. I won’t add a link to the disturbing scenes captured in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings but I think I’ve made my point.

A bomb has gone off at the White House? Go on Twitter and search the hashtag #whitehouse or #obama or #bomb or anything similar. Use your common sense. If there’s tumbleweed blowing across the desert and the sound of crickets, the chances are, it’s a hoax.

And this is definitely not the only case of social media taking a little bit to get to the “truth.” What are some other examples you know of?

UPDATE POST-WRITING: Holy smokes, Andy Carvin (one my media heroes), wrote something amazing and similar recently, definitely a must read.

Getting It First or Getting It Right

We talked yesterday about Dr. Reynolds’ CERC model for emergency risk communication (and what a huge fan of the curriculum I am), and the three main tenets: be first, be credible, be right. Sounds good in a training, and it reads wonderfully as a best practice, but how doable is it really?

Turns out not so much. And the Boston bombings were a perfect example of the tradeoffs made when folks, including the media, try to do all three at once. Being first is easiest, being right is hard (and frankly, can be a moving target), and credibility suffers if you mess up either of the other two. Unfortunately, examples of failure can be found on just about any day from that week. From the reports of unexploded bombs being found, to inflated death counts, to mistaken accusations, to reports of the second bomber being caught (before he actually was, obviously). A lot of this can be attributed to the fog of the situation, but how much went unverified because it was too much work to untangle the less-than-truths, and besides it’s so darn foggy, anyways.

Most of the late night joke fodder centered around the mass media (especially CNN and the New York Post), but I think we’ve all got some skin in the game. How many of us didn’t check multiple reports before retweeting something? I could give the blow-by-blow, but it’s too sad. A simple Google search for, “news organization got it wrong in Boston,” is depressing enough.

It got so bad that the FBI had to release a statement–like some small-town sheriff dealing with an overzealous national media for the first time–admonishing the press. The Boston Police, like experts in crisis communications, took to the source of many of the rumors, Twitter, to try to unring the social media bell.

The problem is that while we understand that unsourced social media reports aren’t to be necessarily trusted, the media, in their rush to be first, are starting to depend on these breaking news reports as initial sources. So when CNN says something’s true, it lends an air of credibility to something that’s little more than a rumor. And those reports have real consequences. One only needs to look at the market drop that followed the AP’s hacked tweet on a bomb at the White House.

More seriously, reports of a “dark-skinned” suspect lead many, including the junior crowd-sourcing detectives on Reddit to mistakenly finger Sunil Tripathi, a missing college student. Just this week, Sunil was found dead (apparently not connected with the witch hunt). The editors and owners of Reddit thought this such an egregious act, they subsequently published an apology and reviewed their longstanding policy of not allowing g personal identification anywhere on the site. All in the name of getting it first.

The news isn’t all bad, though. Organizations like CBS and NBC and the New York Times got props for doing it right. Speaking of the Times, this whole episode reminded me of an article I’ve been saving since December. The Public Editor of the Times, after the Newtown shooting and there were similar calls for a return to real journalism, published an article that said this:

In the future, [reporter Wendy Ruderman] would prefer that everyone adhere to this rule: “We shouldn’t put anything in the paper without a name attached to it.” In other words, there would be no reliance on anonymous law enforcement officials.

Which I think is a pretty cool thing to say. But my favorite part is this:

The Times can’t get pulled into the maelstrom of Twitter-era news. It has to stand apart from those news sources that are getting information out in a fast, piecemeal and frequently inaccurate way. That process has its own appeal and its own valuable purpose. But The Times should be its authoritative and accurate counterbalance.

Because in a world where being first too frequently leads to disaster, being right is the most valuable thing a news organization can do. That’s where their credibility comes from, that’s the hook that will move mass media into the future. They will never compete with social media, and they shouldn’t try to. As one of my favorite Tweeters said:

Which Disaster Will They Cover

_66974275_66974274Things have been either really tough for folks who work in risk and crisis communications recently. Between the absurd flooding in upper Midwest, the explosion in West, Texas, and the Boston situation, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Add to that the bioterror attack on the Senate and White House, the earthquakes in Iran and China, H7N9 influenza and insanely unusual snow in Minnesota, one should have their pick of hazards to message on!

We only have to turn on cable news or flip open a national newspaper, or search on Google News to see the havoc being wrought… Wait, not really. Where’s all of the information about Chinese earthquake? Do you know, without looking, the final count of dead in West, Texas? What city is worst flooded in Michigan? Did you know the FBI released their suspect in the ricin letters case? The Elvis impersonator?

