A Fire Chief's advice for social media "newbies"

Bill Boyd, Fire Chief for Bellingham, WA, is becoming a well-known friend to crisisblogger readers. I’ve included several guest posts from him, particularly appreciating his perspective on crisis and emergency communications from an Incident Commander’s perspective. But Bill is eager to jump in and learn about the emerging communication technologies, if anyone who is a friend of his tweets will know. He considers himself a bit of a newbie on social media, but it’s not true. He’s pretty advanced in his use (puts me to shame, that’s for sure) but more than that, his insights into common sense approaches for public officials as well as private communicators are exceptionally valuable. I gratefully publish his thoughts:

“Newbie” Social Media tips for emergency response folks

Like many other of my middle aged emergency response colleagues, I am still trying to get a grip on how this whole social media (SM) thing works, and how to use it to communicate inside and outside my organization.  But, it is like trying to pick up a jellyfish with one hand.  It slips through your fingers and plops back down onto the beach coming to rest in a different shape.  Navigating the morass of evolving SM tools, self proclaimed experts (which I am clearly not!), skeptics and snake oil vendors can be pretty frustrating. My first emergency responder media blog posting generated a lot of interest and questions about how SM works and how it can enhance communications.  Truthfully, I am still trying to figure it out too.  But, I thought I would share a few things that may help others in the emergency response world take the first steps in enhancing their communications strategies.

Use today’s most popular SM sites. Twitter and Facebook seem to be the rage right now, and major news organizations have integrated them into their operations, exponentially increasing their visibility and reach.  But, stay agile.  It wasn’t too may years ago that MySpace was “it”. But, its popularity is plummeting like the glide path of a toolbox.  While I predict Facebook and Twitter will be around for quite a while, social media tools will come and go.  Don’t become entrenched.

Download a SM aggregator. A SM aggregator is program (typically free) that allows you to manage your various social media subscriptions, favorites, bookmarks, posts, etc..  This is important to do if you have more than one active SM account.  Although there are dozens of similar applications out there,  I use TweetDeck, a tool that allows me to set up columns of individual tweeters I follow. Each column tracks a tweeters message thread.  I can easily edit/comment and retweet to my followers.  HootSuite is another tool, which appears to have more organizational capabilities, and doesn’t require downloading client software onto your computer. But, given my unsophisticated and newbie status I have yet to try it out. Be careful if you use a SM aggregator to post messages.  If you set up your account to tap into a wide range of SM sites that mix business and social uses, your messages may be misunderstood, or worse, appear inappropriate for posting on the site you link to.  Allowing a post that says “Man, did I tie one on last night” on your LinkedIn profile as you are in the middle of job search will make you look like an idiot.

Don’t get sucked in. SM tools are great for enhancing gathering an dissemination of information during an emergency.  But, they should not be the focus of your information distribution.  You need to have a wide range of tools available, including web sites, 3rd party emergency notification systems that contact the public via phone, email lists, sirens, procedures for door to door “knock and blocks” and emergency alert system access.  SM is simply another way to get the message out.  The great thing about SM is it allows you to evaluate how well the message has been understood and if was effectively communicated and distributed.

Determine your SM identity.  I must admit, I am struggling with this one. SM gurus are preaching about the need to identify your “brand” before launching into the SM world.  I took the “ready, fire, aim” approach.  I am slowly migrating my messaging towards my main interests and personality traits; Connecting with the community I serve on a personal level, sharing important safety and incident information, promoting my college Alma mater, and disseminating crisis communications and fire service information. Determining your brand can be difficult, unless you already work for a company that has a defined brand and values system.  If you work for an organization that has mission/value statements or a defined strategic vision, evaluate these statements and how your personal interests and passion can help sustain your SM messaging efforts.

Don’t be afraid to steal followers.  By this I mean find someone interesting on a SM site, then take a look at the profiles of those who are linked to the same person.  Chances are they share similar interests, professional contacts and information links.  Start linking and following those folks too.  It’s a great way to quickly build your list of contacts.  Also, share their posts if they have something interesting to say.  They, and others who learn from the post will appreciate it.

Don’t type stupid stuff. As soon as you hit send, your message is out there and can be spread around the world in a heartbeat.  Public officials (me included) must be strategic and careful in how we share our emotions, opinions and perspectives.  SM messaging is almost too easy.  At times I have wished they had a pop up “nag box” that would remind me – “Hey Dim Bulb! Do you really want to say that?”  Some no-brainer topics to avoid;  slamming your employers-including the citizens you serve, sexual/ discriminatory statements or jokes, confidential business information (including information that can be tracked back to help identify a medical patient).

Let them know you are human.  Some of the largest Twitter accounts belong to individuals who not only share important and relevant business information, but also provide insight into their personal lives; their family triumphs, tragedies, milestones and personal interests. Along with fire and emergency services related content,  I sprinkle in my feelings and activities unrelated to my work.  Followers seem to enjoy the levity and insight, and it often results in two way exchanges about life in general.

I will continue to share my lessons learned in this ever changing environment.  Given what I have learned so far, I do not ever think I will be a SM expert.  But, I’m going to have a heck of a lot of fun trying to get there!