More Social Media Lessons from QPS in Australia: If we don’t listen, how can we hear?

Post by: Kim Stephens

I have written about the Australian Queensland Police Service and their brilliant use of social media for emergency response before. I have continued to track their feeds, and I have a few more insights into their success that I would like to share. I asked them a few questions by simply sending a tweet with their name in it: @QPSMedia. Their reputation for responsiveness is well-deserved; whoever was monitoring their twitter feed simply asked me “What do you want to know?” I didn’t want to monopolize their time, since they are currently still in response/recovery mode from the recent cyclone, but I did manage to get two questions in.

1.If people post on SM that they need help (e.g. stranded etc.) do you have a legal obligation to respond?  Here in U.S.,  emergency managers fear social media replacing 911. Emergency Managers also fear that needs posted thru social media sets them up for lawsuits if they don’t respond.

The QPS media person responded: “We state the SM is NOT the best way 2 get emergency help, however we did arrange an evac after a tweet during #qldfloods. [It's] only a matter of time. [before Social Media replaces 911]. It is something we’ll be looking at in the debrief.”

“we’re planning a conference in a couple of months to share what we’ve learned. How’s that for an excuse for a trip to Qld? :)”

2.Did you monitor Social Media sites 24/7? How much staff was required?

“We do monitor 24/7.” The entire media team has about 25 people and one person is a social media specialist. They found the need to add volunteers to aid with all of the duties (see comment below). I  also received an email that they were planning for reinforcements with the hiring of 2 assistants as of Feb. 14th.   As a point of reference, the population in Queensland has about 4.5 million (as of 2006). Their facebook page has 172,000 fans and their twitter feed is followed by 11,000 people. (That should help response organizations understand about how much staff would be required for maintaining a social media presence during a large-scale event).

The QPS media director added a clarification in a comment to this post:

One clarifier: my tweet didn’t make it clear that 25- person team was the TOTAL number of staff, to cover off on a 24 hour roster, which means it is not unusual for one person overnight to be dealing with mainstream media inquiries as well as the SM.

Until the floods, we had one person who was a SM specialist, but his position was rapidly bolstered by an additional two officers. During the height of the flooding, we actually tweeted for volunteer SM interns to assist us, and got some wonderful help from a nice young bloke who put his life on hold for two weeks to come work his butt off in the media room.

3. Listening to the public is just as important and “talking”/providing information.

So what else can we learn from their experience even now, before they’ve even had a chance to compile their thoughts? The investment in staff demonstrates their investment in the medium and in the amount of intended engagement. The 25 media people do not just “push” information to citizens, they monitor comments and engage people when they ask questions. This, I think, has enabled a deft response effort. I cringe when I hear response organizations here in the U.S. state that they will be happy to post on social media sites, but they have literally turned off the ability for citizens to comment. This is a HUGE mistake, in my opinion. Here’s a few examples to demonstrate why.

  • Comments on seemingly innocuous posts can turn into valuable situational awareness information.

Here is a simple post “drinking water and ice have been delivered to….” In the comments, however, we see a problem: A person asks “What about Cardwell?” Immediately, QPS answers “Are you saying Carwell needs water…we’ll pass along info”.

Another person comments, but this is a responder: He states: I’m SES (State Emergency Service person) and we had residents begging us for water in Carwell on Sat., we passed it up the chain and assumed it was fixed and we weren’t tasked to that area again. We assumed the army brought it in. Follow up please and make sure that they are a) supplied water and b) if its already there let them know where to get it.”

Four hours later, QPS puts up this post: “Update from Cardwell“. They do exactly what the SES asks and they include a long post with the information on exactly where people can get water.

Now think what would have happened if people were not allowed to comment at all. The QPS would have been very proud that they had delivered water and would not have been aware that there was a perceived problem. As an example of their personal touch, the QPS even addressed the original questioner directly by stating “Kamilla, see our update.” With regard to the responders input,  here in the United States, I doubt that our current Incident Command System would have allowed for the SES person to post on the comment section at all. However, his post is invaluable for the public to see. It demonstrates that emergency services thought they had addressed the problem  and therefore, maybe its just an issue of residents not getting the word. It also demonstrates his concern and therefore the concern of all response organizations. This type open and honest exchange can go a long way towards stemming people’s anger and/or frustration.

  • Answering questions helps quell rumors.

