2013 Retrospective: The Demise of Facebook

And now we’ve reached the top spot. The big enchilada. My most viewed post. And, of course it’s about Facebook. Part of last year’s end of year countdown, this post was all about the algorithmic changes that Facebook was undergoing and attempted to explore what that meant for government agencies looking to utilize social media to disseminate critical information.

The coolest part of this post isn’t the post itself. And it doesn’t have anything to do with me (sadly). It has to do with what’s happened with social media since I wrote this post. The so-called “river of news” that we’ve come to understand as social media is dying. Blogs are on the way out, Facebook’s home feed has almost no bearing on who posted what and when, Snapchat is the hot, new commodity and there’s not feed there. Social media no longer lives by the rule of post it and they will come. Instead it’s all about building a community now. It’s all about ranking and engagement and friendships. I’ve said this for years, but now we’re really seeing it. People will no longer read what you have to say just because you’re the government. And next year, things will change even more.

The third lesson we’ve learned this year is a new one, and one I wouldn’t have guessed six months ago. One that many folks, when writing their crisis communications plans six months ago wouldn’t have guessed. It was the demise of Facebook as a crisis messaging tool. Yep, demise, I said it.

(That doesn’t mean Facebook is useless in a crisis–in fact, there are situations and topics where Facebook is still the very best method of communications. But today I’m talking about using it as a crisis messaging service, which is important because Facebook is written into so many crisis plans to be used in just that way.)

It took a number of years, a lifetime in social media, for Facebook to start offering useful Pages for non-person entities like businesses and non-profits to stake a claim on the social network. And it took a few more years for the General Services Administration to negotiate Terms of Service with the social networking giant, signaling that it was “okay” for government to put a toe into the virtual world. A couple of years, and one IPO, later, we have government agency Pages littering the Facebook landscape. (And given how underutilized some of them are, littered is the correct word.)

And then, this fall, something changed. An algorithm, to be specific. (For folks who said that geeks would never rule the world…)

The specific algorithm is the EdgeRank one, which determines how many people see a particular Page’s posts. The idea is that the more interaction one’s Page has, the more likely it will be that Page’s posts will be seen by it’s followers. You used to post something and about forty percent of your followers would see it in their feed. Today, the number is between ten and fifteen percent. (So when you proudly tell your executive that your agency has just reached 100 followers, no more than fifteen people are seeing your posts organically.) Coincidentally, this change happened around the same time that Facebook started offering Pages the ability to increase the EdgeRank of their posts, for a fee.

And people revolted.

Of course, just days later, Superstorm Sandy hit and government agencies all over the Mid-Atlantic used their new social media plans to post to Facebook, only to see the effects blunted by this new algorithm change.

For years, social media acolytes have pitched using social media as a way to get direct, opt-in only, agency-to-person messaging utilizing other people’s distribution networks (read: free), around the media filter. And for the most part, that pitch has been successful (because it was right).

But now? I can’t promise that anymore. I can only promise that some tiny percentage of the people who have signed up to see what you’re posting will see it. Any fantasies you had about posting a boil water advisory on your Page and having 10,000 people in your county see and share it are gone.

And besides all that, just listening to some of the money-making ideas coming out of Menlo Park, one has to wonder how much longer government will tolerate plying along. From the Instagram Terms of Service debacle to allowing access to people’s Messenger for a dollar per spam message, well, one has to wonder how much longer we can consider it a prime messaging network.


2013 Retrospective: When Engagement Goes Afoul

This is a good one. Not only was this one splashed all over my blog, but the tech punditry was all over it, too. This was a huge black eye for a company that regularly scores high on various “most hated” lists. The best part of this post was the proof. There’s an image linked in there that has every tweet. Every. Single. Embarrassing. Tweet. And each one was more cringe-worthy than the previous. Like watching a trainwreck. Slow motion disaster.

Just placing your message in front of people, especially in today’s cacophonous world, simply does not work. Much like we zoom past dozens of billboards on our way to work every day without even noticing that they’ve changed, getting your message out is a poor way to measure how well you’re messaging. Our social marketing friends will tell you that’s a core component to the work that they do: measure success by success (also known as behavior change), not by opportunity for change (also known as failure to change).

But when we move out of tightly controlled social marketing situations and academia, how do you measure success? How does government measure success? Well, for a long time, it was counting eyeballs. We gave out 500 brochures, our bus ads were seen by 100,000 people, our website got 10,000 hits, our Facebook page has 1,500 likes. But just because people saw our message doesn’t mean that the message was successful, just that the medium was.

As eyeball-counting has lost its luster, comms folks have started talking about engagement, especially in social media. How many times were we retweeted? How many folks shared our Facebook post? This is definitely growth from the days of billboards and newspaper ads, so it’s a good thing. And while we can’t evaluate behavior change, we can count behavior, albeit small. This is a Good Thing.

