Needed: Real-Time Local Info

12 Sep

The last week of summer is supposed to be spent slowly, in relaxing bliss, under a warm sun, by a pool, drink in hand. I did not want second-by-second heart-pounding action.

But that’s what I got, thanks to an earthquake, a massive hurricane, and a few tornadoes. Oh, and did I mention we were moving my son into college on the same weekend?

It got me thinking about the need for real-time information in local communications channels. The earthquake provided a great example of real-time crowdsourced news. Within milliseconds (not minutes), I learned from Twitter that the earthquake had started somewhere in Virginia and had been felt as far north as Toronto. As my husband surfed the TV channels and waited for news announcers to give him the details, I was shouting out locations based on my friends’ Twitter feeds. “People felt it in Washington! New Hampshire! Here’s someone from Toronto!”

Yet, the earthquake turned out to be a mere talking point. The hurricane presented a more urgent need for real-time, accurate information about what was happening in my town. Among my questions:

  • Is there a tornado heading toward me?
  • How do we get alerted to an approaching tornado?
  • Has my son lost power in his new apartment?
  • Has the hurricane blown out his floor-to-ceiling windows?
  • How do I get more information about problems with our water treatment plant?
  • Do I stop flushing the toilets all together?
  • Can I take a shower?
  • What roads are closed?

David Meerman Scott has written an excellent book on this topic. But, real-time social media isn’t just for the big guys. Local government and businesses need to use it too. These events provided some great examples of those who do it well. Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, hears of and solves problems via Twitter. I don’t live in Newark, but I had great insight into how the city was dealing with the hurricane.

The hurricane proved a boon for our neighboring town of West Windsor, whose police department used its Facebook page to post regular updates on power outages and road closures. The number of “likes” went from 200 before the storm to more than 1500 after.

I’m sure many of those were from Plainsboro, the town in which I live. Plainsboro does have a Facebook page. But, beyond the warning message, posted before the storm hit, there was nothing. United Water, the owner of the water treatment plant, didn’t even use its website to post updates.

I understand that during crisis, everyone is focused on fixing the problem. But communication is not a nice-to-have. It’s essential to preventing your existing problem from becoming an even bigger problem. In fact, I always counsel people: communicate and you’ve solved 90% of your problem. Social media offers a simple and effective way to keep stakeholders informed, without much effort.

If you’re a local business or government, here are three things you can do to improve communication with your citizens and customers:

1) Develop a social media strategy. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t have to be on every social network. Start with just one: Facebook, which has the largest number of users.
2) Assign one person to manage your network, and require that they update it regularly. During a time of crisis, updating the network and fielding questions will be this person’s primary responsibility.
3) Get started now – before the next crisis hits.

2 Responses to “Needed: Real-Time Local Info”

  1. Matt Tidwell September 20, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

    GREAT post Diane. In three years running communications for a major city electric utility, the smartest thing we ever did was invest in software that allowed customers to see real-time data on when power would be restored. Even for people who had no internet access or otherwise couldn’t get connected in a major outage, it was a great tool for media to use to provide information widely on power restoration (and save a lot of inbound customer service calls)!

    • Diane Thieke September 21, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

      Thanks, Matt. It is really a simple idea, isn’t it? People don’t like a vacuum. They just want answers immediately, and if you give it to them, they’re happy. As communicators, we have to be more aggressive than ever before because people today have higher expectations. The internet and social media have changed the perception of “fast.”

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