Three Takeaways from a Day We’ll Never Forget

What we can all learn from technology use in a tragedy

by Ike Pigott |

Last week, the state of Alabama recognized the one-year mark of one of the most brutal and deadly tornado outbreaks in anyone’s memory. It was not a celebration, nor an anniversary. It was a stark reminder of just how much nature cares about our First World Problems. Even with the latest and greatest in warnings and technology, more than 250 Alabamians lost their lives on April 27, 2011. That element of the devastation should always come first in any discussion.

With that firmly on the record, there are some interesting things we can learn about how technology has changed us. I want to talk for a moment about my friends Pete and Sherri Blank.

When “being pinned” is not good

They were at home with their two children when the second wave of storms came through Clay, to the northeast of Birmingham. They got the tornado warning in time to flee to the “man cave” in the basement — and were fortunate to be in the half of the basement that didn’t collapse. However, they were trapped under two-and-a-half stories of home. And by trapped, we mean they really didn’t have free range of movement at all.

Madison, their daughter, had her smartphone, and was immediately able to post a Facebook update that indicated they were alive. What is even more telling is that within three hours, nearly every material need for the Blank family was filled by family and friends. Yes, there is insurance, and FEMA, and the Red Cross, and churches, and a whole host of resources there to help. But assistance doesn’t have to flow from the top-down in as bureaucratic a fashion as we’ve become accustomed.

Observation: In disasters, people will use their own technology and personal networks to share information and marshal resources. In the past, emergency responders would have pleaded with the public to “stay connected” with portable radios and D-batteries. Everyone would have been plugged into a general broadcast platform, which can only herd people through the largest one-size-fits-all conduits. However, more of us aren’t getting our news that way anymore. We get teases and links through our social networks, and click through to read more if so inclined. Why would you invest hours listening to The Generic when you’ve already cultivated a feed of people who are specifically relevant to you?

Takeaway: As a business or brand, you have to recognize that in these instances people will gravitate to their networks even more. I am not inviting you to figure out how to spam through their friends — but I am suggesting that you be highly strategic in what you communicate and how. Knowing what people are really sharing is more than half the battle, and the great thing is you can use your own personal network as a listening post. (and knowing when to not say anything at all is the most important skill of all.)


February 20th, 2012 meeting ~ABC 33/40 Chief M...
James Spann at ALSOCME (Photo credit: ALsocme)

James Spann is the chief meteorologist for the ABC affiliate in Birmingham. I worked with him for several years. He was an early adopter of social media. (He’s currently approaching 100,000 Likes and 60,000 Followers, which is phenomenal for a local weatherman in the 40th-largest TV market, with just 740,000 households.) And he manages his accounts himself. (Do check out his talk with the Alabama Social Media Association – it’s first-rate.)

After the storms passed, James found himself in a peculiar role: connector. Hundreds of his followers who knew of desperate needs tweeted him with requests, and asked for retweets. Thousands of people who wanted to help pinged back, wanting @Spann to relay what they had to offer to the greater community. James was stuck at the nexus of this incredible engine of spontaneous good, and was afraid of the consequences of stopping. He may have been close to developing “ReTweet Blister.”

Observation: Spann didn’t ask to become a valuable post-storm resource, but he found himself with that opportunity.

Takeaway: There is incredible power and value as a connector. “Content” has resurfaced as the buzzword of the day, with Content Marketing and Content Strategies and Content Generation propping up a lot of consultants’ time and billables. But you can’t deny the advantage that comes when one is known simply as an engine for connection. But don’t wait until destiny taps you on the behind and gives you the chance to step up — start cultivating a rich and diverse network of people who don’t yet know that they will need each other. This is very different than Community Management, where it is assumed that the community already has commonalities and can approach each other.

Emergent Order

During the first 48 hours, it became ridiculously difficult to keep up with @Spann’s twitchy retweet finger. A lot of really good information and heartfelt offers were sliding off the page as new offers and cries for help piled on top. What was needed was some degree of curation — but nobody had the time to do it.

Enter my colleague, Jamie Sandford.

Jamie pitched an idea to Spann that would turn the tide. Instead of just blindly retweeting the messages through the same conduit, they pitched a pair of complementary hashtags: #ALHaves and #ALNeeds.

Two chainsaws and a pickup truck with a front winch. #ALHaves

Need help pulling three trees off my mother’s house in Argo. #ALNeeds.

Shelter in Ashland about to run out of bottled water. #ALNeeds.

You get the idea.

Now, instead of locking into @Spann’s total feed of everything (including, gasp, actual weather forecast information,) those who needed water could enter a Twitter search for #ALHaves+water.

Observation: Within a few hours, the hashtags caught on — even with people who had no idea what a hashtag was. And with the distributed nature of that informal information network, we will never conclusively know how many Solutions met Problems last April and May.

Takeaway #1: Listen. Someone might have an idea that can make your task a lot easier.

Takeaway #2: Let the technology do the work for you. Where possible, let social tools do what social tools do well — and look for ways to allow sharing to be as frictionless as possible (while still getting the job done.)

Now, your turn.

What takeaways did I miss?

(Special thanks to Jason Falls and Explore Nashville, for its contribution to the Red Cross in the state of Alabama.)

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About the Author

Ike Pigott

In his previous life, Ike Pigott was an Emmy-winning TV reporter, who turned his insider's knowledge of the news cycle into a crisis communications consultancy. At the American Red Cross, serving as Communication and Government Relations Director for five southeastern states, Ike pioneered the use of social media in disaster. Now -- by day -- he is a communications strategist for Alabama Power and a Social Media Apologist; by night, he lurks at Occam's RazR, where he writes about the overlaps and absurdities in communications, technology, journalism and society. Find out how you can connect with Ike or follow him on Twitter at @ikepigott. He also recently won the coveted "Social Media Explorer contributing writer with the longest Bio" award.