But when we figure out good things, we inevitably find shortcuts. We find cheaters. We find folks who create “zombie communities.” We find folks like those who run Bank of America’s Twitter account:

When Twitter user @darthmarkh tweeted about how he was chased away by cops after drawing chalk in front of a New York City Bank of America that was pointing out how BofA was taking away people’s homes, the BofA Help Twitter account decided to jump in and asked @darthmarkh if he needed help with his account… completely ignoring the fact that @darthmarkh was eviscerating Bank of America right in front of its face.

In an effort to make sure to engage with everyone that reached out them, Bank of America automated its responses. So when other folks chimed in to continue to complain, guess what the Bank of America Twitter account did? Yep, ran through it’s entire list of pre-approved, empathetic, personally-signed tweets responding to them all. (If you want to see the whole insane back and forth, Gizmodo has a huge image of it here.

What does this mean for us? Well, first of all, don’t ever do that. Ever. Second, think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you need to be everything to everyone? Is there ever a time to engage less? (Yep, we talked about this yesterday.) This post on GovLoop highlights one of the real pitfalls of trying to be everything to everyone:

Both individuals and organizations who try to engage on too many platforms will find that it’s almost impossible to maintain that engagement without increased and/or dedicated resources. If they don’t increase their resource commitments, they are very likely to end up with abandoned digital properties and other digital detritus.

We need to focus on energy on where it’s most useful. If that means replying to every tweet that mentions you, then make sure you can support that. For most of us that’s not possible, so don’t set up a system that requires that. Don’t shortcut it. The public knows and with the viral nature of that social media you’re trying to exploit, well, let’s just say you don’t want to end up on Gizmodo.

2013 Retrospective: Ways to Survive

There are so many good prep videos out there it’s really tough to pick a favorite. But this would absolutely be near the top of the list. Designed by the City of Bellevue EMA, I was asked to help drum up interest and talk it up. I like to think that I helped contribute to the success of the video. But, I couldn’t be completely complimentary (and I think they might be mad at me about that), but the awesome video really exposed the rest of their digital presence as being a typical government website. I’m sure they’ll bring everything up to speed next year and blow the rest of us out of the water. In the meantime, this was the third-most popular post I’ve written.

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!

2013 Retrospective: Week Four, Top Three

Things are changing around here, and I wanted to highlight the best of the blog during December, 2013. The first week is devoted to my favorite guest posts and posters. The second week is devoted to my three most engaging posts. The third and fourth weeks count down my top six most trafficked posts, truly, the best of the best. These overview posts will have links to each of the posts for the week.

Stay tuned to all of my posts for the rest of the week as I re-post the creme de la creme. It’s funny to see, as a blogger, which posts really take off and which ones don’t. I literally have no idea which it will be. It’s as much of a surprise to me as it is to my readers. Some posts you’ll research for hours and pour your heart and soul into and, nothing. Other ones you dash off under a deadline and–BAM–it’s the best post you’ve ever written. But that’s not always the case, either. Sometimes you really craft something good and people keep reading it. And sharing it. And visiting it, again and again. And that’s what these three are. Finely researched, wonderful crafted (if I do say so myself), and ultimately the best I’ve published according to you guys.

So, without further delay, the top three:

First up, number three. Viral videos are coup de grace these days. And with some money and creativity, even a local emergency management agency can do it. But, what does that success mean for the rest of our work?
Secondly, number two. Ugh, Bank of America and an automated Twitter account. It’s really amazing how creative protesters can be, and how mortifying it can look from the outside.
Finally, the top banana. Facebook is dying. Well, maybe not dying, but it’s certainly not as useful as it once was. And for agencies who are just now getting into social media, understanding how less useful is a key component of setting their expectations.

2013 Retrospective: The Inflection Point

I loved this post. I wrote it on my phone. Twenty-five plus links, all pointing to mass media stories about how critical social media was in helping the public survive Post-Tropical Superstorm (nee Hurricane) Sandy. And if you’ve ever written a blog post on a phone, you’ll know how hard it is to link to things. (Suffice it to say I was proud of myself.) But this post is my official announcement to government agencies and responders that social media is HERE. Ignoring it after seeing what came out of lower Manhattan after a devastating storm flew through is tantamount to malfeasance. How dare you say you’ve got the public’s best interests in mind after the tsunami of proof that social media is how people communicate in an emergency–and then ignore it. After Sandy, and this point, there simply is no excuse anymore.

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.

