Is anybody there? Social Media are more than message distribution platforms.

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Post by: Kim Stephens

Last night my local TV news station did a fairly long segment about a man who was fed up with a cable outage and even more frustrated when he couldn’t reach a human when he called their customer service line. The “newsworthy” part of the story described how he tweeted about the issue mentioning the company (e.g. “Why do we have on outage @Comcast?”) and immediately got a response from @CableWill. The reporter was just amazed that the cable company would respond so quickly via twitter and even interviewed CableWill. Will said he and two other people had full-time “listening” jobs and it was their responsibility to answer customers’ questions and concerns. It seems they are following the model outlined by the Harvard Business Review blog entitled “Separate Social Media From Marketing”. The article states “When social media is applied to marketing, it creates activity — and in marketing, activity is a good thing. But activity alone does not create business results.” They encouraged businesses  to “create a truly social organization that can deliver enhanced value to customers and employees who expect more than marketing from these new technologies.”

This same logic should apply to government agencies engaged on social networks. As part of my consulting gig I contact many different local governments. This, more often than not, is an exercise in complete frustration. In order to reach local officials, one city requires its citizens to first call 311–even if you know exactly  with whom you wish to speak. The 311 operator  then routes the caller  to the correct office, which then routes them to the administrative assistant, where, most likely,  you get a voice-mail that tells you to leave a message and “they will get back to you.”  Aargh! I asked one assistant, “Do your citizens ever complain that they can’t reach people in your government?” and she said, with a bit of a sigh “All the time.” No wonder people’s opinion of government is so low. That system tells the citizen–”I’m too important to talk to you.”

As government agencies start to use social networks I’ve seen a lot of them use the platforms simply as another way to “push” information. They should understand that first and foremost, people who go to an agency’s facebook page or follow their twitter feed EXPECT two-way communication. If you are simply pushing information via these platforms your citizens will be no-less frustrated than if they reach the voice-mail box. Non-responsiveness is not something people react well to, especially when they are the ones paying your salary. This, however, presents two main problems: #1 Who will be your @comcastbill and monitor the networks; and #2 How will you keep up with all of the expected interactions, particularly in a crisis?

I would submit, when thinking about this issue, that answering a message in written form is much less time consuming than answering a phone call. However, in a crisis or disaster, when the volume increases exponentially, there are several strategies specific to social media that can be employed to mitigate the challenge of answering all of the requests for information. I’d like to expand on these concepts in future posts, and I’ve mentioned most of them before, but in general here are a few ideas:

Provide the answer before the question is asked:
The questions people ask after a crisis are fairly predictable. In order to reduce the call volume you might:

  • Set up a FAQ tab on your facebook site;
  • Provide information via blogs where you can expand on daily updates of your agency’s activities;
  • Utilize YouTube to describe complicated items, such as debris collection.

Outsource the task to volunteers.
There are ways to get help to sort this information into manageable pieces:

  • Create a Virtual Operations Support Team. A concept created by Jeff Phillips (@losranchosEM) which he describes as “a force multiplier that can scour digital spaces for relevant information (extra eyes for SA), organize data, create/amplify important messaging, maintain official accounts to sustain expected engagement levels and various related tasks depending upon the situation. Individual trusted agents make up the VOST and work directly for the on site Emergency Management Organization within our ICS structure.” In fact, the American Red Cross has already begun to employee this concept by training volunteers to answer questions posted on their facebook page. They understand that people do not have to be sitting in their operations center in order to view and answer questions posed on their social networks.See this blog post by Gisli Olafsson for another take on this kind of outsourcing.
  • Patrick Meier at irevolution, also suggests that volunteer operators could triage questions and requests and push them to the appropriate location. (e.g. “Salvation Army is taking diapers–here’s their location and hyperlink to their site.”)

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and I’m planning on devoting an entire post to the VOST concept. I hope, however, that this demonstrates that the problem is not intractable, it just requires some creative thinking.

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4 responses to “Is anybody there? Social Media are more than message distribution platforms.

  1. Great post…I had a very similar, positive experience with Delta during Hurricane Irene. I couldn’t get through to their 800 number to reschedule my flight, but they had a customer service rep on Facebook who provided his email address and called me back within about 90 minutes of emailing him. He took care of everything for me and it really left me with an outstanding impression of Delta customer service – oh, yeah, I kept his email address for future use ;).

  2. There is someone out there!

    I just wrote on this as well: http://christopherpoirier.com/2011/11/27/considerations-for-the-digital-public-information-officer-pio/

    My main points are pretty much in line with you as well. Got to support two way communications and volunteers help!

  3. You ask these two questions in your article: “#1 Who will be your @comcastbill and monitor the networks; and #2 How will you keep up with all of the expected interactions, particularly in a crisis?” On December 12th the answer to both these questions will be a communication software platform called PIER. Currently it is the only web/email/sms communication management platform that automates the receipt and response to Inquiries. On December 12th at 8PM that two-way capability will expand to include Facebook and Twitter. We just started training webinars for our current customers and they are flipping out! This will help bring situational awareness to a whole new level in way that is easily managed, even when it involves large numbers of stakeholders. Great article.

  4. Pingback: The Top 25 SMEM (by Patrice Cloutier) | Walking the Social Media Beat

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