It’s really hard to find any of this information, but why? Sure, the Boston bombings, manhunt and region-wide lockdown are HUGE news stories, but are they the biggest story? Certainly not in terms of deaths, or property loss, or scope, or scale, or weirdness, heck, that’s not even the only terrorism that happened that week! So, why is the media focusing so singularly on the Boston situation? Is there a reason why, and if so, what can we learn from that?

The cynical among us would say that it’s because it’s Boston, and it’s got five-star hotels and bureaus for all of the major networks, so it’s easy to get the best reporters there. And on it’s face, that’s not really a bad answer. West, Texas is REALLY hard to get to, especially in the dead of night. Sichuan, China, even harder. The Iranian/Pakistani border, almost impossible. But that doesn’t really explain the ricin (it happened in Washington, DC, for Pete’s sake!), or the Midwest flooding (there’s still a few pretty big towns up there, I’ve heard).

I think the problem is more squishy than comfort and not using airline miles. I think it has to do with the situations themselves, specifically how they’re perceived.

Risk perception is a crazy thing. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, founder of the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) model likes to tell the story of what to worry about in Hawaii. Quick, in Hawaii, what do you think is the greatest hazard? If you said sharks, you’d be, well, normal but also wrong. Coconuts, now there’s something you need to be afraid of. There are reports (though completely unreliable, and I don’t really believe it) that coconuts kill 15 times as many people per year than sharks. The reason we fear sharks is because they are unusual and attract media attention. Coconuts? Not so much.

Dr. Sandman (our dear old friend), has a great table to help us see what causes some topics to engender high perceptions of risk, and others lower. On that table, we see that when comparing Boston to West, Boston is more likely to cause increased public concern due to Familiarity, Understanding, Voluntariness (remember that most of the West deaths were responders), Effects on Children, Dread and Origin. And when comparing Boston to the Midwest floods, well, there’s just no comparison. And the ricin letters, frankly, didn’t cause any deaths–they were handled by competent responders and systems–almost became background noise. Overseas natural disasters are almost always reported as “statistical deaths” and are thus harder to get riled up about.

So, what can we learn from this whole disaster-filled April? A couple of things. First, not all disasters are created equal. Some are worse, and some are just perceived as worse.

When you have your disaster, make sure you can step back and see where yours falls on the continuum. Second, the media will pick and choose which disasters they report on. We’ve talked about this before, specifically during tornado season. Be ready for the media to pack up and high-tail it out of there when something “better” comes along. Likewise, if the perception of your disaster changes, be ready for a huge surge of interest at any point during your response.

The media may be a fickle partner, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not some science behind it all.

Frivolity and Connections

rainThose of you who have known me for a while know what a sucker I am for serendipity, for unplanned happenings that benefit everyone, for luck. Planning can so easily turn into planning oneself to death.

I’ve written about serendipity twice on this blog, and I’m sure I will again soon. Today though, I wanted to talk about the second part of that equation: lack of planning. Yes me, the disaster planner, telling you, disaster planners and communication experts, to stop planning. But I have good example that I wanted to highlight that shows how going “off-message” every once in a while can be beneficial. (and it’s nearly a year old example; I’ve been holding on to it for that long!)

I’ve done some writing for a British blog that, frankly, every risk and local government communicator should be following: comms2point0. (What’s up, mates!) Last summer, they had a guest post talk about a single Facebook post. A short video of a rainstorm:

The clip showed the steps outside St Peter’s Church in the city centre after they had been turned into an impromptu waterfall following a torrential rain storm. It was just 16 seconds of footage, shot on my phone under the cover of my trusty umbrella as I ventured out into the deluge.

I decided to head outside after first seeing the ‘waterfall’ from the office window. It was an impressive site and in six years working here I had never witnessed anything like it. As a former journo, instincts took over and I figured that if something out of the ordinary was happening it would be worth sharing it. It was a spur of the moment, gut reaction thing. Not planned, not thought up in a meeting or devised as part of a strategy.

The post went on to be their most successful Facebook post, by an insanely large margin, and the views continue to rise. For sixteen seconds of rain and flowing water. The author sounded just as amazed at the success as you might be:

The video was not designed to promote the work of the council. There was nothing on it to indicate that it had any connection with the council. People may question what then was the point of posting it, how did it help us to fulfill our departmental aim of enhancing the reputation of the authority?

The bottom line, I believe, is that if you want your social media sites to make an impact for the right reasons, you have to give people a reason to come and look at you. It sounds simple and it is. Content really is king.

