Last week the Washington Post featured an article on the frustrations of digital communicators in the weather community with Facebook. The article, “How Facebook is falling short as a weather communication tool,” outlined three major problems weather communicators are having with the social networking tool:
“1) Its updates only reach a small fraction of the people who subscribe to them
2) Its updates often do not post in a timely fashion
3) Its updates offer no insight into whether the provided content is trustworthy”
For many government communicators, this isn’t a new problem. Derek Belt of King County wrote a blog post a few months back on planning an exit strategy for Facebook in government organizations due to the declining engagement on the platform.
In the public sector, your messages have a very real impact on citizens’ day–to-day lives. Weather updates from state, local and federal organizations can ensure life-saving information gets to citizens. As a public sector communicator, can you take the chance that maybe your message will get through a Facebook algorithm that you don’t really understand to reach hopefully more than 5% of your followers? For critical messages like weather updates, the answer is no.
Fortunately, many government organizations are finding ways around this issue using a multichannel digital communications approach to weather alerts. Following are several examples of this strategy in action.
This past winter, the Minnesota Department of Health used email to send out extreme cold safety videos in multiple languages to hundreds of at risk residents, helping increase the visibility of cold weather shelter programs. These emails had deliverability rates of upwards of 95%, a huge difference from Facebook’s less than 10% reach.
Essentially, multichannel weather communications help government organizations save lives and aid in recovery efforts. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, cities like Baltimore and Ocean City, Md. used multichannel digital campaigns (email, text message/SMS, and social media) to get the word out about preparation, storm updates, and recovery efforts.
Similarly, when a tornado touched down in the City of Minneapolis, the city immediately sent out email alerts in conjunction with posts to its social media pages. Because Minneapolis offers an option for residents to sign up for alerts segmented by their precinct, the city was able to quickly target specific locations to provide vital recovery information including:
- Warnings to non-residents to avoid the area and make way for first responders
- Information on Tornado Recovery Assistance Centers
- Warnings of burglaries and tips to avoid door-to-door home repair scams
- Public Works schedules of debris cleanup
The City of Minneapolis and nearby City of Saint Paul take this multi-pronged approach into the winter season before severe weather even occurs in the area by working on building a list of subscribers they can reach during weather emergencies. They promote email alerts with print mailers, billboards, TV and radio advertisements to request stakeholders to sign up with their email addresses for email alerts or phone numbers for text message alerts. By continuously building their audiences, these two cities ensure they can communicate with, and actually reach, the largest number of people possible.
In the U.K., sign-ups for email weather alerts from local authorities in 2013 increased by 3900% in one week during unusually inclement weather. This meant that thousands of new people got the potentially life-saving information they needed, in real time and directly in their inbox.
Text messaging is another big digital communications player in alerting citizens to important weather updates. The Washington Department of Transportation sends real-time SMS/text messages to inform travelers about road conditions and inclement weather. With real-time alerts, travelers can find out what’s happening on roads throughout the state without having to even check Facebook or the department’s website.
The National Weather Service used to leverage integrated, innovative communications technology to more easily distribute critical weather notifications before relying more heavily on social media and other third parties to push notifications out.
The promise of Facebook to reach and engage your stakeholders is one that has clearly failed. While it can be a tool to broaden your message, connecting directly through email or SMS/text messages (which remain the most common forms of digital communications across all demographics) is necessary when it comes to saving and protecting stakeholders’ lives and property.