Top 7 Social Media Lessons from LA Arson Fire Event

Post by: Kim Stephens

The Los Angeles area arson fires were an unwelcome addition to the 2011 holiday  season.  Although I’m sure each of the agencies involved in the Joint Task Force including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and members of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives will be examining their response effort in detail, today I am gleaning some lessons learned with regard to the established Joint Information System, and in particular, how they handled social media during the event. Captain Mike Parker, PIO with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, was gracious enough to share his insights so that other agencies across the country may learn from their experience.

The absolutely most interesting aspect of this Joint Information Center public information campaign is how they not only repeated the same message through each agency’s own outreach platforms–websites, nixle accounts, facebook pages and twitter feeds– but how they combined into one voice via the name “Arson Watch LA”. A Facebook page with that name was established and a twitter account @ArsonwatchLA was created with the blessing and contribution from each of the Joint Task Force member agencies.

The public did respond very favorably to this outreach strategy. Within the first 36 hours of establishing the new name they had over 1000 fans of their Facebook page with over 3000 page views. The twitter account had similar success with 1500 followers in the first 36 hours and, according to tweetreach, they reached over 29,000 people via 50 tweets. Not only did they receive lots of press coverage for the effort (see below) but there was a citizen outpouring of gratitude once the danger seemed to have passed.

What did it take to pull this off? Captain Parker stated in my interview with him that the effort to set up a Facebook page and a twitter account took only a matter of minutes, but the system and approval processes that made that happen is where the story lies. Based on his experience, he has shared these lessons:

1. Put systems in place for a Joint Command/multi-agency social media presence before an event. Although this seems like an obvious statement, it isn’t necessarily an easy task to get many different agencies to agree to be lumped together under a joint account. Why? Agencies work hard to establish trust with their constituents and audiences, particularly on social media platforms, so there could be fear that joining under one name would diminish not only their presence but their ability to highlight their contribution to the response effort. These concerns can be ameliorated beforehand if they are understood and addressed. It is also important for all the agencies involved to understand the potential rewards and benefits of working under one name.

2.  Establish joint accounts before an event occurs. Deciding the Task Force would work under one name was done fairly quickly, choosing the name took a little bit of time. This is the kind of decision that could be done in advance. Furthermore, if you use these accounts each time for similar events,  then public familiarity with them will rise.

3. When working with multiple agencies, timeliness of information dissemination could be slow. After the event had worn on for several days the number of people in the message approval process began to grow. How can large organizations involved in a joint command make nimble decisions regarding what should be put in public messages? Short and sweet seemed to be the best answer. Since twitter only allows for 140 characters, this helped those involved tailor short, simple, factual statements that could be readily approved by all those involved. Forget word-smithing: stick to the facts and get the info out-the-door. Another great point made by Captain Parker was that trust in the PIOs is essential. If the PIO is also a command officer or someone who is fairly high-ranking, this reduces the length of the chain of command these messages have to wind their way through.

4. Listen. Listen. Listen. One of the more interesting lessons I heard the Captain describe was how they used their social media presence to gauge public sentiment and information needs. Despite a little media hype about the Task Force getting tips about the arsonist via these platforms, the most important lesson was that by using these open forums the public was able to ask very important questions, such as “What can I do or should I be doing to protect myself?” The PIOs then tailored their public information campaign to address these concerns and even posted precautionary protective measures prominently on their Facebook “info” tab.

I asked the Captain how the PIOs monitoring the social media platforms handled comments and he stated something I have also found to be the case: the public will answer each other’s questions, often before you even have a chance to respond. Regarding their interagency cooperation, there was never an issue regarding the ability of whomever was monitoring the page to answer comments nor was there a need for pre-approval from the other Task Force member agencies for these answers.

5. Ignore Stupid comments: The crowd will not only answer questions but will also shout down people who make really stupid or insulting comments and, as Captain Parker stated, this allows for the government agency to simply ignore this kind of behavior. However, it is still prudent to have a take-down policy stated on your “info” tab that describes how comments will be handled if they do cross the line.

6. Be prepared to staff 24/7. When planning for a Joint Command Multi-Agency social media presence, include staffing measures for 24/7. Parker said, ” at 3am there was nothing on the news, but Facebook and Twitter were a beehive of activity by the public and reporters. It never stopped 24/7.” Especially during this event where the arsonist struck at night, people were nervous and turned to social media to discuss what was happening, ask questions, and look for first-hand accounts of new fires.  The Task Force knew they had to be on those platforms in order to not only provide  information, but also to monitor the conversation. I’m sure seeing their presence provided a fair amount of comfort to those sitting at their computer worried about their family’s safety.

7. Learn the language of Social Media before an event. This seems like another obvious statement, but if your agency is not familiar with social media–learn it now. The last thing you want to be doing during an event is trying to figure out what a Retweet is or how to read a tweet.

I’d like to thank Captain Parker again for his contribution to this post.  Captain Parker wanted me to make clear his thanks “…to the great partners of the L.A. Arson Watch Task Force and the public we all serve.”

5 responses to “Top 7 Social Media Lessons from LA Arson Fire Event

  1. Well done Kim and kudos to Los Angeles again for leading the nation in the use of social media during sudden onset disaster. The cooperation shown between agencies is also very encouraging. Collecting and documenting lessons learned is critical to establishing best practices.

  2. I was an engaged citizen during these arson fires in my community, and appreciated the service by the separate agencies and the task force (as is evidenced in the screen shot of my tweet to @mpLASD). Two points I’d like to see followed-up on as the #SMEM community examines learns from this multi-agency response:

    1) The first three posts on the ArsonWatchLA Facebook page are legalese. They includes copyright and other notices to all users of the page. Where did that language come from? Is it necessary for government to include that on all of its social media channels? Is there a more appropriate way to communicate that to those that ‘Like’ the page?

    2) Should the PIOs have leveraged online video hosting sites to get information to the public sooner than through press conferences? I’m sure that there were lots of appropriate reasons why it took so long to release the surveillance video to the public. But that said, the footage released to the public was recorded on the 30th, and disseminated at a press conference at 6pm on the 1st. The footage that the public ultimately saw on the evening of the 1st was captured by the newscameras on the screens during the press conference. Anyone online interested in watching the video to see if they recognized the person of interest, initially needed to sit through ~two minutes of a newscaster prefacing the clip. On the morning of the 2nd it was posted by LAPD to youtube ( — and thankfully Burkhart was captured a few hours later. It’s worth asking if the multi-agency task force could have uploaded the video to youtube prior to preparing DVDs to hand to the press at that press conferece. If it was on youtube and linked to the ArsonWatchLA page, the taskforce could then have asked us to share that video on our Facebook pages and via email to people in SoCal. It would have gotten to a lot more eyeballs a lot quicker than us going to the websites of the news stations or watching TV at home.

    All that said, kudos to all involved for working together and catching the alleged arsonist before he had the chance to do anymore damage or instill additional fear in our community.

  3. Pingback: Top 7 Social Media Lessons from LA Arson Fire Event | #UASI

  4. Thanks so much for your comments. I do think each event gives us lots to learn and although I highlighted mostly the positive aspects of their response, of course there’s always room for improvement.

  5. “…used their social media presence to gauge public sentiment and information needs” Great example of holistic thinking and strategic use of social media. Can be challenging (and essential!) to judge how messaging is being received in the midst of a crisis.

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