California Wildfires – Using New Media to Communicate In A Crisis

Immediacy is one of the great things about new media/web 2.0.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the coverage of the devastating wildfires down in California recently.

I’m fully aware that crisis communications must focus on traditional channels – TV, radio, print – in today’s media environment. However, quick and responsive new media tactics provide the ability to communicate directly with citizens that those channels do not.

Allen Stern at CenterNetworks wrote a great post about web 2.0-based coverage of the fires on Monday. His post provides a useful list of the ways some people have used new media to post up-to-the-minute information on the fires.

I’m going to focus on my perspective of how corporations have used this technology to respond.

What The Mainstream Media Is Doing

Here are a few of the best examples of ‘new media’ use from the mainstream media:

What California Is Doing

To my surprise, the state of California has a very useful resource at www.calfires.com (although it seems to be up one second, down the next due to high traffic). However, while the resources are useful, I’m surprised at their lack of uptake of new technologies on the website.

The site does have an interactive map. However, on close inspection it turns out that the map is actually from the KPBS News site mentioned above.

Why didn’t California take the bull by the horns and turn its own site into a communications hub during the crisis? Why not do what the news outlets did and use this technology to provide up-to-the-minute updates?

What California Could Do

In addition to what the state is currently doing, it could :

  • Create its own interactive map with the latest updates from citizens and let news organizations embed that in their sites
  • Let citizens upload their own photos and integrate them into the map
  • Set up a blog and a Twitter feed (and integrate them) to give the latest updates on evacuation orders, all-clears, etc.
  • Create an RSS feed (or feeds) to push updates out to people
  • Aggregate news from mainstream outlets to provide a one-stop newsroom
  • Write clearer news releases
  • Do this all centrally, bump their generic information down or off their state’s homepage and give more space to updates on the fires.

Why?

Because they have the necessary website traffic

Google "California Wildfires." Two of the top five links are government websites.

Heck, we don’t even need to wonder if people are going to the government’s website – their CAL FIRE Incident website crashed under the increased traffic.

The LA Times twitter feed, at time of writing, has 96 followers. The San Diego Union-Tribute Help Blog doesn’t even have subscriber stats on Google Reader.

With the traffic going to government sites, they could push information out much more effectively to many times more people.

Because they have the necessary resources

Newsrooms have limited staff. The government, however, has far more extensive resources. Add in the potential for citizen contributions and you have a powerful tool for emergency information.

Because now is not the time to bury information

In a crisis like this, information should be front and centre. The less searching people have to do, the better.

This also goes for news release-writing. If you’re announcing a new toll-free hotline for donations, don’t bury the phone number in the third paragraph (however, check out how their ’email/share’ button works – interesting). Put it right at the top.

Because no-one will complain about having to look a little harder for vehicle registration information right now

I’m not a crisis communications expert (although hopefully some of you are and I’d love to hear your comments). However, I do know that when the President declares a state of emergency for your state and 750,000 people flee their homes, your list of "highlights" on your home page should not include:

  • Small business seminars
  • A jobs website
  • A link to a DMV video on YouTube
  • A kids’ website

Sure, these are all valuable initiatives but I really don’t think they need to take up space on the homepage right now. While the crisis is full-blown, the state could dedicate a lot more real estate on its main homepage to providing useful information to its citizens.

——-

California is doing a decent job of providing information online to its population in the midst of a crisis. However, with a bit of innovative thinking, they could do a lot more.

  • David:

    Very interesting post about integrating new media tools for crisis comms. My only thought on the state site–and this is just a guess–is that since it is an official site, they have to be cautious about what appears on it. Citizen input that is incorrect, either accidentally or intentionally, could cause a state agency significant problems.

    Because they are state agencies and are considered official sources of information, I think that they should move to integrate as many of these tools as possible. I can see how they might need to be more cautious than, say, a newsroom due to their responsibilities to the populace they serve.

    Oh, and you are absolutely right about the highlights on the homepage…good grief, make sure they reflect the crisis!

    Best,
    Jen

  • Interesting post. I do agree with Jen above, that because government agencies have a duty of care towards their citizens, directly publishing (and therefore legitimising) input from social media sources would probably not be a wise move. Responsible agencies would need to verify submissions before endorsing them in this way – time consuming and also an unnecessary diversion of resources during a crisis. Why would government need to play this role with social media? Twitter, Flickr, Google Maps etc have demonstrated the value of ‘the community’ during the fires crisis – including citizen updates from these services on a state website would not make them any more valuable.

    Where I think you are correct though is in highlighting an increasing need for ‘official’ news sources (both the government and older media) to adapt to utilising new media channels – and actually become part of conversations (crisis or otherwise) within these communities. Twitter has just proved how well it disseminates news – government agencies etc absolutely should have Twitter accounts and use the service to talk with citizens. The same for Flickr & Google Maps (could be used to show safe areas, evac areas etc). I think the challenge will be for government etc to adapt from the current broadcast mentality to an approach which is more two-way and conversational. I am sure this will gradually happen, after all the only reason TV is generally the mechanism used for crisis communications is because historically it has been the quickest and most effective medium for reaching the largest audience. As that changes, so surely will the methods used.

  • Hi Jen and Jon,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments – you both make some great points.

    I think you’re right – governments do have a responsibility to ensure information is correct. Perhaps encouraging citizen contributions in a crisis is a little too out there.

    A couple of thoughts, leading to a couple of questions for you:
    – While they may need to be more cautious than a newsroom, it’s interesting to note that in this case the state is embedding KPBS News’ interactive map in its website. Where does that leave the line between verified and unverified content? Are they verifying the information on that map?
    – If the goal is a more conversational approach, can the government move towards that in crisis situations without encouraging more contributions from citizens? I’m not sure. Should attempts at conversation be limited to non-crisis situations?

    I find this fascinating. I’m sure there are few ‘right answers’ as this area, like all of social media, is rapidly evolving right now.

    Cheers,

    Dave

  • Good point – I hadn’t thought of that side of the discussion.

    As you say there probably aren’t right and wrong answers – this is an interesting time to be involved with communications issues and new technology. It will be interesting to watch how these new approaches evolve.

    I went to a talk recently by Glen Drury (from Yahoo, Europe). Something he said just came back to me when thinking about this topic. He said the important thing for brands to remember when using new media was to genuinely add value for the target audience. I guess the same rule applies for Government agencies. Your summary of the topics on the state webpage illustrate how that isn’t being thought about in their current approach. Could you imagine how much bad it would be if they carried that way of thinking over to Twitter etc…!

  • Dave,

    We did a quick PEST analysis for the fires in my PR class on Tuesday with KTLA’s video footage up on our screen.

    We discussed the use of new and social media for communicating in a crisis like this, and I raised the point that the faster communication gets, the higher people’s expectations get.

    I think multiple venues for information is always a wise idea. Twitter, for example, may be under-utilised now, but it, or a similar application, may become as normal as radio for emergency messages in the future–might as well start now.

    Moreover, as Gerald Baron points out, with two-way communication comes expectations. The emergency communicators must be able to provide applicable and timely answers if they are opening themselves to inquires from the public, or else trust may be lost.

    If you’re not familiar with PEST, here’s a quick rundown:
    http://www.netmba.com/strategy/pest/

    Here’s Gerald Baron’s white paper on notification and communication:
    http://www.audiencecentral.com/posted/1533/PIER_Notification_White_Paper_bw_1009.166265.pdf

  • Interesting article, Dave!

    It made me think two things:

    The first is, when you ask “Why not do what the news outlets did and use this technology to provide up-to-the-minute updates?” it made me wonder if the answer may be in the question. Why should the state gov bother when news outlets are already doing it? Is the goal to be “doing it” or simply serving the public? And if they did “do it”, would the citizens of California really go to the government’s site for all the blingy stuff like photos and interactive maps… when the private sector news sites would be doing them fancier and quicker? Even I’d choose CNN over my local gov — national private sector organizations simply have more resources to throw at it.

    I think governments are too quick to blindly “do” whatever the private sector is doing. As a citizen, I want to be assured that government resources are going into fixing the problem — in this case fighting the fires. If I was an elected official, I’d want to make sure my organization’s response appeared effective and efficient. Hard to justify fancy features on a fancy site. Maybe the answer shouldn’t be glitzy at all. As CNN did the day of 9/11, sometimes pulling down everything and putting up a simple one-pager of “what you need to know RIGHT NOW” information works best. And that’s it. No clutter. Just the facts. The ultimate twitter update.

    The second question your article made me think about is: are governments thinking enough about online crisis communications? Seems to me a crisis is the worst time to do any kind of thinking — it’s a time for getting things done. What Cali probably needed was a 2.0 strategy in place in advance — something to guide them, maybe even a toolkit or website that gets put up. Kind of like the “this is a test, this is only a test” emergency broadcast channel planning. Maybe that’s what the public sector needs to be thinking about first — a “cal.gov/emergency” site that’s promoted in PSAs before a crisis happens. Then everyone knows exactly where to go when the time comes, with pre-built tools ready to receive (and focus on) the appropriate content.

    I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to be doing is trying to decide if an RSS or podcast is the right way to go while the guy next to me is busy trying to seal all the windows.

    -Steve

  • Michelle

    Dave: Great post on social media and crisis communication. I am the leader of crisis communication for a Canadian municipality and I followed with curiosity the latest updates throughout California. I was impressed by some of the news agencies that you identified in your post, and I was also disappointed by the government information (or lack thereof). We have adopted social media on our crisis team and actually have a position called “crisis blogger” who will monitor blogs during a crisis in our city and provide corrections if required. We will also post updated information on our city site. We are currently reviewing how we will include citizen input on our site. Yes, we are a government organization, but citizens can often assist during a crisis. We had a severe flood in 2005 and the pictures we received from our citizens helped us understand the severity in particular neighbourhoods.

    I applaud you for discussing this topic. I work in the crisis field daily and do not see alot of discussion on social media and crisis communication.

  • Hi Steve & Michelle,

    Sorry for taking so long to respond!

    Steve… thanks for your thoughtful comment! To respond to your two points:
    1. You’re right… governments shouldn’t chase after the ‘shiny new objects’ just because they can. However, if you look at this particular case, the situation is (a) time sensitive, (b) geographically-focused and (c) life-threatening. In that context, I would argue tools that allows the state to provide time-sensitive updates (e.g. a blog) and push those updates out to citizens via their mobile devices (e.g. Twitter), or to simply illustrate the latest situation in each area (an interactive maps) are entirely appropriate. It’s not rushing out to embrace every tool – it’s picking the most appropriate ones from your toolkit, and I don’t think they did that.
    2. Your second point is spot-on. The fires weren’t exactly a surprise – they happen regularly (hence the name ‘Fire Season’). Why not have the site up there at the beginning of that time period with fire prevention tips? I agree with you completely.

    Michelle – thanks for your comment! Sounds like you folks are doing yoemens’ work out there.

    -Dave