Thanksgiving 2013

TL;DR: tradition you don’t know about, y’all rock, mic drop.

Happy Thanksgiving American friends! Happy Unbirthday non-American friends!

So, I’ve got this little tradition of giving you a quick behind the scenes peek at life behind the Face of the Matter, and what a better time to do it than on Thanksgiving. Here’s the story from last year:

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.

And here we are, nearly SEVEN years later. Am I officially Internet-old now? I keep looking for my Logan’s Run jewel, but nothing yet. I thought last year was great, but this year has been a humdinger. And isn’t that how things are supposed to go?

I got the opportunity to travel and present to amazing audiences all over the country. Meet dozens of amazing people and see friends from too long ago. No pandemic still (yay!), and my Program has great plans for the future. The blog is wildly successful, better than I ever thought it would be. And probably the biggest news is that kid #3 is rapidly winging her way into my burgeoning family’s arms (February 2nd!).

But the news that’s probably most relevant to you, dear reader, is my new job. I’ve been given the okay to let the world know that, as of January 1, I will be moving out of the public health preparedness world and into a brand new position, Director of Digital Public Health, here at my health department.

My job will be to oversee the identification, feasibility, implementation and integration of digital goodness (everything from social media to apps, to APIs to crowdsourcing to mobile and beyond) into our department. I! Am! So! Excited!

With every grand, new endeavor comes change, unfortunately, and the blog is one of those things that will change. (Seriously, new kid AND a new job? I’ll probably sell my soul for a few hours of sleep.) I’m not abandoning it. I love you guys too, too much. But I’m going to be dialing things back a bit. No more three posts a week, at least not for a while. Instead, if I can do a post a week, I’ll be over the moon. Because social media and public information and risk communication is still within my professional purview, we’ll keep talking about them, but we might sprinkle in some of that digital goodness I talked about earlier, too.

Until the new year, though, I wanted to give you a present, something to remember me by. For the next four weeks, I’m going into the stacks of the blog and will be reposting the best posts, the most popular, the ones that–oops–I got wrong, my personal favorites. Three of the best of Jim Garrow, for four weeks. Almost like a countdown.

Which, not exactly coincidentally, is the other tradition we have around these parts. For the last couple of years, Patrice Cloutier, Kim Stephens and I have done a sort of end-of-year holiday countdown. This will be my contribution, and will hopefully serve to demonstrate how far our field of emergency communications and response have come. I’ll definitely be highlighting their work constantly on Twitter, so keep an eye out for that.

And now for the behind the scenes. My traffic this year has been out of this world. I set a new personal daily record, and broke it (302 views). I set new records in weekly and monthly views (3,013 views). I’ve got the most subscribers I’ve ever had (110). Last year, I reported that I’d seen 16,000 views all time, and in just this calendar year, I’ve seen more than 20,600, more than doubling my previous three years of views.


Other than longevity, only two things changed this year. First, I’ve presented more, and I direct folks to my page in most of my presentations. But unless I’m the best, most persuasive presenter in the world (hey, it’s possible), that’s doesn’t nearly account for the huge surge in viewership starting in April. What did happen in April was the other thing that changed: I started posting more often. Usually three times a week, sometimes four. Consistently, for weeks on end. And my traffic skyrocketed. For the non-astute among you, there’s a lesson there, I think.

And just to close, I want to thank you all. For everything. You make my work enjoyable, you make me happy. I’m so excited to start on this new adventure with you and hope that you’ll stick around while I get my feet under me. (And wish me luck!)


Whole Community: Functional Needs Communities

I’m in Lisle, Illinois this week presenting on social media at the 2013 Whole Community Preparedness Conference, sponsored by the Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin Combined Statistical Area. I wanted to talk this opportunity to talk about messaging to our whole community messaging and making our messages easier to understand and receive. As the week goes on, I’ll update this post with links to the other posts.

New York City has been in the news recently, and not in a good way. A federal judge ruled that New York violated the rights of people with disabilities in their emergency response planning for not adequately accommodating their needs in a disaster. The original lawsuit was filed in response to the City’s response to Hurricane Irene, and has caused serious consternation in the disaster planning community because so much of our planning has focused on making disability-specific plans, or because so many of our plans are focused on doing the most good for most people.

This lawsuit follows a similar one filed a few years ago in Los Angeles.

