How information traverses social media during a crisis like the NSW bushfires. The role of crisis comms and official vs non official media sources.

When I was asked by the BBC to do an interview on Tuesday night of the fires I said no. Too close to home and we were busy preparing the house and property. But once the main threat on Wednesday had passed and I was asked by my editor at The Australian to write, I thought it through and said yes. A bit too soon, a bit too raw and a bit too personal for my liking but I get that a human voice works better than a social media automaton 😛

A Shared Experience

When a friend posted on Facebook “I can see flames a kilometre away, what should we do? There’s no fire engines here, no one to ask” our community came alive. For so early in the season, everyone was surprised by the ferocity and speed of the fires. Responses quickly came back – yes I can see the fire too, I’ve rung Triple-zero, which way is the wind blowing? Get out now! Friends and family used social media to keep the information flowing. Unfortunately he lost his house and we, a few miles further into the mountains, were stunned as his personal tragedy unfolded on Facebook.

smoky nswfires

The team on the unofficial non-Gov funded Blue Mountains Australia Facebook Page with 146,000 fans started posting information minute by minute as heard, seen or posted on social media. Curating Facebook status updates and tweets and community information, they worked hard to bring the sort of information that an official news service might miss or deem trivial. From photographs of freeways empty of traffic to requests for help for an elderly citizen to Gary Hayes smoke filled photos of skies alight at sunset, the Page attempted to fill in the gaps, helping us understand a shared experience. Most of the relevant, critical information for us in the Mountains was in the comments – well wishers, questions and answers, passing on of information of whether a school missed on official the list was open or closed the next day. Initially erratic with photos of bushwalkers and tourists rock climbing, the postings became more focussed as the first day progressed on the bushfire efforts, reposting updates from the Police, Fire, Aquatic Centre, Real Estate Agencies and individuals that live in the area affected by bushfires.

We often talk in social media that it’s not about the Likes but about Engagement. The unofficial (fan-run) NSW Emergency Coverage have 164,000 likes but 268, 000 people “talking about this”. In other words, the reach of the content is double that of the subscribers! Most companies and organisations are looking at less than 1% engagement so 200% is phenomenal. One of their users’ story about her brother the fireman in Winmalee had 10,000 likes and 600 comments in 20 minutes.  NOTE: I can’t link to them as some idiot bullied them for “stealing” emergency updates and the kid that runs the page shut it down. They got to 1/2 million people talking about them, which is millions of people’s newsfeeds.

The official NSW Fire Service on Faceboook has 250,000 fans and a little bit more than that talking about their content. Forwarding articles by commenting, liking and sharing ensures the message gets into as many newsfeeds on Facebook as possible. And while their Twitter account @NSWRFS has only 36,000 followers, the massive number of retweets mean their tweets are reaching 1 million people on Twitter every 4.5 minutes. It was much higher than that during the original emergency when everyone was scrambling on the ground for the most real time information possible.

The lady at Woolies, Leura, told me her niece had lost her wedding dress and bridesmaids outfits in the bushfires. And while it’s easy for us to say “oh well at least she has her life” the reality is, life is not easy during or after a bushfire. And while Twitter and Facebook commenters went to war on the pros and cons of “politicising” our Prime Minister having cake with firies, removing helpful aid a day after the fires started did not go down well in the Blue Mountains online community. Thankfully a student started the Firey Formal Dress Exchange on Facebook and currently has 5,000 members participating in exchanging and loaning formal dresses. Crowdsourcing donations was something that everyone took on – we along with many others dropped off bags and boxes of donations at the Springwood Country Club and after speaking to the coordinator I tweeted out requests for kids clothing, hats, shoes and cot sheets. Within minutes I had 50 retweets, within 10 minutes requests for where to go with the donations and within 2 hours I was told that drop off no longer needed those items.

Incredibly busy people at the forefront of the crisis found time to keep us uptodate on social media and we took their information eagerly and passed it on – Firemen were recorded videos for YouTube,

and the Police tweeted warning and even real estate agents that Instagrammed photos of donations packing up while they teach How To Collect Late Rent Payments- Property Management Advice. Traditional media worked alongside other media and content creators to create the most comprehensive coverage of a crisis to date.

Notably absent from online community discussions was The Blue Mountains Council. While there is no Council Twitter account or Facebook Page, the Mayor has tweeted on his personal account 4 times during the first 3 days of the fire. If good local government council communication underpins democracy, ignoring hundreds of thousands of Facebook status updates and tweets in your area is not a good move. The Council’s absence was noted especially in the discussions around the causes of the fire – Department of Defence, 11 year old boys and power cables in Springwood. (NOTE: residents said that letters from Power company asked them to push Council to cut back trees in July, dunno if it’s true). Luckily the shortfall was made up for by the community – misinformation was corrected and warnings about lootings and snatch-and-grab thieves came from Blue Mountains residents.  But be aware: when an authorised group does not show up, the rest of the community notice.

It takes a Village to Pass a Message. No longer do we look to one source – one Media channel or one Emergency body to bring us the message. The message is delivered through friends, family, neighbours, workmates, customers, strangers. Delivered on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.  Whoever receives the message passes it on to those who need to see it. Media means Channels. We are the channel. We are the medium. We are the message.

The final version in The Australian is better edited.
Chain Reaction over time in social networks
FYI this is what Village comms looks like – distributed sources. Notice that non-retweeted/non-Facebooked content/accounts sits in top left & is not connected to community. PS I wrote a book on Crisis Comms and social media back in 2008 (translated into Thai and used by Government of Thailand) which you can download for free on Scribd.

EDIT for those who weren’t here and didn’t follow it closely, RFS were very clear in Katoomba meeting and online and in the Press that we should rely on each other first and foremost using social media and other tools. ABC 702 did an excellent job but were  at least 20 minutes delayed that we noticed & of course don’t answer personal information on a specific house like social media can. Anyway some links:

  • From the Fires Near Me app:
    While these applications and services can be useful sources of information on fire incidents and conditions, they are reliant on having access to data services. Therefore, the NSW RFS encourages you to not rely solely on these applications and services and use a range of sources for information
    Current incident activity is sourced from the NSW RFS incident control database. It is not ‘real-time’ information and is only a general indication of current activity. Incident spatial location (burnt area and fire origin) update times may differ from the update time of incident details.
  • Official RFS line…
    Monitor conditions – stay up to date on the bush fire situation by, checking the Fires Near Me smartphone app and social media, listening to local radio or calling the Bush Fire Information Line on 1800 679 737. Share information with family and friends to help ensure their safety.
  • From RFS Facebook Page status
    Westerly winds have once again pushed smoke in from bush fires burning in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains towards the coast. Heavy smoke is blanketing areas from Sydney to Newcastle. Please only call Triple Zero if you see an unattended fire not just because you can smell smoke.
  • Official site asking for us to: Share information with family and friends to help ensure their safety.
  • “Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons urged people to stay plugged into social media” (news)
  • NSW Fire Service: “Do not wait for a fire truck to get into your driveway, do not rely on a fire truck coming to your home, do not rely on a message, do not rely on a knock on the door,” he said. (commissioner)
  • “Check on your neighbours” The Commissioner didn’t’ specifically say “with social media” but clearly the direction was phone/physically/social media. And Social Media is the safest option out of the three.

Facebook thankyou social media: