Should Government Buy Google Ads for Crisis Communications?

Home Forums Miscellaneous Should Government Buy Google Ads for Crisis Communications?

This topic contains 26 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Don Fitchett 8 years, 8 months ago.

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  • #146801

    Dr. GovLoop

    I was just reading this Politico blog post about the Herman Cain presidential campaign doing a Google ad buy for searches on Ginger White by Iowans.
    Regardless of your political affiliation and your perspective on Cain’s guilt or innocence, you’ve got to admit that it’s a pretty clever tactical maneuver – and one that has lessons for the rest of government.

    Here are a couple ideas that I get from seeing this ad buy:

    • Let’s say a state or municipality experiences severe weather or a natural disaster. Should the city, state or an agency like FEMA run ads on relevant searches for citizens seeking financial assistance or critical information in the aftermath?
    • What if an agency is in the midst of a news debacle and the media has spun a story in a way that miffs the facts. Should an agency run ads against a search on that story to be sure they get correct information in front of the public?

    What do you think? Is this a good use of taxpayer dollars?

    Has your city, state or agency already run this kind of ad in the past? If so, was it effective?

  • #146853

    Don Fitchett

    I haven’t seen any Gov Google ads yet, but I am conditioned to ignore ads. :>) I think the first idea disaster relief might not be that practical, as many will be without access to the internet. Especially those in need. But the second idea is great, and critical to benefit of the citizens who pay for the ads (via taxes) The more educated the decisions and perceptions of it’s people, the better the USA will do. Sounds like a good investment.

    But also besides damage control reasons to run Google ads, the Government should run ads for PSAs. If I am searching for home mortgage relief or help, a Government Ad for page with facts, tips, scams to avoid, should be the first link see. I think it is the Governments responsibility to educate consumers of best course of action and resources available. (Consumer protection) Also in this day and age, Google Ads is worth trying and then review the analytic to see if they should continue, if effective.

  • #146851

    Chris Poirier

    For emergency purposes this is just off the charts in terms of being a bad idea. Government organizations should not have to run advertisements to provide the public with correct information before, during, or after an emergency situation.

    1.) Let’s be honest, if government organizations were in the fray and working their existing websites and web friendly releases currently, solid SEO practices would replace the need for paid content positioning.

    2.) If the organizations are doing their jobs out of their PIO offices appropriately, more than enough accurate information would be available to the public via a cross section of media outlets. (e.g., internet, radio, tv, etc.) It is the PIO’s job in conjunction with emergency management staff to validate information. They are the official source, let them do their job.
    (Digital PIO)

    Seems to me this idea is born out of the concept of force fitting a tool to do a job instead of using the right tool for the job.

    It’s a novel concept, but advertising is not the place to pushing this type of important information when multiple web friendly options already exist. Additionally, it probably would be a PR nightmare in and of itself for the public to find out that a government organization was paying for ad space to “correct” the open media. (Right or wrong..this probably wouldn’t excite 1st Amendment activists.)

  • #146849

    Chris Poirier

    Your point on PSA type things is well taken. Pushing out information that is more static and helpful to the people may be a good option. Though I still support that good SEO activities and self promotion remains the best option for government.

  • #146847

    Don Fitchett

    I agree with you Chris, that the government webmasters don’t do SEO optimization on their website, thus limited visibility. So much so I wrote a blog post on that not too long ago.

    From what the various Government websites look like, their PIO offices are not connected or controlling the web masters. Because their design principles and operating procedures vary from entity to entity, with lack of SEO being the primary thing in common. As pointed out in my blog post above. :>)

  • #146845

    Mark Hammer

    I am also on the same page as Chris. Not a great idea for emergency purposes, though I suspect my reasons are different.

    Keep in mind that any putative PSA use of the net comes along well after a great many users have been so bombarded with advertising and spam that ads are treated as the very antithesis of “public service”. Long enough that an entire industry has evolved with respect to the tactical blocking of ads, banner, pop-up, or whatever. So there is, first, the matter of whether any recipient would actual get to see the PSA.

