Your Adoring Fans

adoringfansAs we diversify our communications methods, we’re running into more audiences. I mean, we always used to do that when we were just blasting messages through the big, fat pipe of the mass media, but now the public has admitted that they have feelings and thoughts and preferences. And some of those preferences are counter to the message that we push out. We say things and they’ve been empowered through social media to talk back. To yell back. To “express their constitutional right passionately,” as a friend of mine once said.

In public health, there is a certain segment of the population who doesn’t like what we say. They feel that many of the things public health does encroaches on their rights. From lead remediation to asbestos remediation to fluoridation to vaccines to isolation and quarantine. The anti-vaccine folks tend to be the loudest right now due to a now-disgraced theory that some vaccines can cause autism, but our field has struggled with this type of thing for a while. And I’m sure that it’s pretty much the same story for most government agencies. Police, food safety, schools, hell, government itself, all of us have detractors.

And normally, I’m one to take on those folks head on. Proactive communication, I say. Government agencies should be advocates, I’ve said. But a recent article that Denise Graveline published about your fans:

It’s an approach that can help focus your efforts and your message, not to mention your budget and productivity. As Seth Godin points out, “Instead of working so hard to prove the skeptics wrong, it makes a lot more sense to delight the true believers. They deserve it, after all, and they’re the ones that are going to spread the word for you.”

Should we be actively engaging with those who denigrate us? (I mean, besides the obvious correction of incorrect facts.) Or should we be concentrating on our adoring fans?

The rationale for these questions and which one is more important is exactly the same and it has to do with the ease of viral messages today. We just have to figure out which is more important to us:

Are you more scared of a negative viral message than you are excited about a positive viral message?

We live in an austere world and we need to make real decisions about where we focus our efforts. Should we be playing defense against bad things that someone might say about us that catch social media wildfire and are repeated everywhere? If so, we need to work to minimize the nay-sayers and work to convert them. Or should we be playing offense and trying to seed as many good things in the hopes that some of them catch social media wildfire and are repeated everywhere? If so, we need to identify, groom and make sure that our supporters have everything they need.

This isn’t a decision you or I can make. This is something we as organizations need to make together. What does your executive want to do? Is your comms team set up for defense or public relations? And I don’t know which is better. If you would’ve asked me this question a few days ago, I have no idea what I would’ve said. But I wonder what you think now that I’ve phrased the question this way. I’d love to see your comments below!


Bite-sized News

For years now, folks have been bemoaning the death of the attention span. One of the most famous of these pronouncements came all the way back in 2008, published in the Atlantic:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

And in the interim, social media and technology have just sped things up:

The study by Lloyds TSB insurance showed that the average attention span had fallen to just 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes 10 years ago.

But the over-50s are able to concentrate for longer periods than young people, suggesting that busy lifestyles and intrusive modern technology rather than old age are to blame for our mental decline.

This shorter attention span has evolved how people digest information, especially news. There have been lots of studies to investigate what news should look like, especially as the mass media struggles to figure out where they live in today’s world. This study from the Guardian seems to confirm that:

People are checking the news more frequently and for shorter amounts of time.
Forget news reading. Today, it’s all about “news snacking,” meaning people are checking the news more often and typically on mobile devices. 75 percent of readers with smartphones and 70 percent with tablets check the news more than once a day.

It’s all about aggregators.
According to the study, 73 percent of those surveyed said they use aggregators intensively, up from 33 percent a year ago. Use of branded news applications (such as leading national dailies), on the other hand, decreased from 60 percent to 40 percent in the same period.

Social media is on the rise for checking news.
The report also indicates that people are increasingly checking sites like Facebook and Twitter for news updates; 43 percent of readers now use Facebook to check news, an increase of seven percent from last year.

Gerald Baron has been an absolute leader in examining this field of “nano news,” as he calls it. He’s defined it a couple of times, “Defining Nano News,” and “NanoNews—understanding the new news environment. ”

But my reason for posting these links is to implore our government communication friends to rethink how we talk. Looking at yesterday’s post on using images, made me wonder why images were so important. I think it has something to do with this idea of snackable content, or nano-news. The old saying is that pictures are worth 1,000 words. Are images how people are more quickly digesting information?

