Timing is Everything

When I follow emergencies unfolding online, I follow them using Twitter. It’s where news breaks these days. The problem is that it keeps breaking. Over and over and over again until the entire situation is a mish-mash of unhelpful posts.

Let me explain.

See this post?

Topical, relevant, timely, eminently share-able, excellent. And it was shared, at least four times. Viral emergency messaging for the win!

But what you don’t see on this snapshot is when those retweets came. I know that at least one of them came around 10:30am that day, which was when I saved the tweet. I saved it because, well, a tweet about a Severe Thunderstorm Warning at 10:30am doesn’t do much when the Warning ended at 10:15am, and the storm about ten minutes before that.

Now, imagine if the original OEM tweet didn’t have a time on it. Every retweet thereafter runs the risk of alerting people to information that is out-of-date. Runs the risk of unnecessarily scaring folks, inflaming folks, misleading folks. And in some emergencies the cost is much worse than confusion. Think of the Oklahoma tornadoes from last month, when some meteorologists told people (incorrectly) now was the time to go home to avoid the storm. Delays in delivering that information could have life-threatening consequences.

The absolutely amazing Greg Licamele discussed a similar topic recently around flash flood warnings in the DC area.

Two-day old info is obviously not true and storms are not minutes away. It’s impossible to “train” casual Twitter users to manually add a date and timestamp, so those of us in the response business must be diligent to timestamp our info when appropriate so our own tweets are not errantly retweeted days later.

Greg recommends that Twitter update their time-stamping tool, which would be ideal, but in the meantime, I think that our good friend Marcus Deyerin had a great suggestion for what we should be doing in the meantime, very similar to what Philly OEM did:

If you’re sending tweets with time-sensitive info, add your own time stamp (e.g. 1015hrs).

Maybe we should include more, like a time and a date. Maybe more consistent messaging, such as posting when a message is out of date. In an information vacuum filled with a need for more, more, more, people will take the last thing you posted as the latest information, often incorrectly. And we should be careful about what we retweet. You’ll notice that everyone that retweeted our Thunderstorm Warning above was an agency, so it was one of us that passed along out-of-date information. We can do better.

4 thoughts on “Timing is Everything”

  1. What format would be best and take up the least amount of space, but be understandable for the audience? Military time or standard? JUN27_832A or 130625_0827 ?

    1. Good question, and my answer is that great public health answer: it depends. It depends on your audience. What knowledge level do they have? Are you around a military base where everyone knows the 24-hour clock? Then that’d be great. Do you need to use AM/PM for shorter ops? Is the date more important than the time for slow-developing incidents?

      lol, and some of those times you’ve posted look like gibberish to me!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and looking for best practices. What do the rest of you guys think?

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