    Second, there is the matter of using one provider. We’ll set aside for the moment the political PR matters arising from a monopoly by a software company on the public dime. To simply assure that people are reachable, government would likely need to stay on top of what search engines or potential home pages people are using (and while Google is king at the moment, things WILL change), and make sure there are ads on all of them, and that there is a means to circumvent blocking that works for all of them. And forcing an ad to appear suddenly on the net seems rather unlikely.

    Then there is the matter of the digital divide, although this is less a problem, day by day (familiar with the $25 raspberrypi?). Then there is the matter of power outages. I have a little battery/windup radio I can use in emergencies. I even have a battery-operated TV, that’ll run off a car battery. I don’t know what people would do if the power is out. Yes, some folks will have fully charged laptops, netbooks, or tablets, but not everybody’s device will be charged, or have a charge that will last long enough. And just what did you think those wi-fi routers ran on, love?

    So, PSAs of a non-emergency nature? Sure, if they buy PSA time on tv, then why not high-profile websites? As an adjunct to an emergency warning system, or as the main emergency warning system, I think it just has so many flaws as to be a source of risk itself.

    For the time being, I think the traditional radio and tv interruptions are likely the most dependable we have.

  • #146843

    Robert Bacal

    No It’s, that simple. why would you?

  • #146841

    Chris Poirier

    You make great additional points on this topic. @Don brought up the similar issue with people are just conditioned to ignore advert space on websites now and you make an even more specific point that a lot of companies/organizations now block adverts for security reasons as well. Thus making it a waste of money to attempt to target an “audience” that is already rate limited.

    Your second point on single provider is a good one from a contracting practice and practical practice as well. Single points of failure in emergency management is obviously a VERY bad thing!

    Finally, the “digitial divide” point is a huge discussion right now in #SMEM. A lot of organizations seems to forget that for quite a few emergencies the one thing you are practically 95% sure you are going to lose is power. This is one of MANY reasons I constantly support social media as an OPTION for emergency management, but not as a primary solution in any way, shape, or form. Focus needs to remain on solid emeregency communications processes and procedures to ensure that proper validation of information is taking place along with citizen engagement, but remembering that social media is simply another communication platform in the tool bag.

  • #146839

    Chris Poirier

    Not surprised at all Eric, but would be if they were using it for emergency communications and not PSA type activities. (Things like CDC, HHS, HUD, etc pushing out information that is static is not emergency communications, though some topics may “sound” like related materials. Preparedness is also different from real-time, near real-time emergency information which is the concept at play here.)

    Let me ask you this for the sake of open conversation: What is the benefit to AdWords (a paid service) over using SEO that can be developed at no cost to the taxpayer while ensuring access to the information? Most websites, blogs, etc that push emergency communications information are already in place and can be SEO optimized, so what is the benefit of using something like AdWords over increasing the SEO capabilities that would result in top results cost free?

    Additionally, the activities of the emergency management organizations and PIO activities of the agency/department hold the accountability on these types of products and are typically best maintained by the staff conducting the intake and output of emergency comms. So, to be fair, what is the value add here that is not already being undertaken by the organizations and in most cases at zero cost?

  • #146837

    Ah…but if they have smart phones, people in emergency situations might still be searching (even if Internet is out).

    Agreed on PSAs. In fact, I wrote a blog post back in June 2010 about a commercial I saw on TV. At the time, I noted that I did a Google search on “flood insurance” and could not find that commercial…but I just did another search on that same phrase and here’s what I discovered:

  • #146835

    Don’t think of it as “advertising.” Think of it as purchasing critical online placement.

    Gov does it with TV and radio spots, billboards and other traditional methods…why not ad up online?

  • #146833

    This brings up an interesting point, Chris. It might be cool for Google to offer some training for government agencies on how to improve their SEO. I’d love to host it (live chat?) here at GovLoop. 🙂

  • #146831

    Chris Poirier

    Two quick things:

    1.) Smart phones is a good point, but should not be relied upon for emergency comms. As I’ve stated, it’s one method, not the solution. Additionaly, in mass disasters cell sites won’t maintain power for ever. (If the lights go out, the clock is ticking on how useful this medium is.) It’s an option in the tool bag to be considered, but with so many other options available to push important information to people it should not be a focus.

    2.) The same website came up as the number one and two in the regular search. (My guess is based on SEO.) So, again, what is the value add to government for PAYING for “placement” when you can do it for free? (Best value to government people..hard to beat free.)

  • #146829

    Chris Poirier

    For direct, real-time emergency information this is simply a bad idea for the reasons we have mentioned here as a group. This purchased space is in the “advertisement” area of the search and a great deal of people have already trained themselves to look past it. Even more important a lot of companies now make google chrome extensions and/or applications for browsers that disable adverts from the viewing area as most have already agreed they take up space and don’t provide value 99% of the time. This is a very difficult human factor to over come.

    Additionally, why should the government pay for “critical online placement” for actual emergency information? (Technically they get it for free via the EAS, etc.) Also, as stated, SEO replaces the need for paid placement, especially when coupled with the standard media barrage PIOs make before and after disasters announcing where the websties, blogs, twitter, etc are available.

    I mean, we need to think about the context here: near real-time information. Not preparedness, etc. For static preparedness, programs, etc PSAs and adverting is key. Very different from actual emergency comms.

  • #146827

    On #2, Chris: I’d say that an agency should perform a keyword analysis and determine where they rank high enough to be noticed quickly. In those instances where they do not, buy placement AND work on SEO optimization. Once they get to a desired ranking straight away, cut the ads. So in the example above, should turn off the ad on this keyword and re-allocate funding to a related search.

  • #146825

    Chris Poirier

    Would love to see it! But would recommend a cross section of SEO professionals: Google, Bing, Yahoo, WordPress, etc. Get the cross section of search tools and blogs that are offering meta tagging, etc.

  • #146823

    Chris Poirier

    Interesting point and makes sense, again for items that are static like PSA and ongoing programs. For ongoing emergency information for unfolding events things are far to dynamic to tie down in contracts, etc. I just don’t see the value of paying for activities and services governments have already, successfully, done for free.

    The “google problem” is something I just noticed as another issue I have: When logged into Google it’s using your search pattern history to develop results, which means everyone’s results could be different. How can we get around this? This applies because not all key words are tied back to AdWords (apparently) like SEO would. I just did a search on just the word “flood”, no AdWords came up, but FEMA’s flooding home page still came up.

  • #146821

    AJ Dronkers

    I think it’s an imperative! In some instances the government websites or news articles will naturally be the 1st result but where there is a need to help push government communications or messages to the top of a Google search this will come in handy. Plus there are ways to set limits/caps on spending that could help agencies stay within budget.

  • #146819

    Chris Poirier

    Interesting point, but one can never predict how many emergencies you are going to have a year. (FEMA knows this all to well.) You don’t even know how long an emergency may last. Irene took days, weeks, and months of effort and some places are still recovering and needing to push information. So having something in your tool box tied to ongoing spending doesn’t seem logical. Especially, when the crisis communications plan is going to involve mass TV, Radio, news paper, etc information pushes where they typically include address to all important information online. Online is only one media outlet of many.

    This also brings up the issue of who get’s priority on AdWords as being the “top searches” you PAY for. Say a bunch of emergency management consulting firms buy out all the key words so they show up in top slots on AdWords over government? (The two options in addition to the NFIP above have nothing to do with NFIP.) SEO at least allows for some optimization and without additional costs. Then slap on all the TV, Radio, and Newspaper info on the topic being pushed non-stop during an emergency and people will find you. Just requires dedication and ensuring solid PIO practices.

  • #146817

    Chris Poirier

    Now I’ve hit the, “why this is a really bad idea” point: AdWords is based on Cost Per Click (CPC).

    To drive traffic in an emergency, which is basically guaranteed traffic (based on all the media taking place during an emergency) the click rate will be potentially very high.

