Tag Archives: Public Information Officer

Decentralized Social Communications: Scary Stuff!

Post by: Kim Stephens

ad697e01Do you keep your social media presence “close to the vest” (e.g. only allowing Public Information Officers the ability to post content) or does your strategy include the ability for all agency officials to reach the community?  The latter type of presence involves letting go of control to some extent and this, of course, requires a huge leap of faith from leadership, especially in top-down oriented public safety organizations. However, this type of strategy is currently being done quite successfully.

Decentralized Communications: Is this The Evolution of Your Social Presence?

In the book “Social Media in the Public Sector Field Guide” Ines Mergel and Bill Greeves suggest that a decentralized approach to social media content production is evidence of an evolved use of social media in organizations. They state that agencies that have been using social media for a while often “make social media the responsibility of everyone” and offer the benefits of this decision:

A recent decision at the Department of Defense was to abandon the role of the social media director and instead transfer that position’s responsibilities onto many shoulders in the organization. It is very difficult for a single department or division to speak with the knowledge and authority of all the business units of an organization. “Official” responses often require time and research. They frequently result in formal answers that do not fit the casual tone inherent in social media. By formally distributing the tasks and response functions to those who have the knowledge required to have meaningful online conversations on social media channels, you can decrease maintenance costs, increase trust in those exchanges and reduce the number of missteps or rounds of interaction it takes before citizens get the “right” response from your agency. (pages 110-112)

Jim Garrow, who blogs at “The Face of the Matter” makes a similar case: “My point, and it naturally follows from last week’s post on having others write for your agency, is that we [PIOs] need to get the hell out of the way. Let your agency shine through every day. Give your experts the podium they deserve. Build them a following (or let them build a following).”

But how would this work for public safety organizations?

The Toronto Police Department provides an example of complete decentralization of social media content. As can be seen in the image below their agency’s website homepage has all the “big 3″ social media buttons: Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. These buttons take the user to their official account, most likely administered by a Public Information Officer.

toronto

Choose, however, the “Connect with us” tab right below it, and their world opens up. I counted 119 different social media accounts for this organization–119! What are all these people talking about? Ideally, the content they are posting should be directly related to their position or function in the organization, and with each of the samples I chose at random, that proved to be the case. Take for instance Sgt Jack West—who has the title of “Traffic Enforcement.” No shocker, he talks a lot about traffic and how people can stay safe–e.g “Don’t text and drive” etc.

Patricia Fleischmann or @caringcop on Twitter, has the title of “Vulnerable Persons Coordinator.” What does she post about? How elderly and other people who might be vulnerable to crime and natural disasters can be better prepared. She also Tweets quite a lot about people that are helping each other, organizations folks can turn to for assistance, and information from community meetings she attends. She has a healthy following of 762 people.

I could go on for while with examples, but feel free to explore of these great social feeds yourself by clicking here. So, how do they keep everyone in their “lane?” How do they keep all of these people from embarrassing the organization and posting inappropriate content? Yikes–this is scary territory!

I have been told by some of these Toronto Tweeters, that they do the following:

  • Before they get their social account, they are required to attend a 3-day intensive social media training class that provides them with not only information about how and why to use social networks, but also how NOT to use them. This would include Department and City posting policies.
  • Each of the accounts are clearly marked with the fact that the person works for the Toronto Police Department, however, they do often choose to use their own picture instead of the PD’s logo–giving the account a personal touch, which I think is critical for community outreach and engagement (it says to the public–we are people to).
  • Each account states that they do not monitor the account 24/7, and that if anyone needs emergency assistance they should dial 911. (See below–each person’s account information looks almost identical.)
  • Each Twitter profile links back to the official website.toronto2

This obviously is not a willy nilly hey, all-you-guys-go-Tweet-something strategy. Their strategy is obvious, their goals are clear; and it seems to me they are meeting the objectives of reaching out and  connecting with the public on platforms that the public uses everyday.

See, it’s not so scary after all!

Maryland Emergency Management Agency Plans for #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens

Maryland Emergency Management Agency

Maryland Emergency Management Agency (Photo credit: Maryland National Guard)

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency (@MDMEMA on Twitter)  has recently taken their social media communication’s strategy to new heights–even incorporating a module about the tools into their Public Information Officer training.

