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.

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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.

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