I am NO expert in evacuation or shelter design, so I have no advice for your planners. But I have some background in communications, so I have a recommendation: video. I know that your first reaction is that video doesn’t sound like it would apply to all of the functional needs communities, but done correctly, it can. Take this video from the Deaf Hearing Communication Centre as an example:

This video adequately provides critical life-saving information for the deaf and visually impaired communities. Can you imagine if the video was captioned to allow for non-auditory presentation? Or what about captioned in Spanish to help Spanish-speakers?

Videos, because of their ability to convey visual and auditory information are perfect for reaching multiple audiences for one outlay. We’ve talked about, and demonstrated with some of my video posts, how easily it is to create videos. But what about the captioning? It turns out that’s pretty easy, too. Here are instructions for adding captions to YouTube videos.

Since we really should stop planning for “regular” communities and “special” communities and start planning for the whole community, and since our funding is continually getting cut, we need to figure out ways to streamline our efforts while addressing everyone’s concerns and needs. Videos like those from DHCC are pointing in the right direction and will hopefully become a standard tool in the communicators toolbox.

Whole Community #1: The New Digital Divide
Whole Community #2: Approachability

Whole Community: Approachability

I’m in Lisle, Illinois this week presenting on social media at the 2013 Whole Community Preparedness Conference, sponsored by the Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin Combined Statistical Area. I wanted to talk this opportunity to talk about messaging to our whole community messaging and making our messages easier to understand and receive. As the week goes on, I’ll update this post with links to the other posts.


One of my favorite bloggers in the whole world is also one of my favorite tweeters (Perhaps not coincidentally). Wendy Sue Swanson, or as she’s known on the internet, Seattle Mama Doc, dispenses daily information on health, health care and life raising kids.

I love Dr. Swanson’s real life approach to communication. There is nary a poorly-lit head shot of some white coat to be found anywhere. Her Twitter feed is full of pictures, personal stories, links to health care stories and–gasp–conversations! Dr. Swanson is a real person! That’s step one, and it’s a big one, though really it shouldn’t be.

Her blog, though, is what I want to focus on. It’s a testament to how healthcare providers and healthcare organizations should be blogging. It demonstrates the very essence of approachability.

Blog posts about emotional wellbeing start off like this:

I’ve had an enormously stressful week or so. Seriously maxed out in a way I haven’t been in some time — smooooshed if you will. The reason I mention my stress is that I’ve found in the past, like this week, these stressful episodes are often peppered with moments of mindfulness that penetrate into my life and stick.

Thankfully there are buoys around us that get us through these stressful episodes. A joke our child makes while running by, a story on the radio that allows us to pause, the simple beauty of a red tree passing into sight on the side of the road. Sometimes when we’re most amped and stressed our lenses on life de-fog in a way where the beauty is just crystal clear.

Or a video post about violence in movies:

I was in fourth grade when Red Dawn debuted as the first PG-13 rated movie back in 1985. At the time Red Dawn was released, it was considered one of the most violent films by The National Coalition on Television Violence, with a rate of 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute. And although not every PG-13 movie has had significant violence (think Pretty in Pink) it turns out PG-13 and gun violence have become close bedfellows over the last 28 years.

Yes, she writes beautifully, but the reason she writes so well is because she writes from the heart. The blog posts aren’t full of stern faces and finger-wagging. It’s fun and engaging and personal. And successful. There’s a lesson we can all learn from that. A lesson about approachability.

Whole Community #1: The New Digital Divide

Whole Community: The New Digital Divide

I’m in Lisle, Illinois this week presenting on social media at the 2013 Whole Community Preparedness Conference, sponsored by the Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin Combined Statistical Area. I wanted to talk this opportunity to talk about messaging to our whole community messaging and making our messages easier to understand and receive. As the week goes on, I’ll update this post with links to the other posts.

I’ve written about the so-called digital divide before, when I said:

If you ask about going online at home, on a desktop or laptop computer, using a non-dial-up service, there is a divide. Because computers and broadband access are expensive! But when you ask if people get online, there is less of a divide. And the reason why is probably sitting on your desk, in your pocket or in your purse right now: smartphones.

And the research continues to pile up showing just that. Recently, the folks at Pew released some very specific data about Philadelphia’s digital divide:

The report found the proportion of Philadelphians with Internet access has been steadily rising since 2011, when about 76 percent of residents were plugged in, compared to an estimated 82 percent who have access now. The trend appeared to cut across all races, with roughly the same proportion of white, black and Hispanic respondents reporting having web access.

