Communicating Risk via Twitter

I like to downplay the idea of a 24/7 newscycle. I think the term implies that you have lots of time to get involved in a situation because it’ll always be there. The media will always be beating down your door, so you’ve got time to craft an answer. Instead, I like to talk about the 10-second newscycle. In my mind, that term implies that you’ve got ten seconds in order to get your side of the story out; after that, you’re just part of the noise in someone else’s storyline.

My change in terminology leads, or should lead to, a re-examination of the tools we use to live and interact in that new newscycle. Press releases don’t really have the turnaround needed, and besides, they’re the worst position way to push out risk communication messages (e.g., do this, not that). Twitter, I like to think, works really well for a number of reasons. First, it’s direct: I, the communicator, am talking to you, the recipient. Second, it forces us to be short and direct: short messages have been shown to be more easily uptaken. Finally, it’s easily share-able: it’s easy to spread messages amongst target populations who’ve already set up information dissemination channels.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw one of the best examples of where social media, especially Twitter, could have been used to do real risk communication. The Hoboken, NJ water main breaks.

I happened to be in Phoenix at the time, presenting at the wonderful Arizona Partners in Preparedness conference when I found out about it on Twitter (social media monitoring for the win!). Because I work in public health, I’m always interested to see how large cities deal with boil water advisories, so I try to keep an eye on how things are going. The job that the City of Hoboken did was excellent starting with this:

Their next tweet was about the boil water advisory:

Notice the time? Less than ten minutes from their last tweet. Fast turnaround. Small, chunked information that’s easy to digest.

Then I got into things:

Eight minutes later, they replied directly to me, letting me know the process for how they’re looking to get more information:

In the meantime, the worked to combat rumors by posting informational updates:

Once United Water posted the full boil water advisory, @CityofHoboken updated their feed with the link.

They provided updates through out the day on the progress and even reposted the boil water advisory a few times to make sure that as many people could see it as possible. And finally, and in a stroke of trust-building genius, they took the time to thank folks who passed along their message and thanked the City’s account for the tweets:

To me, this is the best practice out there. Gold standard that should be emulated. I think that it’s not too hard to imagine how I’m rewriting my boil water advisory script and pre-approved messages this week.

This is what I want to see when I’m done with my next emergency:

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