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.

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.