Get In Front Of It

Getting in front of the story is a classic tactic by press officers and PIOs. If you don’t know what it means, it’s basically you know that some bad news is going to come out and there will be lots and lots of interest from the public and the media. NOT getting in front of the story means that the media asks the questions first and sets the stage for how you’ll respond. How would you respond to the question, “When did you stop beating your wife,” to use a classic example. Even denying the question legitimizes it being asked, and now you’re on the defensive. Getting in front of it means that you make the first statement and set the stage for what the follow up questions will be.

This great post by Amanda Rose, posted to Comms2point0, gives a great example of how this tactic works:

Prior to the trial beginning, we contacted the local and national media. I asked whether they would be covering the trial and talked through details of the case and the council’s involvement. We wanted to be open and upfront.

We did the same a few weeks before the end of the trial and prior to sentencing. Building and maintaining those relationships was vital. This preparation work meant we knew exactly what media wanted and they were more positive towards us.

This got me to thinking about what this process looks like today. Sure, press officers, media relations folks and PIOs still do this, managing the media, but could we do it with social media?

And the answer is, of course you can! I would argue it’s much easier to set the stage for future questions–easier to get ahead of the story–with a forward-thinking social or digital media manager for a number of reasons. First, it’s a much lower bar for publication. A tweet should be correct and right and vetted and approved, but does it rise to the level of a press release or an official press statement? There are no quotes needed, no setting the stage, no assembling a gaggle of reporters. Just write it, get it approved and post.

The second reason gets back to the linked article:

Relationships with journalists were just as important.

Every press officer will tell you that their relationships with the media are worth their weight in gold. But our audience these days isn’t just the media. It’s everyone. Members of the public can drive just as much interest and traffic and media interest as members of the media can. So managing our relationship with the public is JUST as important as managing our relationship with the media. By posting regularly to social media channels, we can get ahead of the story that the public will concoct. We can influence how they react to the bad news. But that won’t happen if we’re ON social media. And USING social media. And being seen as a RESOURCE by the public. That’s how you get ahead of the story today.


DMCA Takedowns

Here’s a weird one. By now everyone’s heard that public health, as a field, has some problems with certain segments of society. There are those out there that don’t believe what we say. Vaccines, abortions, raw milk, heck some folks even think that all medical interventions are sinful. And these folks will do anything to try to–in their estimation–save lives.

Traditionally, it’s been very protest oriented and open. But there’s a new tactic they’ve been employing that is much more dastardly, and something we should be aware of. It’s got to do with social media “reporting” tools. The first example is from the Times of Israel and talks about Facebook:

In an attempt to silence pro-vaccine voices on Facebook, [the Australian Vaccination Network] went back over old posts and reported for harassment any comment that mentioned one person’s name specifically. Under Facebook’s algorithm, apparently, mentioning someone’s name means that if the comment is reported it can be seen as violating community standards. Which is particularly ironic, since many commentators, when replying to questions or comments from an individual, would use that individual’s name out of courtesy.

Apparently, most of the people who were reported received twelve hour bans because the Facebook algorithm doesn’t pick sides, just–boom-ban stick. And truthfully, a twelve-hour ban isn’t THAT big of a deal, just a childish annoyance (of course, as family members communicate more and more online, it could end up being a huge deal).

Much more seriously is this article from about Digital Millennium Copyright Act (here in the US) takedown notices being issued based upon a complainant not agreeing with the content:

The producers of “House of Numbers” have used a series of bogus copyright takedown notices to get Youtube to remove Powers’s videos, in which he uses clips from the documentary as part of his criticism, showing how they mislead viewers and misrepresent the facts and the evidence. It’s pure censorship: using the law to force the removal of your opponents’ views.

The real crux of the matter lies here:

The DMCA’s takedown procedures have no real penalty for abuse, so it is the perfect tool for would-be censors.

There’s nothing we can do about it. And do you really have the time in your busy public health job to fight back against this? Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution right now. But it’s definitely something to be aware of.