2013 Retrospective: Get On Social Media

The Boston Marathon bombings. No one who pays any attention to the news, be it traditional or social, wasn’t seriously affected by this event. The kickoff to an absolutely insane week. Honestly, from afar, it felt like 9/11 again. What could possible happen next? The two main differences between then and Boston was that it was a series of small, local events (not counting the insane-o ricin story, which is still open) and social media. And from the first minutes after the bombs went off until Reddit’s ill-fated attempt to crowd-source finding the suspects and the FBI’s website crashing spectacularly, social media was a critical component of the week.

The best description of the utility of social media has made it into every presentation I’ve given since that week. The following is audio from Boston Police in the minutes after the bombs went off, and how useful they found social media. And while I think my stories are pretty good, having real, live audio is just amazing. You can’t get closer to the source than this.

Sometimes I worry that I write too much about social media on this blog. With events like H7N9 and the atrocity in Boston earlier this week, should I be focused more on the job that government communicators are doing: media relations, crafted statements, subject matter experts usage, press releases? But then events like H7N9 and the bombing happen, and there are such amazing lessons to be learned about how social media is influencing and remaking government communicators’ jobs that I literally can’t help myself. This is what government communicators’ jobs will be.

Since the Boston bombings are so fresh on everyone’s mind, I want to start there.

I don’t want to talk about how I found the first pictures of the scene FIVE minutes after the first bomb went off and informed my chain of command, who at first didn’t believe me because it wasn’t on any news sources yet.

I don’t want to talk about how we utilized our newly updated emergency public information plan that requires us to review all scheduled social media posts and cancel any inappropriate ones.


Instead, I want to talk about sweeping streets for secondary devices. If you followed the events on Monday afternoon, you’ll remember the frantic search of every package, bag and box in most of metro Boston. The Explosive Ordnance Tech (EOD) teams wanted everyone off the streets so they could work quickly without putting the public in harm’s way. This one-minute snip of a call came over the EMS radio talkgroup:

In the middle of the biggest emergency to hit Boston in years, with lives hanging in the balance, it was decided the best way to get information–critical, life-protecting information–to the public, where they were at the moment, was to, “get on social media.” Not tell the media, not issue a press release; when seconds counted and thousands needed to be warned, social media was the right tool. In different situations, something else may have worked better, but in this emergency social media was right choice.

2013 Retrospective: Communicating Risk Via Twitter

I love this post. This is one of my favorite stories because not only was it an absolute best practice in communicating risk, but I not only got to watch the City of Hoboken respond, but actually participated in the response. From Phoenix, Arizona. Way cool, and unfortunately, one of my stories that doesn’t get enough attention. This is my sixth most trafficked post, ever, and it’s a really good one.

I like to downplay the idea of a 24/7 newscycle. I think the term implies that you have lots of time to get involved in a situation because it’ll always be there. The media will always be beating down your door, so you’ve got time to craft an answer. Instead, I like to talk about the 10-second newscycle. In my mind, that term implies that you’ve got ten seconds in order to get your side of the story out; after that, you’re just part of the noise in someone else’s storyline.

My change in terminology leads, or should lead to, a re-examination of the tools we use to live and interact in that new newscycle. Press releases don’t really have the turnaround needed, and besides, they’re the worst position way to push out risk communication messages (e.g., do this, not that). Twitter, I like to think, works really well for a number of reasons. First, it’s direct: I, the communicator, am talking to you, the recipient. Second, it forces us to be short and direct: short messages have been shown to be more easily uptaken. Finally, it’s easily share-able: it’s easy to spread messages amongst target populations who’ve already set up information dissemination channels.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw one of the best examples of where social media, especially Twitter, could have been used to do real risk communication. The Hoboken, NJ water main breaks.

I happened to be in Phoenix at the time, presenting at the wonderful Arizona Partners in Preparedness conference when I found out about it on Twitter (social media monitoring for the win!). Because I work in public health, I’m always interested to see how large cities deal with boil water advisories, so I try to keep an eye on how things are going. The job that the City of Hoboken did was excellent starting with this:

Their next tweet was about the boil water advisory:

Notice the time? Less than ten minutes from their last tweet. Fast turnaround. Small, chunked information that’s easy to digest.

Then I got into things:

Eight minutes later, they replied directly to me, letting me know the process for how they’re looking to get more information:

In the meantime, the worked to combat rumors by posting informational updates:

Once United Water posted the full boil water advisory, @CityofHoboken updated their feed with the link.

They provided updates through out the day on the progress and even reposted the boil water advisory a few times to make sure that as many people could see it as possible. And finally, and in a stroke of trust-building genius, they took the time to thank folks who passed along their message and thanked the City’s account for the tweets:

To me, this is the best practice out there. Gold standard that should be emulated. I think that it’s not too hard to imagine how I’m rewriting my boil water advisory script and pre-approved messages this week.

This is what I want to see when I’m done with my next emergency: