Tag Archives: Forest Service

Lessons Learned: Handling an Angry Facebook Comment

Post by: Kim Stephens

Photo by: InernetMonk.com

I recently wrote a post titled “What happens when people make insensitive comments on your Facebook Page?” This post was about an angry/rude/obnoxious (insert descriptor here) person who made some ugly comments on the Barry Point Oregon Fire Facebook page this summer. The page, as well as other social media sites including a blog, a Twitter account, and a Google+ profile, was set up by the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) with the aid of a Volunteer Operations Support Team (VOST) after the NIMO team assumed command of the  fire on August 13, 2012.

The objective of using social networking was to provide information to local residents on numerous platforms and to foster engagement. Although the Incident Information System website called Inciweb was in place with up-to-date content, Inciweb does not have a mechanism  to receive feedback from the community. Furthermore, the site is a little “crashy” as the warning implies: “Due to high demand this Web site may become unresponsive.”

Within 3 days of putting up the Facebook page, they got a little more engagement than they bargained for. So much so, in fact, that it led to not only my blog post about the incendiary comments, but a “lessons learned” report. You can download that paper written by Kris Eriksen, lead PIO, here: Barry Point SM Lessons learned.

The Story

What happened, in sum, was one woman decided to use the Facebook page to rant against the Forest Service  by posting the comment below. This comment was her idea of inserting a caption to a picture of the Incident Commander addressing people with the aid of a  megaphone at a shift change.

Hi Hater

Hi Hater (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can hear it now….. “THIS IS BIG DOLLARS MEN AND WOMEN” Your paychecks depend on this fire burning up as much as possible. The longer we can Let’er burn the bigger ALL of our pockets get! So be careful out there, eat a good lunch, be sure you all take your government mandated breaks… Every 15mins whether you need it or not! Ooh and don’t forget hacky sac play offs are tonite following directly after dinner, so be sure to practice on that while your standing around watching the fire today!

The reaction from the public was swift and in full support of the Forest Service and the firefighters. Other community members essentially ended up “shouting down” the woman and all of her subsequent comments: the quote above was just her first foray. As one of the PIOs is quoted as saying: “I don’t think we have to do anything. These people are totally trashing her!”

Keeping it Cool

What is interesting to me, however, is not what was happening on the page, but what was happening behind the scenes. By reading through the stream of comments it seems as if the PIOs were playing it completely cool–fully aware that the community would find her comments repulsive, or at least ill-informed, and come to their defense. But what the lessons-learned document, as well as my converstations with Ms. Eriksen, demonstrates is that a much more complicated story was unfolding, one full of hand-wringing.

Ms. Eriksen reflects:

It’s funny, but in the heat of the moment it didn’t seem as simple as it does looking back!!  I remember when the first comment appeared from Theresa and Brie Magee, another PIO, read it to me.  We all sort of said “Wow, that was nasty.” and we talked about answering, but didn’t. Many more comments came.”

In a situation such as this, the nature reaction is to defend yourself–“Hey-that’s not true!” As Ms Eriksen states:

“You want to respond.  You worry about where it will go and what damage letting it go might do.  Then there is the damage from stamping it out.  So you try to juggle it, knowing that the decision will have a long-term effect and is important, and realizing you only have one shot to get it right.”

But on a public page, administrators should understand that by arguing with someone they can diminish their own stature and add legitimacy to the person commenting. Kris says in the report

 “After one, I don’t remember which one, but it was factually wrong about how we fight fire, so I thought it was an opportunity to at least answer and say something, so I drafted a sort of generic answer about how we manage large fires and worked in a few things that referred to her earlier comments but didn’t address her directly, but still, we didn’t send it. We were still thinking about it. Some of the PIO’s were getting a bit worried about where this would go, were unhappy that it was happening and thought we should respond.” 

Mr. Eriksen writes that they didn’t have to talk about how they fought fires because citizens posted correct information. She also states that they determined that the woman shouldn’t be blocked  or her comments deleted because she never  violated the policy. But what they did want to do was let everyone visiting the page know they were watching what was happening and that they would draw act if things got out of hand (e.g. threatening comments were posted). This is why they decided to prominently re-post the comment policy. They also knew that these comments weren’t the first thing people saw when they visited the page–on Facebook,  comments are not featured prominently.

3 Great Lessons from a Public Relations Professional

Upon review of this case, a public relations expert sent Ms. Eriksen 3 reasons why ignoring the comments and leaving them on the page was the right thing to do:

“If you were to have deleted the post, you would have inflamed the situation by:

  1. Enforcing what negative poster said in her initial post and reiterated in several subsequent posts — that the system was at fault as was less than responsive;
  2. Encouraging her to keep posting thereby putting you in a situation of worrying more about her posts and whether to delete them again and again versus worrying about the things on which you should be focused;
  3. Deterring your defenders from posting all of that great information about the tasks and issues at hand.”

One thing the public relations expert didn’t relay is that deleting comments on a page representing a public agency–especially if they are just critical of the organization versus racist or threatening, could be considered a violation of the person’s first amendment rights and they might sue you…great.

A Happy Ending

I love Ms. Ericksen’s summation:

“In the end, I think the whole exchange was actually beneficial. I think the community came together over her comments and once the positive thank you’s started flowing, it’s was all really good stuff.  I think we reached a tipping point – on the page at least, where it became positive for us and the firefighter, despite the continued growth of the fire. We learned a lot about what could happen and I got my belief reaffirmed that the community would balance things out.  I think it will be a very powerful tool for agency leaders and others who hesitate because they worry about exchanges like this.

…There is additional pressure from knowing this will affect the future relationship between the agency you’ve been hired to work for and their community;  compounded by the fact that they didn’t ask for the social media to be done –  we just did it.  And they would likely (if it went badly) blame it on SM and our team, potentially harming every team’s ability to ever engage with social media again, anywhere.  The repercussions were enormous.  That load felt a bit heavy.”

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.”


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?