In a great article by blogger Robert Hook, “All in a Twitter“, he gives an example of how NOT to use social media as per the TransLinkSEO. Translink’s mission on their twitter profile:  “Tweeting major service disruptions, public transport news, upcoming service changes and events in SEQ. We’re usually online 9-5 Mon-Fri.” Unfortunately, their style of tweeting left a lot to be desired. Instead of answering questions directly, they made broad statements and sent patrons to their website via a link in the tweet. This is problematic because most people view those tweets on smart phones, and going to a hyperlink that isn’t an app is clunky at best.

During the floods, there were many transit disruptions, on one particular day a rumor started that all public transport would stop at 2PM. There were many direct tweets to Translink asking if this was true.  As Mr. Hook explained in his article “the ONLY response in return was to keep repeating that they had a page with service statuses on it.” The biggest non-surprise, was that this led to their website melting down. I like his conclusions:

Successful use of Twitter as a meaningful and important information and communication tool recognised a handful of very key features of the service that distinguish it from many other services:

  • it is more like a broadcast service than an asynchronous service like a web page;
  • messages should be considered ephemeral and only made meaningful by currency;
  • the tiny messages mean that it is accessible through an extremely broad range of mobile devices;
  • a very significant number of users use Twitter via mobile devices;
  • the infrastructure has evolved and been designed to support a staggeringly large number of simultaneous requests;
  • relevant information-rich messages are spread further and live longer than information-poor messages;
  • the service is inherently a two-way information flow, and questions and criticisms that flow back are indicators of errors or inadequacies in the outgoing flow.

I think the biggest take-away is that engaging the public is NOT something to be avoided and taking comments and questions through social media platforms does not hinder response efforts –it absolutely aids them.

If we don’t listen, how can we hear?

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4 responses to “More Social Media Lessons from QPS in Australia: If we don’t listen, how can we hear?

  1. Thank you for your comments, I’m glad what I wrote was of some service to you. I’m particularly taken by your summary “If we don’t listen, how can we hear?”.

    It is facile to think that all and any organisations should be entirely responsive to every voice that speaks, but the contrast between QPS and TransLinkSEQ illustrates graphically that it is possible (albeit labour intensive) to monitor and filter those voices and respond to the signal buried in the noise.

  2. Thank you for the engagement. I’d like to encourage everyone to read your excellent three page analysis of twitter use during the flooding event.
    Regarding monitoring, as I have said in the past, if you become a magnet for people seeking information, then it is a lot easier to monitor and therefore filter out key bits of pertinent data because it will be on your facebook page, for example. This, of course, is a little more difficult on sites such as twitter, due to sheer volume, but even then, if people believe you will answer them directly, then they will ask you directly.
    New ground was broken in Australia, and I think we will look back on how the QPS employed the technology as a watershed moment. (No pun was intended, seriously.)
    Thanks again for the article and analysis.

  3. Thanks for the article (and the kind words!)

    We are very much beginners in SM, having started a trial in absence of policy in May last year. Kudos to Deputy Director Ian Stewart, who saw the risks were far outweighed by the benefits of being in the SM space. We were blessed to have had six months to bed things in a little before #TCTasha came along to cause the floods of December and January, paving the way for her big ugly sister, #TCYasi.

    In November, Qld disaster management legislation changed to make the QPS the lead agency in the response phase of a disaster. Thank heavens we had SM!

    One clarifier: my tweet didn’t make it clear that 25- person team was the TOTAL number of staff, to cover off on a 24 hour roster, which means it is not unusual for one person overnight to be dealing with mainstream media inquiries as well as the SM.

    Until the floods, we had one person who was a SM specialist, but his position was rapidly bolstered by an additional two officers. During the height of the flooding, we actually tweeted for volunteer SM interns to assist us, and got some wonderful help from a nice young bloke who put his life on hold for two weeks to come work his butt off in the media room.

    Once the mud settles, we’ve got to take a good hard look at the draft policy that we’ve been working on during the trail, and make sure it reflects The lessons we’ve learned.

    Thanks again!

    Kym Charlton
    Director Queensland Police Media

    • Thank you so much for the clarification. It is sometimes difficult to convey an entire experience in a couple of tweets. We will be looking to your lessons learned with great expectancy. I think what you all have accomplished will help us here in the U.S. determine our own next steps in terms of how to incorporate social media into our plans and policies.
      I implore you to keep us posted.

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