Monday, August 29, 2011

Local Government Communicators Use Online Tools to Provide Irene Updates

After a weekend that saw the Eastern U.S. get hammered by Hurricane Irene, a number of government entities have stepped up their communications in order to reach the public. The advent of smart phones has made it possible for many people to use their phones to continue to get information during disasters, making online updates more important than ever. The National Hurricane Center and have done a great job of disseminating information at the national level. A couple of good local government communications examples in Virginia that caught my eye: the websites for City of Alexandria and Arlington, respectively. The Alexandria site has brief updates front and center on a variety of topics related to both the hurricane and last week's earthquake. This info is supplemental in more real-time fashion by the city's Twitter page. Arlington's Newsroom page has been updated frequently with brief but essential bits of info. Arlington is also using social media to help in real time, answering questions about a variety of hurricane-related subjects on its Facebook page. The Facebook page includes a link to a YouTube video detailing damages as well as a slideshow from the county's Flickr page.

Have you seen some great communications examples from the hurricane? If so, please share them!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Charlotte Fire Department Embraces Online Video Revolution

Facebook and Twitter seem to get all the love, but YouTube is a great example of how online video content has changed the way we communicate.

Not soon after YouTube introduced us to skateboarding mishaps and ill-advised backyard wrestling stunts, the light bulb went off for many businesses and government entities as they began to realize how valuable this ability to post and share video content could be. Enhancing video sharing is the ease of using and low cost of purchasing video recording technology. You can record and upload a video on your smart phone in just minutes! You can raise the video quality bar by purchasing a Flipcam for $100 or less.

For many agencies, this is an area of untapped potential, but the Charlotte Fire Department is taking full advantage of this opportunity to communicate with the public through YouTube and other social media.

Mark Basnight, a 25-year veteran of the Charlotte Fire Department (CFD), is the Public Information Officer for the Office of Media & Public Affairs. He recently shared his experiences and expertise as a presenter at the 2011 NAGC Communications School.

Basnight serves as co-website manager for content & design, host of the Internet-based CFD Talk Radio show, co-producer for CFD Today "Live with Chief Hannan" TV show, and is responsible for the research, development, and application of social media technology.

“We've come to understand that our audience is a very visual driven community,” said Basnight. “The Flip Cam provided us an opportunity to capture video and make it available to a broad audience in a very timely manner. YouTube is certainly one of our most popular SM applications.”

In addition to YouTube, the Charlotte Fire Department currently makes use of several social media technology and applications including:
Yahoo Groups
Google Groups
BlogSpot (CFD News & Information)
Blog Talk Radio
Facebook (for communicating crisis messaging and safety information)

CFD also uses Google Translate to translate blog content into various foreign languages, and utilizes Skype video conferencing via desktop and iPhones to conduct live media interviews and press briefings.

“We've used video from the flip cam to compliment after-action reports, provide news footage for local and national media, and create public service announcements,” said Basnight, adding that CFD has had more than 91,000 views of its Flip Cam videos via YouTube.

So what’s next for CFD?

“We have been working diligently with a vendor to produce a mobile application that will enhance and foster our ability to reach our audiences wherever they are,” Basnight added.
“The app will utilize some of the latest GIS and artificial intelligence technology available. We hope to make it available sometime in the last quarter of 2011.”

Basnight also serves as the Chair of the Department of Homeland Security Virtual Social Media Working Group, a member of the U.S. Fire Administration National Fire Network, and as a Disaster Response Public Affairs Officer for the American Red Cross.

He added, “One of the things I am most proud of is creating the term ‘social media cross pollination’ and the phrase ‘the message doesn't change, the way we communicate has.’"

Mark Basnight and the Charlotte Fire Department: Good Communications…Good Government.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Collaboration: A Tale of Two Floods (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at the Nashville flood of May 2010, and how collaboration between agencies helped to get quick and accurate information out to the public.

Down the road, in my neck of the woods in Memphis, we had our own flooding issues this past May. Unlike the Nashville floods, which were caused by a huge amount of rainfall over a couple of days, the Memphis flooding was slower to develop. Our situation was the culmination of heavy rainfall along the Mississippi in the spring, as well as a large volume of melting snow along the northern part of the river. Memphis was by no means alone, as the Mississippi River flooding took its toll on Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

While a relatively small geographic section of Memphis was affected, it still was a serious blow to those in the flooded areas, and the uncertainty associated with the flooding caused a huge amount of public concern.

The Mississippi continued to rise as April progressed, and as the month ended, flooding was a forgone conclusion. The flooding became a reality in early May and on May 10, the river crested at 47.8 feet, its second highest level ever. To date, 3,282 Shelby County residents have registered for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

As a utility, the flood brought new challenges for us. In April, we were hit by three separate large storms that knocked out power to 50,000+ customers each time. We had never experienced more than two storms of that size in a year previously. For outage restoration, our communications are both proactive and reactive, and we use a variety of mediums to keep customers updated. In short, it's a response system we're very familiar with. The flooding was a very different creature.

MLGW was more of a supporting cast member in the flood response, but it seemed that rumors and emerging issues kept popping up, increasing the unpredictability factor. Our communications included:

  • Information about areas where we were shutting off utilities due to the flooding.
  • A YouTube video showing customers how to turn off their gas services if they were evacuating.
  • Safety information about water damage to electric outlets, reporting gas leaks, and more.
  • Assuring the public that our water pumping stations were all above the flood areas. A downtown water main break really didn’t do us many favors at one point, with customers in one neighborhood associating the discolored water with flood water contamination!