Study authors hypothesize the upward trend is due, in large part, to the growing availability of web-enabled mobile devices. Sixty-five percent of respondents reported using cell phones to access the Internet, up from 45 percent in 2011.

A FIFTY percent rise in mobile web access in only TWO years!?

And this data is borne out in national data, as well. Pew’s 2013 survey on broadband found the same thing:

Including smartphones in the definition of home broadband access helps narrow the differences between some demographic groups, but widens the gap between others. Differences between racial and ethnic groups are an example of smartphones narrowing the “broadband gap”: While blacks and Latinos are less likely to have access to home broadband than whites, their use of smartphones nearly eliminates that difference.

broadband and smartphones

Getting back to the Philly data, we can see where the real digital divide is at:

But the greatest digital disparity, by far, existed among age groups. Ninety-four percent of those aged 18 to 34 reported having Internet access, compared to just 54 percent of those 65 and older.

For communicators who are resisting embracing digital communication for fear of alienating minority communities, the data to back up that point simply doesn’t not exist.

Now, that does mean that we’re hitting elderly populations less than younger populations, but still, look at the percentage of 65+ that access the internet taken from this page (showing 2000 and 2011 data) and this page (showing 2013 data):

2000 broadband access among 65+: 12%
2011 broadband access among 65+: 41%
2013 broadband access among 65+: 43%

This is a rapidly rising percentage, and one that will only increase over time. Plan to utilize digital tools to become the centerpiece for your communication efforts one day (and probably sooner than you think).

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

In today’s world, you could do worse than looking to Seth Godin for inspiration. He’s a marketing genius, author, new media whiz, and occasional zen master. After yesterday’s post, I think it might be time for a quick “buck up.” Something positive, something uplifting, something inspiring. And, like I said, you could do worse than Seth Godin.

Recently, Seth posted a very short blog post about lies that resonated with me. Resonated because they are lies that I’ve told myself from time to time, and lies that I hear far too often from government communicators who see the work that I and other social media folks do. Seth’s four lies are as follows:

The first lie is that you’re going to need far more talent than you were born with.

The second lie is that the people who are leading in the new connection economy got there because they have something you don’t.

The third lie is that you have to be chosen.

The fourth lie is that we’re not afraid.

I don’t have any special talent or tool that allows me to do this stuff. I plugged away and failed–sometimes spectacularly–but picked myself up again, learned from it and tried again.

Similarly, no one handed me any of the rights and responsibilities that I have now. I got here through nothing else but hard work and a willingness to embrace some new paradigm fully. I have only one quote posted to my wall at work, and I read it weekly:

If it isn’t worth risking total, complete failure over, it probably isn’t worth doing.

And as for being afraid, I’m afraid. I have a growing family and the hopes and dreams of a health department on my shoulders. Failure scares the hell out of me.

What gets me through is exactly what Seth closes his post with:

The connection economy isn’t based on steel or rails or buildings. It’s built on trust and hope and passion.

The future belongs to those that care and those that believe.

Be inspired, take a leap of faith and succeed. Or fail and make the next leap that much better. There are so many reasons to, and only one reason not to: fear. And I’ve already said that we’re all afraid, so what’s stopping you?

Ways to Survive

I’m a huge advocate of getting away from traditional (read: boring) messaging techniques like fact sheets, text-heavy websites, the “general public,” the list goes on and on. And yet, we’re still not great at it. For lots of reasons, not least of which is we don’t really know what to do. We’ve always done things this way.

While I’ve tried to impress that you can change things up pretty easily with video shot in your office on a personal smartphone (and edited with a $5 app) with my video posts, using a new social media app like Instagram or Vine, talked about podcasting and iPhone reporting, sometimes you need to get real, live inspiration from your peers and not some yahoo blogger. You need something colorful, fun, interesting and chock full of good information. Something like this video, Ways to Survive, from the City of Bellevue, Washington.

It’s catchy, visually stimulating, and includes oodles of good information. This isn’t like some hurricane video that goes out of vogue for nine months of the year.

These are the ways to survive, gotta stay alive, have supplies and a master plan.

Full of good recommendations addressing kit development, winter supplies, earthquake response, CO safety, see something say something, among others. And, most importantly, it feeds into an opportunity to learn more, by directing folks to WaysToSurvive.Org.

I spoke to Sophia Le, who told me a bit about the background of the video:

This is in line with our new public education strategy, and took inspiration from Denis Mileti’s eternal comment “You need to sell [preparedness] like Coca-Cola.” This video is part of our new engagement focus–in the past, we’ve been pretty light on social media but think this is a great jump start into engaging content.

Some of the things we really like about this video are that it allows us to use social media to touch more people than a public educator usually could. It’s using song to get a message stuck in a person’s head, and it’s inviting citizens to come learn more about our programs.

I love the idea AND the execution. There’s just one thing, and it’s a problem not specific to this video. Similar to an overarching problem I have with most government campaigns: there’s not connection to reality. The video is awesome, and I’m going to pass it around to friends around the world, but what about the Bellevue, Washington EMA website? It looks, and I mean it exactly like this, like a government website. Text-heavy, small font, jargon-y, uninteresting. It’s the complete opposite of what the video is.

And maybe that’s where the problem with this type of thing comes in. Awesome efforts tend to highlight how poor the rest of our efforts are. And that’s frustrating.

But here’s the thing. Now that Bellevue has this great video, and they’ve established some kind of a brand associated with their efforts, they can remake their website and social media and other presences. They are THAT much ahead of where you are. The Ways to Survive video doesn’t point out how government-y their website looks, it highlights how government-y your efforts look.

We live in a world of super-crafty people who want to do good work. And every time they do something cool, our reliance on the old ways of communicating look more and more out-of-date. Places like Bellevue are leading the charge into real, engaging content that takes the best lessons from the private sector and are bringing it to government. Don’t get left behind!

Look, It’s Me!

There’s this really interesting phenomenon going on in digital media right now. People who are active on social media have seen it, and people who are really active on social media have even done it. But there are few things that engender a generational divide as wide as this behavior. I’m talking about the selfie. That close-up picture of someone’s face seems to be the mascot of today’s digital world.

Have you used your phone to snap a picture of yourself and send it to a friend, or post for everyone to see it? Did you make a duckface? What about your kids?

The reason I say that the selfie exposes a huge generational divide because kids seem to do it all the time. They know exactly where to position the camera to get a great shot of themselves and take multiple pictures, all ready for posting. Older folks seem to see the selfie as vanity and over-sharing run amok and if they do post images online, it’s always with the camera facing outward.

Why the divide? I think it’s because of how different generations view online sharing (and I believe I sit right on the cusp, personally, which is why I think I can distance myself from both groups). Older folks tend to feel that sharing online is a special activity, reserved for special topics or insights, and should spur meaningful conversation. They don’t want to waste others’ time, nor do they want their time wasted. If you want an example of what I mean by this look at, oh, I don’t know, ANY government agency social media account. All business, no time-wasting there. Real, insightful and dripping with importance.

Younger folks (the duck-faced, one might call them), on the other hand, have grown up sharing things online. Sharing isn’t some special thing that happens after serious consideration. They share like they breathe. Selfies, and pictures of people’s lunches, and vague Facebook posts aren’t intended to spur discussion or pull people over to a particular argument, they’ve been shared because it’s what that person is doing and sharing is just a natural part of doing.

In fact, the NY Times published a great article recently on the art of the selfie and says that this isn’t some fad that will be going away soon:

In fact, I’ve even noticed that the occasional selfie appears to nudge some friends who I haven’t seen in a while to get in touch via e-mail or text to suggest that we meet for a drink to catch up, as if seeing my face on a screen reminds them it’s been awhile since they’ve see it in real life.

Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, says that’s how the human brain works.

“We are hard-wired to respond to faces,” she said. “It’s unconscious. Our brains process visuals faster, and we are more engaged when we see faces. If you’re looking at a whole page of photos, the ones you will notice are the close-ups and selfies.”

So, what does that mean for us? Should we replace our focus group-tested, subject-matter expert-approved messaging with dozens of selfies? Should we trade in our fact sheets for Instagram accounts? Probably not.

But we should be seriously considering what the growing popularity of this new, very personal form of communication will mean for our communication efforts moving forward. Should we be more personable? (Yes) Should we integrate images more often? (Yes) Should we spend some more time on the minutiae of our day-to-day work? (Yes) Should we maybe try to humanize ourselves a bit? (Yes) Should we take a selfie every once in a while and try out our duckfaces? (Probably)