I had the opportunity to meet the MEMA  Social Media Coordinator, Kasey Parr, when we both served on a panel at the Social Media Week in Washington DC (a big thank you to Michael Clarke of International Media Solutions for organizing our session). I  asked Kasey in a written follow up for a little more detail about their social media plans and current processes. Below is the result of the Q&A with both Kasey and Ed McDonough,  the MEMA PIO.

Q1. What type of Social Media content is included in the PIO training?

A1: Kasey: The first training we conducted on “Social Media in the JIC” was right before Hurricane Sandy, forcing me to cut down on my slides because of time constraints on Ed and myself. The presentation given before Hurricane Sandy included:

  • Why do we use social media during emergencies?
  • What are the benefits?- This will now include a case study of the Derecho/Hurricane Sandy
  • Our level of engagement/How we use SM
  • VOST concept and how we can create a model with MD social media managers
  • Procedures during an event- 12 hour shift roles and responsibilities
  • Monitoring/responding (what it is, how we do it, etc)-

A1: Ed — I would add that we have been teaching about the use of social media as part of our instruction of FEMA‘s Basic PIO (G290) and JIC/JIS (G291) training for several years. We discuss the various platforms for SM, how to get buy in from supervisors and/or elected officials, stress the differences and similarities between SM and the traditional media, and emphasize that it is a two-way information flow that also can help operations folks with tactical decisions.  (You may be familiar with some of the ways Bill Humphries of LAFD has used Twitter to gain operational information.)

Maryland Emergency Management Agency

Maryland Emergency Management Agency (Photo credit: Maryland National Guard)

Q2. How is SM incorporated into “normal” communications and messaging processes?
A2: Ed — During our “sunny day” periods, we regularly use social media to engage the public about preparedness information, regularly monitor Facebook and twitter for information about weather, traffic and other information in and around Maryland and from emergency management agencies around the country. Unlike traditional media, where we are usually just pushing out information, we use social media to actually engage the public with contests and such to get immediate feedback. We also are in the process of making sure that our social media policies are incorporated into our public information SOPs, so any state public information officer working in our Joint Information Center will understand the role of social media in emergency management.

Q3.  Do you talk (in your training) specifically about the transfer of the intelligence gathered from monitoring social networks to decision-makers? 
A3: Kasey–We do address social media monitoring in our training. As a part of the procedures in the JIC the roles and responsibilities of the monitor are outlined. These responsibilities include alerting the team of any relevant trends that may need to be addressed and by whom these issues need to be addressed according to the urgency of the matter. Some issues can be easily solved with the PIO, relevant state agency reps, or they [may] require the attention of the Senior Policy Group.

Depending on the nature of the information that has come through, we may need to get the Governor to address it in his next press briefing, have the PIO construct a press release, or create a social media messaging strategy centered on the intelligence or trend to eliminate confusion. After Hurricane Sandy, we walked away with a lot of lessons learned as far as media monitoring is concerned. In my opinion, the social media monitor has the most important role during a disaster. This is one part of our social media program that I would like to build out for a disaster or emergency situation.

A3: Ed — I would add that we are exploring the use of crowdsourcing programs that could work in conjunction with our GIS staff to give operational staff in the state EOC better situational awareness during an activation. This will become even more important for counties and cities, as they are on the front lines of response.

Thank you so much Ed and Kasey! Let me know what types of questions you might have for them or other agencies.

Washington Smoke Blogspot: A Truly Collaborative Effort

Post by: Kim Stephens

Smoke from the September 2012 fires in central Washington State continues to cause huge air quality concerns for local residents.  Last week public health officials, according to the Seattle Times,  went so far as to call conditions  “…worse than in the days after Mount St. Helens erupted and the region was coated with ash.”  Not surprisingly, this has manifested in very real public health problems and has led to hospitalizations and school closures.

“We have never had anything like this happen in Chelan or Douglas County and maybe never in the state of Washington,” said Mary Small, public-information officer for the Chelan-Douglas Health District. (Source: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2019205184_wenatchee20m.html)

As with any crisis, citizens want to know what is happening and how it impacts them. But in this era of information overload, feast is sometimes more of an issue than famine. This is especially true now that every  locality, State and Federal agency has a website, a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, etc.

Of course the Joint Information System is supposed to address this problem. In theory the JIS is designed to “integrate incident information and public affairs into a cohesive organization designed to provide consistent, coordinated, accurate, accessible, timely, and complete information during crisis or incident operations.” But, we all know this doesn’t always happen as seamlessly as the definition implies.

Washington Smoke Blog

The Washington Smoke Information blog, however, provides a great example of what a cohesive information  system can and does look like. According to the USDA’s Forest Service website, the blog combines information from numerous agencies including Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Department of Health, Washington tribes, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service and various Washington county health departments.

“This website [blog] is a big step forward in providing the public with one-stop information that will help them protect their health,” said Deputy Regional Forester Maureen Hyzer. “We recognize that smoke from wildfires is a big concern for the public. This site will help them get information quickly about the air quality where they live.”

VOST

Of course a website or a blog doesn’t coordinate information, people do. One interesting aspect of this blog is that, according to the USDA-FS website, it was put up with the assistance of  “a volunteer web group.” The volunteer-web-group is actually a Virtual Operations Support Team or VOST (see definition in the text box).

The Forest Service has been making use of VOSTs mostly due to the promotion and deployment of the concept by Kris Eriksen, the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Portland Team (a Type I Incident Management team). Ms. Eriksen has utilized VOSTs since 2011 to support social media and digital communications on numerous fires. The effort was documented by researchers during the 2011 Oregon, Shadow Lake Fire (read that document here.)

Who are these volunteers? Participants in this VOST effort include active emergency mangers who work during their off hours, people who have technical skills and an interest in emergency management, and even some regional forest service employees. Most have worked on previous VOST efforts.

Tools for Organization--With each VOST activation Ms. Eriksen and the team make use of Skype chat rooms and Google Docs to coordinate their efforts. Both communication and collaboration tools are seen as vital to the success of any deployment. The skype platform allows information to be relayed from the official organization via Ms. Eriksen to the VOST members in a text format: members can simply read the stream in order to determine what has transpired in previous communications and/or shifts. They also use the tool to discuss issues and receive direction in real-time. (I was given access and permission to read through the chat log.)

The Blog

In order to ensure citizens can quickly find the information they need, the Washington Smoke blog was designed–as stated above–as a one-stop shop. How do the volunteers fit in? It should be emphasized that VOST members are not involved in any of the following: decisions about what is posted; deciding if air quality is good versus hazardous; the wording on a press release or even the titles of the categories on the blog. They are, however, integral to the effort to pull content generated by official sources to the blog and populate the site with links and data from those sources as directed by the team leader.

Google Crisis Response

When citizens link to the blog site the first thing they will see is a prominently placed Google map. This map has multiple layers of data including: air quality–current conditions; air quality–tomorrow’s forecast; schools affected by the smoke; public alerts; Active Fire Perimeters; Inciweb (Incident Information System) fires; US Radar (Precipitation); and Cloud Imagery.

The Google Crisis Response Team worked very closely with Ms. Eriksen and the VOST  on this effort to provide a map that would help meet information needs of the local citizens.   Animation layers were added based on data available through actively participating organizations such as the Washington State Department of Ecology and the US EPA–just to name two. (I understand that getting the data into compatible formats was a little bit of a challenge.)  Although each organization has their own website to provide agency-specific content (see–Air Now a site that has Air quality information displayed on a map) , the Google map is the only place to find layered data: for instance, you can find schools within the hazardous air quality boundary.

Other information available on the site:

  • A map that is hyperlinked to National Weather Service real-time updates (labeled: Watches, Warnings and Advisories–the grey color indicates an air quality alert);
  • Daily updates of air quality from each county with the measures Good, Unhealthy, Moderate, Unhealthy for senstive groups and Hazardous;
  • Daily updates or press releases from any organization involved in the response. Yesterday, for example, there were posts such as:
  • A list of all of the hyperlinks to pertinent agencies, organizations and tools separated by categories including: County, State, Federal, Webcams, and Fire Information (which includes such sites as Inciweb and the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center);
  • FAQs;
  • Other resources;
  • Information in Spanish

According to the site-visit counter the page has received over 25,500 hits. That is a great success. I look forward to the after action report from this effort. I think there will be many great take-aways for other communities and agencies to learn from–for instance, the importance of sharing data in open formats. What do you want to know more about?