    Check out the Google AdWords Cost Calculator and run some tests for yourself. I found that average CPC to gain “top position” on the AdWord section is $2 to $4 per click on key words involving emergencies. (This also answers my previous question about how items are ranked…) Based on the term “emergency management’ and $4 CPC, it calculates my daily cost could be roughly $151-$184 a day. (This is based on current monthly averages and not emergency traffic.) This cost is just for the ONE TERM. How many terms do you think people would have to buy to cover their bases? You could easily hit thousands of dollars a DAY in costs just for top results using this process. Granted it’s hard to estimate what this would look like and yes this may only happen a few times a year, but there is a significant potential cost here.

    Again, how is this cost beneficial to the public and/or the government? They system was designed for, for profit organizations and it shows.

  • #146815

    AJ Dronkers

    Chris yes it’s pay per click but if you take this out of a context of an emergency maybe a campaign where you need to improve your search relevance this could be useful. You can also set a budget cap for how much you are willing to pay in a given time period and what’s great is you only pay for actual clicks. I don’t really see how this is different then paying for media on billboards or tv except more relevant in a digital age. I also think buying search words for mobile is of great potential. Think about it someone searches for outdoor things to do in a certain city. Maybe your local/state park department buys those keywords and increases foot traffic and other sales as a result. Statistics show that people who search on mobile devices are looking to act/purchase on that need right away. The park department doesn’t have to break the bank buy saying they are only willing to pay for $500 worth of clicks in a given month.

  • #146813

    Chris Poirier

    So this brings us to the core of the conversation here: Crisis Communications vs Emergency Communications vs. Communications. (Yes, there is a difference!)

    For the sake of the conversation being held here we are talking about Emergency Communications: Providing information to the public during an emergency about that emergency. This is near-real time information on the situation, efforts underway, etc. Not PSAs on stand alone, long term programs that are related to emergency management.

    Things like the NFIP, grant programs, preparedness, etc are great tools and absolutely could be considered for this model. But these things are NOT crisis communications, they are communications packages for static programs with mostly static content.

    Crisis Communications, by defintion is another beast altogether. It’s the practice of doing brand, agency/department, individual, etc damage control after negative press and honestly, we kind of highjacked the conversation away from this issue entirely…lol.

    I’m not digging on AdWords as a product in general, but for the purposes of Emergency Comms and keeping the public informed DURING a disaster, this is just not the model.

  • #146811

    AJ Dronkers

    Agreed it definitely matters your primary mission and in the area of crisis communications I can see how mobile technology or SMS is a lot more relevant than search results.

  • #146809

    Chris Poirier

    Sorry about taking the long way to that observation!

    It’s the complication of a field that has multiple subsets and two that sound related! (crisis vs. emergency and often used differently depending on the organization)

    Emergency Comms is a whole sale approach: TV, Radio, Internet, Hard Media (news papers, etc), and public events. But, due to that nature spending money just for top search results seems far into the weeds with little to no value add to the public that just wants answers.

    For your longer term programs, absolutely an option that be budgeted for annully and planned appropriately.

  • #146807

    Len Johnson

    Yes, I think Google Ads are an appropriate and effective way for government to communicate with citizens. For example, GSA has used this tactic to make people aware of their government surplus property sales. Autos, fire trucks, industrial machinery and even jewelry and exotic collectibles are sold by GSA at

  • #146805

    Robert Bacal

    Shouldn’t the starting point be:

    What PROBLEM is it that we should be addressing in terms of the RESULTS we need to create/


    Is a particular solution being considered (in this case, Adwords) the best solution, and/or how does it provide value (furthering our desired result) over and above unpaid methods)?


    Does our “solution” actually reflect how “regular citizens” behave in terms of finding information?

    The danger that I see reflected in this discussion is the notion that we think of the capabilities of technologies, which are cool, and jump in without really doing the analytical thinking that makes them potentially effective. I see this all the time with social media and tech. solutions — that they don’t reflect how people actually behave, but are more reflective of the notion that technology, in and of itself, is “good”, so we should use it.

  • #146803

    Chris Poirier

    Absolutely! I recently wrote two related articles on this issue: Taking the “2.0” Out of Technology (Links to my related story as well.)

    Really been trying to get people to focus on their processes and their problems first before trying to jam fit a technology solution that might not have anything to do with the problem or solves a problem you never had to begin with.

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