Thinking about information that my Department puts out, I wonder, is it truly snackable? Can someone stop by on their phone and digest the information in less than five minutes? Or do our fact sheets require an in-depth reading of inches and inches of text? Are they snackable? Now what about your fact sheets?

Is Text Killing Your Social Media?

I’m a words guy. 1,500 words a week on this blog and untold thousands on Twitter. Thousands more at work and that’s not even counting the love letters I write my wife. I like the written word. But maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

Because today, visually conveying information is where it’s at. From pictures to videos to infographics, text is seen as stodgy, out-of-date and stale. But it even goes beyond being cool. There’s real data that images do better on social media. We turn to our favorite social media data hounds, Buffer.

On Facebook:

1. Photo posts get 39% more interaction
Not only do photo posts get more engagement than links, videos or text-based updates, they actually account for 93% of the most engaging posts on Facebook. According to Kissmetrics, photos get 53% more likes, 104% more comments and 84% more click-throughs on links than text-based posts. And as we’ve mentioned before, self-explanatory photos seem to perform best.

On Twitter:

2. Tweets with image links get 2x the engagement rate of those without

These data are precipitating a huge change in how folks do social media:

But before marketers jump into this visual web, it’s important they take a step back and recognize that a new approach is required. No longer will quick-witted 140-character tweets and traditional monitoring tools be sufficient. In order to reap the benefits of image-driven engagement, marketers need to expand their current wheelhouse of social media knowledge and tools.

Below, you’ll see how images are changing the role of social media marketers and discuss three musts for brands that are eager to conquer the visual web:

1. Build art director skills.
As visual engagement grows, marketers will be required to produce great images that still fall within their branding. At the most basic level, they’ll need to understand what makes a great photograph — and it’s more than just implementing the “rule of thirds“.

2. Always be closing (carefully).
Pinterest and Instagram allow consumers to engage at a product level for the first time. Not only do they express interest in brands, but they also reveal the exact products they love down to the style, color and size. Social media teams now have the opportunity to gauge purchase intent in real time and push consumers to buy.

3. Research and master image marketing tools.
As mentioned earlier, images are being shared at a record pace. Without the ability to leverage this trend, brands have no part in the process. Luckily, dozens of platforms, services and tools have emerged to create an ecosystem of companies that are aligned by one common goal: to help brands market with pictures.

But wait, what’s better than pictures? Lots of pictures put together: videos! And with the explosion of popularity in short-form video like Vine and Instagram, there are folks who think video is the way to go:

Most of the time, though, I don’t want fantasy. I want authenticity. When I’m trying to capture my kid’s birthday party, I don’t want the best moments. I want the truest moments—I want to remember exactly what it felt like, what it sounded like, how frustrated and stressed-out and over-the-moon I was all at once. And for authenticity—or, better authenticity—videos handily beat photos.

But, you say, I’m so busy! How can I add videos to my repertoire? Well, the inimitable Kerry Shearer has some tips for you:

So, what do you think? Am I a dinosaur? Should this blog be just videos of me?

Tweeting Like a Boss

My son’s favorite saying right now is that something–anything really–happens “like a boss.” He brushes his teeth like a boss. He plays video games like a boss. And I’m old now, so I think to myself, I’m already a boss, what does that mean for my toothbrushing? What does that mean for my tweeting? Do I tweet like a boss?

And surprisingly, there’s an answer for that last one. I apparently don’t tweet like a boss. Not a boss like my son says, but a real boss. A CEO or Commissioner. One study showed that less than 2% of Fortune 500 CEO’s tweet. Let’s try to guess how many local and state government Commissioners (not politicians) do.

And that’s a real shame because there are definite benefits to being present on social media. (And remember, we’re talking about the big guy and gal, NOT our agencies. I think hope that issue has been settled by now.)

Megan Jasin says there are three reasons why executives should be tweeting for themselves:

1. It’s refreshing to read unscripted content, ideas and opinions from today’s corporate leaders. (They’re leaders for a reason.)

2. There is less risk of a PR crisis for the executive and his or her company. (Well, less risk than an intern being the voice of the company or agency.)

3. It’s good practice for CEOs, CMOs, CFOs and Managers looking to connect directly with consumers and learn future behavioral trends.

But it’s not all day-to-day and tweeting during corporate lunches. Civil service executives (read: brass) have seen some real benefits from holding the Twitter reins, especially during emergencies. At the recent #NCRSMEM conference, I got the special chance to hear Boston PD Deputy Commissioner John Daley speak about one of his major roles during the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt.

What’s unique about Boston Police is how completely their executives have embraced Twitter, and Deputy Commissioner Daley is at the forefront. The best example is the following; one of the single most retweeted tweets ever, and it was sent literally SECONDS after the arrest was made:

How the heck did it get approved that quickly? Why wasn’t the Incident Commander informed first, how were the five levels of approval gone through so fast? Simple, because it was sent by the Incident Commander. Because the sender was also the approver.

Now think about your executive. Would they ever do that? If not, why not? Do they relish a lag in releasing information? They like to be second or thousandth? Or do they not care who is the voice of the agency and would rather some lackey speak for them? Or do they not think that actually representing their agency to the world is important enough?

I think that each one of those cases would merit a very special discussion about priorities and goals for your organization.

I’m also interested in what other reasons you’ve heard for why your executive can’t tweet. Leave me a comment below with your best excuses!

A Moment of Silence

One of the very best conferences in the land started yesterday. And it started off with a bang. In one of the very first pre-conference workshops, Dr. Cynthia Baur of the CDC (she’s one of the world’s preeminent thinkers AND doers in the field of health literacy), said the quote above.

Now, I’ve said just this for a long time: there is no general public. The general public has voluntarily carved themselves up into tiny little fractions of groups, each self-identified by some demographic that can change over time, isn’t necessarily exclusive from other demographic identifications and allows people to adopt multiple identifications all at once.

Think about me and all of my unique interests as an example. I’m interested in public health, emergency management, horror movies, punk rock, Philly happenings, social media, running, tattoos and video games. Name me one other person you know that does all of those things (no, really, I want to meet them). Outside of work duties, I don’t follow the national or local news at all. Am I in the general public? What about you? What interests do you use to define yourself?

That information you’re putting out? The one written for the “general public?” Does it fit into my interest spectrum? Probably not. And it probably doesn’t fit into lots of other interest spectrums, either. But why do we keep writing for the “general public”?

Like most things, there’s a rational reason why we started messaging this way. It has to do with the history of our information dissemination pathways. Government communication to the wide public really took off as mass media was reaching the height of it’s popularity and utility. If you wanted to talk to the public in any widespread fashion, you could knock on doors, or send a release to the mass media. And the media made no bones that they were the way to reach everyone. There’s no need to develop specific messages when you’re just talking into a great big, fat pipe.

Things have changed a bit, though, if you haven’t noticed. People have diversified where they get their news from:


People have found that big, fat pipe no longer satisfies their need for relevant information. And they’ve since moved on to targeted, specific, interesting information and news. And yet, we still write like the mass media is the only way we can get information out. The general public only existed when there was one way to get information. With a plethora of ways to get information today the punk rock, zombie movie fan, public health professional set has chosen to ignore your messages designed to appeal to everyone from eighteen-year-olds, grandparents and mothers of young children.

So let’s bow our heads for a minute and put this out-of-date idea to rest, finally.

Nothing’s Happened

One of the great exhortations, one of the absolute must to-do’s given during emergency public information classes today is that you have to let the media know when your next update is coming. Lots of folks even go so far as to say, “when I know something, you’ll know something.” (And between me and you, I’m a big fan of that.) But when you do those pretend little exercises in the afternoon of the class, the instructor always tilts her head at the end of your “press conference” and asks, “When will we know more?” And before high-fiving his newly-roped-into-this teammates our spokesman dismissively says, “We’ll have another press conference in four hours.”

Nobody asks what do you do when nothing’s happened. Almost without fail, these exercises are quickly developing scenarios that will have updates in a few hours. But what about when the situation is slowly developing. So slowly that, like a drop of pitch, updates are few and far between? I’m looking at you public health. How do you tamp down expectations and tell people, “Nothing’s happened,” and reasonably expect them to not believe you’re hiding something. I mean, people are dying here, man!

Well, Kevin Jump, on the other side of the pond, says we need to make updating about nothing the norm:

And this is the problem – as it turns out (because I had to go), B&Q [ed. note: a sort of Home Depot] is open normal hours on the bank holiday, but their site doesn’t tell me that, because nothing has changed so they have ‘nothing’ to tell me.

A simple “we are open as normal on bank holiday Monday” would have answered all my questions

This reminded me of my little election experiment last week, when I looked at a few random councils to see how they had done elections. Once or twice in the process I went to a county council website, and found nothing about elections at all. That’s because counties run elections on a four year cycle, and this year was (for these councils) not one of those years – so no elections. The districts had elections, but the county sites didn’t tell me that (quite a few county sites don’t acknowledge the existence of the districts).

We’re too much focused on making sure that the media knows what’s going on. Hence the exhortation to make sure they know when things have changed. They’re not interested in what’s not changed. Non-changes don’t bleed, so they don’t lead, so to speak.

Instead, we need to focus on our publics. We need to let them know the information that is relevant to them, not just interesting to the media. No less a blogger than Greg Licamele has said something very similar in a great post recently:

The whole public affairs enterprise needs a different focus if we want to remain relevant to the people we serve rather than becoming more irrelevant to journalists who have a different purpose.

What do you do when nothing’s happened? Make sure that everyone knows, not just the people who increasingly don’t care.

Surge Capacity

A couple of days ago, I traveled to Washington to speak at one of the premiere social media and emergency management conferences of the year. The National Capital Region’s Regional Emergency Support Function #15 holds an annual NCRSMEM summit, focusing on new, novel and interesting uses of social media to help respond to and prepare for disasters. If you didn’t have the opportunity to follow the extremely active hashtag, Brandon Greenberg put together an extremely handy-dandy Storify of the day.

It was an amazing day. With speakers from all levels of government and the non-profit world, and topics ranging from Hurricane Sandy to the Moore tornado to the Boston Marathon bombings, I’m sure everyone in the room learned something. While lots of topics came up over and over again, one really stuck out to me: the realization that the resources we bring to bear to respond to disasters, especially around social media, are simply not enough. We simply cannot handle the volume of data, requests and interactions that social media requires to be successfully used during an emergency.

From FEMA requiring more than ten people on social media just for rumor monitoring during Hurricane Sandy to the Red Cross distributing their social media presence to public affairs folks at every local chapter to Boston PD asking for and promptly getting overwhelmed by the amount of crowd-sourced video surveillance being submitted, the story was the same. Heck, I remember when the FBI posted images of the bombers on their website, and it promptly crashed and was out commission for hours due to the insane amount of traffic going to the site.

Government cannot handle the public information side of a disaster anymore. Full stop.

But, as we saw yesterday, neither can the private sector. Now, in all honesty, the situations are different, but when the New York Times website and associated news distribution tools went quiet for nearly an hour, it demonstrated that information dissemination is hard. There are so many technological balancing acts going on that a flaky scheduled update can take down one of the world’s most trusted names in news–during a massive assault by the Egyptian military that killed scores of people. (Read a bit differently? During the worst possible moment.)

But instead of throwing their hands up in the air and declaring that they’d lost, the Times staff took advantage of the distributed nature of the internet and continued to post stories and updates. They just did it on Twitter and Facebook. According to The Verge:

For the next hour, the account tweeted news from Egypt, but as the site remained down, full stories began being published — this time as long updates on the Times’ Facebook page. While live-tweeting is a common way to break news, under normal circumstances, social media is a way to draw people into a site, not a substitute. Indeed, not long after, service was restored, and the pieces were added to the main site.

It is for this reason, and the reason quoted by Boston PD Deputy Commissioner John Daley (that when they asked IT to make regular updates to the website, they were given a timeframe of days to weeks, so they created their own blog), that we’ve updated our emergency public information plan to explicitly call for distributing information dissemination to many digital outlets. We specifically mention Facebook and Twitter, and creating a situation-specific blog, but also explicitly encouraging distribution through other, unmentioned digital channels. We’ve also specifically written in the ability to depend on digital volunteers (like VOST and the Red Cross Digital Volunteers) to surge staff.

Your next emergency will overwhelm your agency. And as we already know, surging during an emergency is impossible. So, what are you doing about it today?