Social Media & Engagement

Social media reflects the move from large media companies monopolizing all forms of media.  Newspapers, books, magazine, television and radio are controlled by large companies.  Technology advancements lowered the barriers to getting your opinions out.  Technology allowed for individuals to create website and blogs to promote their own thoughts.  The internet allowed people from different locations to find this information and band together.  A key term used to define social media is “user-generated content”.  An individual has the ability to create and distribute their own materials.  The very nature of individuals sharing information with individuals made it social.  Hence the tag being social media.

Social media is the commonly accepted term.  But I think it goes beyond sharing user-generated content.  Traditional media is a broadcast medium that reaches a lot of people, but it is primarily a one-way medium that isn’t inviting for other opinions.  Dissenting views are policed by the media gatekeepers who choose what will and will not be broadcast.  Social media is similar to broadcasting to this.  The person who is publishing the materials retains the control of the information being published.  They can block unwanted information and be a gatekeeper to their own media channel.

Social media is shifting to social engagement.  It is no longer enough to be able to publish and distribute your own opinions.  Success in media involves the engagement of the people who want your materials.  True communication requires a feedback loop.  It is transactional communication that allows a full back and forth.  Technology has opened new methods of engaging with your target audience.  You need to be open and willing to hear what they say.  The best successes in social media today are actually examples of social engagement where an individual (or organization) is using social media channels to have individual engagements with the audience.  These engagements may still originate as a broadcast message, but with the desire that each individual receives and acts on it as if it was meant for them.

Advertising theory isn’t that far from this.  Advertising in mass media has always worked to target their message to reach a specific audience to influence behavior.  Advertising has always wanted very specific details on how to segment, divide and categorize the public.  Social media has done a wonderful job of this.  Imagine if ten years ago I said that I want you to pay for this device in your home, pay for an internet connection, go to this website.  Once at the website, I instructed you to enter all your personal information, link up with all your friends, and update your daily activities.  You’d think I was crazy.  Today, people do it all the time on social media sites.

As of January 2012, Facebook is valued as a $50 BILLION company.  Some estimates place it as high as $100 BILLION.  Why?  They don’t make anything.  They don’t sell anything.  The code behind their site isn’t that valuable.  Or is it?  As was pointed out to me recently: If you can’t figure what someone is selling, they’re probably selling you.  When you joined Facebook, you’ve entered your information (even if only partially).  You’ve linked to your friends and you update your status often.  An analysis of your online friends and their information can be very telling about you.  It is natural that you are friends with people who are of a similar social, economic and political stance.  This information allows Facebook to generate extremely targeted advertising.  This is very appealing to advertisers.  They recognize that advertising is not a single shot silver bullet, but instead it is measure over time and impressions.  An impression occurs each time their message given to you.  Facebook is valued so high because the large number of people who use the service; the wonderfully large amount of data; and the data has a high confidence since it is self-entered.

Here’s another tidbit about Facebook.  They’re promoting “seamless browsing”.  This is a single sign-on that you can use to access Facebook and many partner websites.  What is actually does is allows the transfer of your actions back to a single database to improve the ability to target advertising.  The Facebook cookie left on your computer was discovered to be live even after logging out which allowed the tracking of your actions off Facebook.

But all this social media isn’t evil.  It is an exchange.  You are getting service that you value in exchange for advertising to be pushed to your web browsing experience.  This advertising is just an extension of what has been going on with TV.  You’ve accepted advertising on TV as a way for the stations to generate revenue so you don’t need to pay for the TV shows watched.

Social media sites are being used by everyone from major corporations to individuals.  This has certainly changed the media landscape from when there was one local newspaper and three TV stations.  The “noise” of all the available social media has grown so much that it becomes critically important to find the information you want and disregard the rest. It is like everyone has come to a single place and they’re all talking at one.  Some loudly and others softly.  Your role is to find the people and thought leaders that have the information you want.  This is where your friends come in handy.  Your connections on social media are our curating content and posting it to their streams.  You post both original content and shared content to your stream where they read.  Recommendations from people you trust is more valued in this environment as you seek content.

Is there any hope for an Emergency Manager to establish themselves in the realm of social media and reach their target in competition to the highly-funded advertising machines?  Absolutely, but it takes time.  People want content that is timely, relevant, helpful and available in their preferred medium.  That may sound very similar to successful public notifications; well, it is.

The first step in social media: listening.  You wouldn’t just walk up to a group of people at a party and start talking about something.  You are more likely to walk up, listen to the conversation, and participate after you’re comfortable with the people and the topic.  They’ll also be more receptive to you because you’ve shown the respect not to interrupt them.

Start by looking for people and conversations like the ones you want to have.  How are they being conducted?  Are there nuances in language and wording unique to that medium?  Seek out others that appear successful and ask for their insights.  Professional networking for emergency managers are having more discussions on the use of social media; engage them for help.

An Emergency Manager needs to take an initial guess at what information they want to and can provide, then pick a medium to start in.  Consider where the audience is and what can be built on when selecting a medium.  If you’re in a county that has a good Facebook presence, then starting there could allow you build off the success of the whole county.  Cross pollination of ideas and sharing content will encourage followers of one to follow both.  Pushing existing public notifications through the social media channel can be a useful way to start building followers.  This can be as simple as the weather warning and traffic alerts.

A facet of success is being flexible when starting.  Listen to the feedback from the followers, and adjust tact to keep up with needs of the audience.  The Los Angeles Fire Department made the decision to have two twitter streams.  One was the primary notification stream for people to follow at Twitter @LAFD.  They learned that their audience didn’t want to be overwhelmed with messages that weren’t relevant so they started the second one at Twitter @LAFDtalk which was their talking stream where they engage the individuals.

Be prepared during an emergency to be active on social media.  Some of the obvious mistakes are the social media sites going silent during a crisis.  This was very obvious during the breaking of the Penn State crisis in November 2011.  A good analysis of this is posted at Social Media Today (  Instead of actively engaging the audience through social media, they went silent on the major story but kept pushing soft general interest bits.

Develop a social media handbook for your work.  Establishing the foundation and purpose of social engagement will be critical when it comes time to justify (defend?) the time spent of social media.  It helps to bring colleagues onboard with a common set of expectations.  When establishing goals, avoid measuring success by the number of followers or friends.  Measuring impact and trust by counting followers is like measuring intelligence by the height of a person; it is simply not the same thing.

The American Red Cross posted their social media handbook for chapters openly at  The guidelines boil down to a few simple statements:  Tell them who you are.  Be factual.  Be honest.  Be timely.  Stick to what you know.  Represent the brand well.


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