Show Me What You’re Talking About

So it’s been a little snowy this winter in the Mid-Atlantic States. (Understatement of the year, thus far.) One of the major lessons we’ve learned this winter is that snow, in a time, place and amount that is unexpected or unusual equals disaster. One only needs to look at Atlanta’s response to their recent snowfall to see what I mean.

Here in Philly, we’re pretty good at snow even though there was a ton of it this year. We’ve got snowplows and snow emergency routes and a well-oiled social media response (including the phenomenal #NoSavesies Twitter effort). One part of the response is always to make sure that people don’t park on snow emergency routes, which are primary arterials that are plowed clean first to allow for emergency response vehicles to get through.

During every snow emergency, City and quasi-City agencies remind folks to get off those streets:

Which is a great way to get folks attention. Here’s the direct link (since the one there seems to be broken). But, for those of you who won’t click through, this is what that page looks like:

street list

And it goes on and on and on like that. How helpful is that? I’d argue not very.

On the other hand, some City agencies tweeted this out:

For those of you who won’t click through, it’s a PDF map of Philadelphia with the snow emergency routes highlighted:


Which is MUCH easier to navigate and understand. If you’re parked on a red line, move your car. But couldn’t it be better? Zoomable? More Google Maps-ish? I wonder.

And that really brings me to the crux of the matter. How much of the documentation does your agency produce look like the first picture? Sure, there’s probably some clip-art or stock photos usually, but is it really that different? Couldn’t we make it a bit more friendly, readable, understandable? For most of our content, I imagine we could. Philly is working on that, as you can see in the map image. Kudos there, honestly.

But think ahead. Is a PDF map the absolute best way to go? Probably not, what with the huge rise in mobile internet browsing (especially among urban minorities). PDFs rarely render well on a phone, and even if they did, how much do you have to scroll around to find where you are? How much pinch-and-zooming in heavy winter gloves do you have to do?

Improvement is one thing. Getting up to readable is essential. But thinking about usability (both how usable something is and how people will actually use it) and the future of how information is presented will do wonders for your agency. Isn’t it time you were the leader in some field?

Timeliness is Next to Godliness

Two questions:

First, how long did it take–from conception to “Send”–did it take to get your last press release out?

Second, how long did it take for a major situation to go from unknown to all over the news? (For an example, think of the Chris Christie bridge scandal or the Elk River, WV chemical spill.)

If those two timeframes are close to each other. Even within a few hours, that’s not bad. I’m guessing, though, that for most of us, there is quite a difference.

And that difference is of critical importance, as demonstrated by a survey by the American Red Cross from a few years back:

red cross

This chart is examining how long the public expects for help to arrive (that’s you, responding government agency), after a call for help has been posted online. Unfortunately, folks still haven’t taken this reality (and I imagine it’s only gotten worse since this was published in 2011) seriously:

Most 140-character tweets issued by the department are planned weeks in advance; edited by dozens of public servants; reviewed and revised by the minister’s staff; and sanitized through a 12-step protocol, the documents indicate.

That quote is taken from this National Post article on how Industry Canada doesn’t quite get social media.

An insider at Industry Canada said the “super-rigid process” is frustrating, and simply doesn’t work for Twitter.

He said he’s seen proposed light-hearted tweets killed at birth because they don’t fit the template.

“What’s our problem with being lighthearted? Why do we have to be super-serious and boring, and dry all the time?”

Hey, where have I heard that before? Oh, that’s right, I’m the one that rails against government automaton speak. The National Post asked for a comment from Industry Comment and what they got back, well, it kind of confirmed the whole deal:

“Industry Canada follows the Treasury Board Standard on Social Media Account Management, which aims to provide a strategic and coherent approach for the management of departmental social media accounts,” said the email from Michel Cimpaye of media relations.

“This Standard supports Canada’s commitment to open government and enables accuracy, greater information sharing, public dialogue and collaboration.”

My point is this: whether or not we want them to, the public has developed an expectation of how social media works. It’s an expectation that’s been set by private companies that live and breathe off of their social media interactions, by friends and family that love to chat, by a couple government agencies and actors that really get social media. We can do one of two things in response to this new normal: either quit altogether or embrace it. Because half-assing it doesn’t serve you (especially in an emergency) nor the public (who will quickly forget about you).

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!