Collaboration with other agencies became extremely important to our messaging during this time. We had to pass along information like road closures to help our employees navigate their way around town. For customers, we also passed along information from the Shelby County Code Enforcement department, Emergency Management Agency, the city and the county. Having quick access to accurate information from these entities was a tremendous boost to our efforts.

At the center of the communications coordination for the Memphis flooding was Steve Shular, Public Affairs Officer for Shelby County, Tennessee. For Shular, his goal was to “ensure the public had the latest and most accurate information. To accomplish this, news releases were written in bullet points with specific information linked to particular parts of the emergency. For example: flood conditions, homes damaged, shelters opened, people rescued, health concerns, etc.”

To coordinate the response from multiple agencies, all agencies involved in the flood reported to the Shelby County Office of Preparedness Emergency Operations Center to share facts and statistics before they were released to the public.

In terms of sharing information with other entities, Shular said his goal was simple: “Ensuring the public knew the dangers of the flood so they would have adequate time to act. It was also vital to keep information flowing about the response and recovery effort through daily updates broadcasted and delivered each morning, afternoon and evening during the crisis.” Weekend updates were also provided, allowing for other agencies to have continual accurate information about the flood response. Shelby County also created a special phone number and e-mail address for citizens to call that helped them get answers and info.

One of the key communications components for Shelby County during the flood was a special website the agency developed, The website was staffed by an on-site webmaster who immediately posted news releases and other information, and the site became a central source of flood related information for the public.

In reflection of the lessons learned from the flood, Shular said, “We learned that information technology and a spirit of openness by the Director of the Office of Preparedness determined much of our success.”

He also saw some opportunities to improve, stating “for the next community crisis, we'll have some additional people cross-trained to check/field messages and answer the large volume of calls that we’d expect.”

Shelby County, Tennessee: Another example of Good Communications....Good Government

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Collaboration: A Tale of Two Floods (Part 1)

Over the course of the past year and a half, we’ve seen a number of natural disasters in the U.S., particularly in the South. Tornado and storm outbreaks, along with flooding, have carved a broad swath of damage. For government communicators, these types of events are extremely challenging when it comes to disseminating information quickly and accurately. In these situations, collaborating with other agencies and communicators is essential.

One example is the flooding that hit Nashville in 2010 after heavy rains drenched the area the first two days of May. The record setting rainfall approached 20 inches in some areas during that two-day period, and the Cumberland River reached its highest level since 1937. The heavy flooding that ensued was responsible for the deaths of 10 people in Davidson County (21 total fatalities were reported in Tennessee). Downtown Nashville was flooded heavily, and Davidson County was declared a Federal Disaster Area on May 4.

As the sole Public Information Officer for Nashville’s Metro Water Services, Sonia Harvat has her hands full even under normal conditions. She’s literally a one-person PR department, which isn’t unusual in our line of work. Metro Water Services provides water to more than 174,000 homes and businesses in the Nashville area, and is also responsible for collecting and treating wastewater and providing stormwater services.

“Throughout this crisis, I felt the most important message for us was ensuring that our customers knew that their drinking water was safe and encouraging water conservation due to the fact that we had lost one of our two water treatment facilities,” said Harvat.

However, in addition to her duties as PIO of the water company, she was also part of the PR team in the Office of Emergency Management "war room.” The team was responsible for disseminating information from all of the agencies represented at the emergency center. This included collaborative news releases that included information from all of the agencies.

Harvat says that collaborating on these news releases helped cut down on (not eliminate) rumors and speculation.

“It was not uncommon to send out a 10–12 page press release and at least three releases were sent a day.”

Harvat found information from several entities to be critical to her own communications:

  • Power outage updates for water/sewer facilities from Nashville Electric Service.
  • Information from the National Weather Service and Corps of Engineers was instrumental in determining areas to evacuate and in planning sand bagging operations.
  • The Sheriff’s Department and certain volunteer organizations provided the manpower necessary to sandbag the Metro center levee and critical infrastructure.
  • The Metro Planning Department provided GIS services and maps instrumental to response and recovery.

In return, she provided critical information to other agencies:

  • Road closure information to the fire and police departments to assist with emergency response.
  • The fire dept also looked to Metro Water regarding water availability in the event of a fire.
  • Continuous communications with the Metro Health Dept regarding the safety of the tap water and service availability for hospitals, etc.
  • Sharing of information with outside organizations such as environmental groups, advertising agencies and the restaurant association that proved instrumental in helping spread the word regarding water conservation.

One stroke of good fortune for Harvat was placing the agency’s Director, Scott Potter, in front of the camera and convincing him to speak directly to the public rather than reading a prepared speech. This gained the communities’ trust and understanding.

Another lesson learned was in how the agency connected with the community. For example, Director Potter went days without a shower, even as he spoke at one press conference after another urging customers to conserve water. As a result, said Harvat, “the community understood that Metro Water Services was affected by the flood just as they were – we were in it TOGETHER.”

“We used all the resources at our disposal in reaching out to the public and found that the community was more than willing to help,” Harvat observed, giving examples such as public service announcements on local radio stations, an ad agency that designed and posted free billboards, and taking advantage of community groups and homeowners associations willing to spread valuable information.

“There is no such thing as too much information or too many forms of communication,” added Harvat.

Metro Water Services: Another example of “Good Communication… Good Government.”

Next Week: Part II as we examine how Memphis responded to flooding in May 2011.