Anaheim CERT to Monitor Social Media During a Disaster

Post by: Kim Stephens

It has been documented that government agencies often experience a 500% increase in the number of followers and “fans” to their social media sites during a disaster. Monitoring those sites and responding to requests for information can become overwhelming: at a minimum it is most certainly labor intensive. Emergency management organizations, both government and non-governmental alike, are starting to understand how enormous this task could be and are looking for innovative solutions to solve the problem.  Anaheim, California has turned to their CERT members.

This tweet by Craig Fugate is over a year old, suggesting that the concept of CERT members playing a role in monitoring social networks or even in reporting observations through those platforms, is not necessarily a new idea. The concept is built on the notion that these folks are “trusted agents,” already trained in basic emergency skills, and  known quantities by the response organization. However, I have yet to really see many CERTs move in this direction, making the Anaheim CERT a really interesting test case.  I interviewed the CERT coordinator in order to determine what was necessary in order to accomplish this goal. (I appreciate their candidness!) Below are the results from that interview.

Anaheim

Roles and Responsibilities: CERT volunteers already serve in a community outreach capacity by supplementing staff in the “hotline room” by answer questions on the phone. The concept is to extend these responsibilities to social networks. The social media monitoring volunteers will be used primarily to keep track of comments and social data posted to the communities’ social platforms. They will also be allowed to retweet (repeat a message on twitter) anything that has already been put out by the Public Information Officer (PIO).  They currently have 3 laptops dedicated for volunteers, loaded with an enhanced excel capability called “Pivot Table”. Pivot table will allow the digital volunteers to record the event and do real-time data-mining, including listing frequently asked questions, etc.  CERT members will be required to monitor the social stream in the EOC hotline room.

Training: The CERT coordinator is planning to do training for social media monitoring and use of the “pivot table” tool (she is planning to share this training with regional partners). The training  will include: hot-line room standard operating procedures; reporting protocols; rules regarding what they can and cannot say; and, potentially, will require participation in a monthly twitter chat. Volunteers will also be taught “how” to monitor including which search terms to use etc., as well as which platforms to monitor. However, volunteers will be given some latitude to keep track of all the platforms they see fit.  The training currently does not include a module on how to verify information, however, that is a consideration for future efforts.

Linking to Operations: Specifically, regarding reporting protocols and procedures, pertinent information the monitoring team discovers will loop back into the EOC planning and operations section via the PIO. Any life threatening information will be sent directly to the dispatcher and non-life threatening info will get written down on paper or in an email and is sent to the PIO to review then decide which section it should go to. Currently, CERT “digital volunteers” do not have access to WebEOC, but they have discussed granting limited access so that they can input the information directly. (The CERT coordinator supplied the graphic below.) She states: “Depending upon the platform, some steps may require modification.  For example individual [citizens] may post to YouTube which may require a response post or a comment directing individuals to a website or blog with more information. “  She indicated that a determination would also be made whether or not the YouTube video provided helpful content that should be disseminated using other platforms.


What concerns people? The biggest concern of emergency management professionals in Anaheim regarding this new monitoring program is liability: “What if messages are not addressed and then the agency gets sued?”

Thank you @AnaheimCERT for the interview and great responses.

Are you looking to do anything similar with your CERT? Please let me know.


[1] Stephens, Kim, “SMEM chat: Monitoring Social Networks—How do we Listen?”  March, 2011, http://idisaster.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/smem-chat-monitoring-social-networks-how-do-we-listen/.

Social Media are sources of Data: Now What? SMEM chat

Post by: Kim Stephens

This week I found via @LoulouK (who hosts the chats about local governments’ use of social media in Great Britain) a fantastic archiving resource: What the Hashtag?!. WTH?! is a user-editable encyclopedia for Twitter. I’ve never been more excited about an application. I already updated the SMEMchat page to include a description (feel free to edit my definition), the related hashtag, and external links. This archival system seems to be something we’ve all been waiting for: yes, you can go back in time longer than five days; yes, it sorts it from oldest to newest so that you can read the transcript in a more natural way, vs. having to scroll all the way to the bottom and read up; yes, I’m excited–did I say that already?  I’ve set the date/time parameters for the transcript of this chat and you can find it here.

Links shared just before and during the chat:

This chat was hosted by Heather Blanchard, of CrisisCommons.

Q.  How can EM break out of PDF Sitrep into providing a data stream as data become available, instead waiting for a “final” doc?

This question led to a debate about the usefulness of sitreps in an era of rapidly available information, and about the true role and utility of sitreps. Chris Hall (@Firetracker2) thought breaking out of the old model of pdf sitreps into realtime data streams was a policy issue, e.g. approval cycles and decisions on what needs to be the final “product”.  Of course sitreps are outdated the minute they are completed (this has always been true, even before social media). So some suggested, that maybe live data should somehow be included.

But Cheryl Bledsoe and others noted there are reasons we have sitreps: they are a “slice of time” and can provide and highlight key points that are important for decision-makers. Also, by reading back through them, they show the evolution of the incident. Chris agreed with this stating that sitreps provide good info for the relief team to catch up on “nuances” of the incident, and James Garrow noted that they were the best way to catch up if you were not closely following the situation stream. And let’s not forget as their archival value for post disaster litigation.

But I like how @resudox succinctly stated it: “Sitreps are a snapshot and should be verified information: actionable & traceable for future reference. Live data is for tactical changes.”

Q. How can data within EOCs be platform agnostic? Are there current standards that should be used within Ops Ctr?

Cheryl suggested perhaps we should start with open data and open-sourced data code as a standard. NtbgroupEM agreed: “different needs, different data but same standards.” He went on to say standards=access, and aggregation =context. TiJTechOps pointed everyone to a data standard managed by OASIS based on XML (link above).

Q: Should the purpose of a sitrep be redefined or revised based on emerging technologies? If so, why or why not?

This question was never really answered per se, but it did spark a debate. Patrice Cloutier stated that the need for constant updates can add a real risk of “interference” from senior execs or elected officials, he went on to say that goes hand in hand with greater expectations from our audiences who shape perception, which impacts politicians. But others disagreed: @tiJTechOps states: “constant updates stop unnecessary questions from senior execs, allowing you to do your job”.  I’m guessing that he was implying that the constant updates would be automated. (Side note: We can actually look to the military here for lessons learned. Their blue force tracking system is a way for commanders to get real-time data from the field on the movements of troops. Some people feared that this would lead to generals in the Pentagon trying to interfere with commanders on the ground–but those fears never materialized.)

Q: What are the technical/infrastructure needs that will have to happen for Ops Centers to be able to create and distribute data streams?

The answer from Chris really summed it up:

“Power, Intact IT infrastructure, BANDWIDTH and lots of it.”

Q: What position in your operations center collects, conducts analysis and develops products from data? Which OPs Center filters that data? and if there is no current position for this, where would you place data aggregation, filtering and visualization?

Currently, sitstat is done in the planning section and data gathering is a task for the Public Information Officer(s) in the Joint Information Center. As Cheryl notes, the planning section should be all about aggregation, filtering and visualization, “Along with ‘channels’ being monitored and identified in the Comms Plan developed by logistics section.” Patrice thought that “SM monitoring, including crowdmap (crowdsourced data gathered from public social media platforms and text messages) should not only be a PIO function but Ops and plans/intel should be in on it too. He goes on to postulate that the planning section should have a position that deals with data gathering, analysis and curation. @zborst suggested that volunteers, such as CERT or college-type students, could be utilized to help with aggregation and filtering of data.

@DB7 (David Black, an emergency manager from Toronto, Canada)  noted: “I have assigned SMEM monitoring in the past to our ARES team. But that may not work for others. Depends on the nature of the team.”

(ARES stands for Amateur Radio Emergency Services): despite the stereotype of ARES people being of an older generation, an image put forth by some in the chat–and taken exception by others, David stated that his volunteers are college engineering students.

But Cheryl noted the need for PIOs to monitor whether messages are changing public behavior “planning=incident focused. PIO=public.” But @jack4cap states

“sorry to disagree, but needs to be a separate function…”

He says that they are planing to use CAP cadets in one EOC to monitor rumor control, so why not social media? Cheryl asked about the DHS NETguard pilot project which tested the development of teams of technology volunteers. Heather summed up the less-than promising status:  “unscoped, unfunded, not a priority for DHS.” hastatusllc called this job we were grappling to define the “Human Router” and used the example of Andy Carvin (of NPR, who has been tweeting info about the middle-east uprisings). “We don’t have a place on the ORG charts yet.”

The discussion then devolved into a facebook vs. twitter free for all. Neither won, but Chris summed it up: ” Know your audience prior to an incident through engagement w/ tool THEY use Not what U want to use.”