The video was successful because it wasn’t a typical government post. It wasn’t staid and planned and metricized and approved and massaged. It was something that a real person found interesting and wanted to share with his friends. It was frivolous. And that frivolity is what made the public connect with it.

No one is all business, all the time. (Not even your boss.) They like to connect with people. People that like interesting things. Sure, a video of rain won’t benefit your organization directly, but it will create a connection. A weak tie. (Which can be one of the most powerful things in the world, see this classic article by Granovetter.[PDF]) And who knows what that connection will give you someday.

Now think about your own agency’s social media presence. When was the last time you were frivolous?

The Conversation is Happening Without You

One of the key points that I make in my presentations that I haven’t done a very good job of articulating on the blog is about conversations. And, frankly, that’s a shame because understanding the nature of how our publics live is key to success in working with them.

Right now, there is a conversation going on, somewhere, that involves you. It might have to do with novel influenza or eating healthy or getting prepared for an emergency or even your agency specifically. Right now. That shouldn’t be surprising, though. People have always talked about topics that reference your agency or your agency’s work. What’s made that something we should be aware of, though, is social media. No longer do they have that discussion over a kitchen table or at the bus stop; now it’s online, and it’s almost never a one-to-one conversation. It’s a one-to-many people conversation. And then many-to-many. And who’s in that many? Could be just about anyone.

Remember though, if you choose not to participate on social media, those conversations are still happening.

And according to a newly released study, those conversations that people are having behind your back? They’ve got real consequences. Take, for example, the current debate about vaccinating children. Even with an abundance of evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, and the only good study connecting vaccines to autism has been found to be almost completely made up, more and more families are modifying the vaccine schedule or altogether refusing the vaccines. Researchers and public health authorities have been struggling to figure out why, and this study by Emily Brunson in Pediatrics has offered up a compelling reason.

It’s because of our social networks.

At least 95% of parents in both groups indicated that they had consulted their “people network” for insight into making vaccination decisions. Parents reported they paid the most attention to their spouse or partner’s opinion. Pediatricians were next in line, followed by friends and relatives.

Here’s why that’s important: 72% of nonconformers’ [ed. note: people who didn’t follow the CDC recommendations] friends and relatives advised them to disregard CDC recommendations compared with just 13% of conformers’ friends and family members.

(snip from this article in Time Magazine)

To take it out of study language, people have questions about vaccines. Questions that we in public health either ignore, blow off, or quote some study language, and essentially leave unanswered. So, folks continue to ask the questions of their friends, family and social circles. And the people who answer back are those who are opposed to the recommended guidelines.

Now, relating this back to social media, these conversations only used to happen over kitchen tables, and at the bus stop. Now they’re happening everywhere online. And that’s the vector. That’s how vaccine schedule alteration and refusal exploded from a relatively fringe movement into a never-ending series of measles and whooping cough outbreaks.

Because those conversations were going on behind our backs. Because we ignored them. Because we didn’t engage with them. We believed that our science spoke for itself, when all it really did was cover up the sound of real questions and conversations.

Protect Your Identity

So if Boston hasn’t give you enough to think about for your next emergency, I’m going to add something else to your plate; sorry.

So, to paraphrase what I’ve been told about the Chinese character for crisis: it contains two symbols, one for danger and one for opportunity. Namely, your dangerous situation is potentially someone else’s opportunity. Think back to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. You remember the video feed, the top kill and “I’d like my life back.” You know what else was really big back then? @BPGlobalPR.

You remember that Twitter account, right? It was quite the big deal back then, especially among the PR and crisis communications communities. The guy behind that account spawned a cottage industry of joke Twitter accounts. Luckily (and no small thanks to BP), PR folks have convinced most companies to ignore these joke accounts. But that’s not the biggest worry they should have.

What if, instead of jokes at your expense, someone was trying to actively undermine your response? Trying to discredit not only your work, but the entire reason for your response? And instead of doing it on a centrally controlled social network, they did it on a website? It’s happened, and it’ll happen again.

In Boston, though, this week, it didn’t happen. You knew something crazy was gonna happen when some non-media person asked a question about the attack being planned as a ruse.

And then this happened:

I went back to my desk and quickly bought the domain for BostonMarathonConspiracy dot com and and posted a simple message saying that I purchased it only to make sure the kooks don’t get it.

Absent some helpful stranger on the other side of the country taking matters into their own hands, are you ready to prevent some “Truther” from hijacking your response? Are you ready to protect your identity?