Saturday, May 26, 2012

#Hashtags: 5 Key Concepts

After reviewing today's #SMEMCHAT about hashtags (viewable here thanks to @AnaheimCERT) I thought I would share my own thoughts and observations.

In the twittersphere the hashtag is vitally important.  When you use a hashtag you launch your message out of your own private sphere of influence into the world of public influence.  The main point here is that your message will simply reach more people if you responsibly tweet using appropriate hashtags.

The live stream created when people use hashtags is an evolving conversation that brings together all kinds of people who might never have crossed paths otherwise.  This is specifically true during a disaster or other emergency incident. 

During an incident many people will not know which twitter handle to follow.  In fact, the random guy with his face stuck in his smartphone will probably have no idea what agency is in charge.  What that guy will know very quickly, however, is the hashtags that are being used by those affected by the incident.

It is imperative, therefore, that the agency in charge be a strong voice in the dialogue that will take place on the incident related hashtags.  When the agency in charge jumps on board, using the hashtag that everyone else is already using, then the whole community knows not just who is in charge but also what they are doing to respond.  If the agency does not maintain a strong voice on the popularly followed hashtag(s) then the community will seek out information from other unofficial sources; a result that is simply unacceptable.

So if hashtags are important how should the emergency manager use them?  I break down the answer to this question I using 5 key concepts: Identification, Definition, Consistency, Monitoring, and Documentation.

Hashtags are best used when they are quickly identified and defined by the agency (or agencies) in charge.  During an incident most likely relevant hashtags will already be in use well before Public Information Officers (PIOs) are able to respond.   In such a scenario it is imperative that PIOs identify the hashtags that have already taken flight (if by some miracle no hashtag has been started then take the initiative and create the hashtag; start the conversation and then listen in to see if your community is following your lead). 

After the relevant hashtags have been identified it is important to clearly define the hashtag that the agency (or agencies) in charge will use.  This definition should be done clearly and articulately so that the public and media have no doubt as to where the official agencies will be releasing information. 

Once you have identified and defined the hashtag the next step is to simply ensure that all of your posts are consistently submitted to the hashtag.  Once people know where to go to read your message they will continue to return to the same place.  If your most recent update was not submitted with the hashtag they were expecting your message will not be seen.  To avoid this result every tweet should be consistently submitted to the previously identified and defined hashtag. 

One final point here: when an agency's response has concluded a message should be sent informing everyone that the agency will no longer be submitting frequent updates to the defined hashtag and that anyone seeking additional information should contact your agency directly.  If you were deep in conversation with someone you wouldn't just abruptly get up and leave the room when you were done.  Well you shouldn't do that in the twittersphere either. 

An effective incident response can only take place if emergency managers are tuned into the conversations being held by their affected communities.  To that end, emergency managers should not simply use hashtags as a tool to get out their message.  They should also view the hashtag as a powerful tool that allows them to listen in to what the affected communities are saying.  The hashtag tool allows the emergency manager to stay on top of the communities needs and wants.  It also keeps them abreast of rumors and opinions that may be circulating.  In many ways this 'listening' function is the most important aspect of the hashtag. 

Some of the tools that I have used to monitor hashtags include: Monitter, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, TweetGrid, Tweetcaster etc...  I have actually found that it is often easier to monitor hashtag conversations through the use of smartphone or tablet apps rather than via a computer based dashboard.  At any rate, it is important to learn how to use the the phone or tablet based apps so that you can stay tuned in even when you are away from your desk for long periods of time.

In the world of incident command documentation is ever important.  This remains true even when considering the twittersphere.  The great thing about hashtag conversations is that they are forever a part of the public record.  The frustrating thing about the twittersphere is that it is difficult to reach into the data vaults to document tweets that are just weeks or even days old.  With this in mind, it is important to have a documentation services set up at the very onset of an incident.

I have used both paid and free services to document incident related hashtags.  One of the services I used recently was Rowfeeder.  For a small fee I was able to document the hashtag conversation and also analyze the conversation via statistics and graphs.  Other services that can be used include Hootsuite, Tweetdoc and Hashtracking.

In conclusion, emergency managers would be wise to remember the importance of hashtags.  The SMEM community will be able to get the most out of the hashtag tool if they can keep in mind the 5 key concepts of Identification, Definition, Consistency, Monitoring, and Documentation. 

It is imperative that emergency managers have a voice at local watering holes during an active incident. As in days of old we must take our message to the people. In today's digital age the hashtag is simply a revolutionary new means to achieve this rather traditional end.  

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