Don’t turn an emergency into a crisis

(this is cross-posted from LinkedIn for completeness)

Diagram shows crisis in a circle and emergency in a circle. The circles overlap but only partly.

I tell people that I work in emergency communications and, to be honest, most of them suddenly find they have an urgent appointment.

The vast majority of those that are too slow to make a convincing excuse will almost immediately say

“So, you work in crisis comms do you?” and I will almost certainly say

Yes” because I don’t want them to leave and, really, what does it matter?

Actually I think it matters quite a lot.

Crisis comms and emergency comms are not indistinguishable and being skilled in crisis comms won’t, of itself, help you when an emergency calls for your communication expertise.

It’s like this.

Crisis comms is concerned with the health of the organisation. Emergency comms is concerned with public safety.

Embarrassing tweets, chief executive suddenly resigning, and a leak of customer data all fall into the bucket marked crisis communications.

Floods, fires, and terror attacks all fall into the bucket marked emergency comms.

And there is great potential for overlap. If your business is producing food, and you accidentally introduce food pathogens into delicious cooked things, this is both a crisis and an emergency. But frankly any sensible crisis comms practitioner will tell to to do everything you can to keep people safe before you start worrying about the reputational fall out (so it’s an emergency).

Many of the practical approaches will be the same too. If you have a team ready, willing and capable you can call upon at 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning to help warn people about impending dangers they’re probably going to be pretty good in a crisis too.

But there are differences. At the top of your emergency comms plan will be written your default strategic aims:

  • protect life
  • keep people safe
  • protect the environment
  • support the affected
  • protect property
  • return life to normal where and when possible

At the top of your crisis comms plan will be written:

  • do the right thing
  • behave like a human
  • don’t hide or run away from the crisis
  • reassure and inform stakeholders

Your tactical decision making in an emergency should be driven by a simple cycle:

  • who needs to know what?
  • how will I let them know?
  • how will I find out they have heard?
  • how will I find out they have responded as a result?
  • who needs to know what, now?

Something similar wouldn’t go amiss in a crisis too. In an emergency though the situation is complicated because in a whole set of organisations there are other comms professionals going through the same cycle. And some of them are also in a crisis as well.

To make sure people are effectively warned and informed in an emergency requires the coordination and sychronisation of a whole set of organisations with the same goals in common but not the same tasks at hand.

Both practices need senior and experienced communications professionals, they need trained and practiced comms staff throughout the process and they need good quality and effective leadership within organisations.

But they are not the same thing. And one of them is more important that the other.

What happens next and who decides?

Middle-aged man in corduroy jacket sits with arms folded on a stage with a black backdrop
Photo by Chris Boland /

If you read the Guardian you probably won’t have been able to miss the fact that Paul Mason (from Channel Four News) has a new book out. It’s called PostCapitalism.

You should read it.

It’s a good book, well argued and interesting. And, you know, book-length. I mention this because the temptation is to try and explain in a blog post what Paul Mason has taken chapters to explain. I’ll try to resist this temptation.

Broadly he explains how the information revolution is threatening market-based capitalism. Then he suggests a way we could organise our economy better and proposes some ways to get there (my resistance didn’t last long).

Not everyone is going to agree with his vision for a future economy (he’s a bit of a lefty) but his arguments about how the information revolution are challenging market capitalism are interesting and fairly urgent.

One of his arguments is that the action of free markets will tend to reduce the price of information goods to close to zero. This is bad for people trying to make money out of information goods. The strong temptation for these people might therefore be to reduce the freedom of markets (like demanding more protection for intellectual property). Or to go bust.

This seems like a pressing problem for people trying to make money out of information goods (which is most businesses) and for society as a whole.

Paul Mason’s solution may not be the only or even the best solution but we do really need a solution.

Or we’ll sleep-walk into a very different future decided by people who do not have our best interests at heart.

Anyway I strongly recommend you read and argue about this book with immediate effect.

Why my next laptop will be a MacBook

A couple of years ago my ancient Dell laptop finally gave up the ghost and I went looking for a replacement. I wanted something lightweight, fast and capable of running Linux.

(I know, I know: you’re shouting “MacBook”)

I rejected MacBooks out of hand based on, frankly, bare prejudice.

I wanted to buy the Dell XPS DE which is an ultrabook with Ubuntu pre-installed but I couldn’t find a way to get them to sell it to me.

I’m a bit of a Google fanboi so I was interested in the immensely cool looking but scarily expensive ChromeBook Pixel. When I learned that through the Crouton package I could run full fat Linux packages on the Pixel I jumped and invested £1K of my own, hard-earned money.

And I loved it, still do. It’s beautifully made, starts in seconds and attracts admiring glances wherever it goes. Increasingly I just use the ChromeOS as I live in the Google ecosystem much of the time anyway.

So why will my next laptop be an Apple?

Because there’s more to selling laptops than delivering cool kit.

It started early on. The insulation on the charger started to fray. I contacted Google support and they leapt into action.

“The way this is going to work”

they explained

“Is we’re going to place a £1K charge on your credit card and send you a new ChromeBook and charger. Assuming you return the old machine to us within the correct timescale, we won;t take the money from your card”

“Well that’s not going to work for me”

I said

“Leaving aside the fact I don’t want you to muck around with my credit card, it’s just the charger that’s broken. I’ve customised my machine and I’d rather not have to go through all that again”

Obviously they disagreed that I *had* customised my machine or that such a thing was possible (it is). But through dogged persistence my query was escalated through various layers until it reached someone who decided the simplest thing would be just to send me a new charging unit.

At no point did I ever feel anyone was trying to resolve my problem. They were perfectly polite but they weren’t, in any meaningful way, helpful.

In a while the insulation began to fray again and this time there was a smoother process to exchange my broken kit for a shiny new item (which seemed much improved in the insulation stakes suggesting I had not been alone).

And now I have managed to lose my charging unit. It’s annoying and it may be returned to me but there’s no guarantee. I need something to power the machine.

Google no longer offer a suitable charging unit in their store. So I spent a fruitless and frustrating period on a text chat with a very polite support person who totally failed to solve my problem and, in fact, repeatedly gave me the incorrect advice that the Universal Charger in the Google Store would work with my device (it really won’t).

Eventually they escalated my request elsewhere and I have just received an email confirming that Google don’t supply this charger. They have no arrangements with third parties to supply chargers. They did suggest a search term I could use to hunt for third party kit.

It’s not the end of the world because a trip to Maplin will enable me to procure a properly universal charger.

Just as soon as Google confirm the specification for the DC power supply, which they have only partly managed so far…

It’s absolutely clear now that the 2013 ChromeBook Pixel was a Beta product. The current model of the Pixel looks awesome, is more sensibly priced and has a much longer battery life. I can’t recommend that you buy it though.

I’m down with the Beta testing. But I probably wouldn’t have forked out a grand if I’d known I was taking part in a testing programme.

So when the time finally comes to buy a new laptop, I’ll be nipping to the iStore. Because I trust Apple to look after me more than I trust Google. And that’s brand value.

Am I normal?

I should probably have written this a few days ago.


Are we normal?

It all started when I was training some local government web folk on the dark arts of Google Analytics.

One of the pieces of data that Google Analytics (or indeed many other analytics tools) will give you about visits to your website (which Google Analytics calls sessions) is what proportion of them are “bounces”.

Someone bounces on your site if they only view one page in their visit*.

So if your page is there to provide helpful information, you’d probably be quite pleased with a high bounce rate because it suggests people are searching for information, finding it and leaving again.

On the other hand you might have designed a site which encourages people to browse around, stumbling across new things. In which case bouncing would be bad.

And, of course, local authorities are service providers. If people come to your website to pay for things, request things, or book things then they (hopefully) won’t bounce either.

So the question these folk asked was “Is our bounce rate typical for local government?”. Which is an interesting question and one I couldn’t directly answer.

Is that the right question?

Now obviously the key question should be “Is it the bounce rate you expected when you designed the site?” In fact I argue you should always know what good looks like before delving in to analytics tools.

But it’s always nice to compare to others. It’s always useful to be able to think “I would expect my site to behaving very much like X council” and then find out if it is or isn’t.

And a question that always bothered me when I was responsible for local government digital services was what level of mobile traffic I should expect. Other councils had higher proportions of mobile traffic than my council. But was this a factor of serving a rural population? Was it a factor of the sort of services and content we provided? Was it an aspect of the way we marketed our services.

The more I thought about it, the more interesting (and useful) I thought it would be if we could see this data for each local authority.

So I decided to ask them.

It’s my fault

So, I’m afraid I’m responsible for a flurry of FOIA requests flying around the country. I’ve tried to keep the request specific and simple to answer.

I hadn’t quite appreciated how much email traffic it would generate or how much admin it would involve me in. But hopefully in a few weeks I should have a large dataset of some key metrics.

This is not about league tables or declaring winners: the only correct bounce rate is the one you intended for your site. This is about trying to help describe the ranges and differences between types of authorities and different parts of the UK.

I’ll be sharing it all back and I hope that it will be a useful contribution to the sector.

That said, I may think twice before embarking on a mass FOIA again…

*Inevitably it’s actually more complex than that but that’ll do for the purposes of this blog post.

Four steps that will transform your relationship with Google Analytics


The world is divided into two groups of people

The first group has Google Analytics wired into their website. They have dashboards set up that they check daily. They run weekly and monthly reports and pour over the data with confidence and enthusiasm. They advise managers in their organisation of changes that should be implemented in the website and in services in general based on the insights from this data. And then they see the fruits of their labour reflected in the reports they run next month.

The second group also has Google Analytics wired into their website. This group logs in every so often and pokes about in the back-end in a desultory fashion. They look at some graphs which seem to be going in the right direction and print them out and send them to some people who examine them in a somewhat confused manner. Nobody changes anything as a result of insights gained from the data.

I’m going to guess that you are in the second group. Most people are. Google Analytics is extremely widely used and very powerful but it’s very power can make it seem confusing. Even if you are confident interpreting what it is telling you affecting change in the rest of the organisation can be tricky.

Here are four simple things you could do differently that should help

1. Never look at Google Analytics unless you have a question that needs answering.


Google Analytics is a reporting tool. It tells you what happened and when. It reports an awful lot of things. Most of these things aren’t relevant to you right now (possibly ever). Decide what it is that you want to know and your journey into the data will be smooth and pain-free.

2. Decide what you think the answer should be before you look

Have you just run a marketing campaign? Did it go to plan. Logically then lots more people should have visited the service you were promoting right? You would expect to see sessions and probably pageviews increase. You would expect to see lots of people visiting your site via Facebook (if that’s where you ran the Campaign) and so on.

Decide what you think success would look like and then you are looking for a yes/no answer: did it happen as I was expecting?

3. Be clear about what the link is to the organisation / service objective

It’s nice when people visit your website but there has to be more to it than that. If you sell things then, presumably, the service objective would be to… er… sell more things.

In other walks of life (say local government), perhaps you hope that people will be less likely to phone you if they’ve gone online (and so will save you money) or will be able to do something new that will help them in their lives.

If you can’t see the link to the organisation / service objective then you’re going to find it hard to do anything useful with the Google Analytics insights. If that is where you are, put the analytics book down and go and talk to the service.

4. Understand what you will do with the answer

Essentially you can recommend three broad things as a result of what the data show:

  • carry on doing the same thing (because what you are doing is working)
  • do something different (because what you are doing is not working)
  • stop doing anything (because what you did worked so well the job is done)

Make sure you know will actually make that decision in your organisation. If you know what the link to the service or organisation objective is And then understand what information they are going to want from you.

Some people might simply want an email saying

“I’ve had a look at the website stats, things aren’t going to plan. Unless we do something different you’re not going to meet your service target. I suggest we switch our focus to Twitter for the next few weeks”.

Some people (like me) will want a graph for every step of the way

“ Before we started the campaign visits to the page looked like this: [GRAPH]. We have been running the Campaign for four weeks and visits have changed like this [GRAPH]. As you can see the few people that have used the service came via Twitter [GRAPH] so I recommend we switch our emphasis to Twitter for the next few weeks. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that your service target is for lots more people to use this service [GRAPH]”

And some people just love the numbers instead (accountants especially).

Every journey starts with a first step

These steps will not turn you into a Google Analytics ninja overnight. But they will mean that your relationship with the platform starts to become more productive. Gradually, step by step, it will become less confusing and more useful. And before you know it you will be well on the way to joining that hallowed group of people making analytics work for them and their organisation.

My company The Likeaword Consultancy can help you get the most out of Google Analytics.

It’s all about the podcast

For several months now I’ve been recording a podcast with Helen Reynolds from Social for the People. We talk about things that have been in the news that interest us: a bit of social media, government, housing, data, emergencies and PR generally. Sometimes we have a guest.

It has been and continues to be an interesting learning curve. In fact Helen has just posted some tips for new podcasters.

The feedback so far has been pretty positive and so we’ve gone so far to set up a proper home for the podcast online: The Natteron Podcast. We really appreciate the fact that people listen and that they go to the trouble to get in touch about the show.

If you’ve got a suggestion, comment or question please do drop me a line or comment below.

Oh, and the latest podcast, Sixth (non)sense, is up. Have a listen, it includes:

  • Mike Bracken’s dramatic departure from Government Digital Service
  • The company that banned emails and managers
  • Hacking cars
  • Festival of Code winners
  • The value of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations
  • some stuff about analytics


Just in case anyone is still having arguments with civil engineers

A recurring theme in my professional life in local government web / comms has been whether to call the thing on the side of the road where people are supposed to walk the pavement (like normal people do) or the footway (like civil engineers do).

In my happier moments I like to believe that those days are behind us.

But just in case they aren’t here’s the Google Trends data for those two terms.


I think the pavements have it.

Podcast: moving into fifth

This is the latest edition of the Natteron podcast I record with Helen Reynolds.

In this edition we were joined by Rose Rees Jones to talk about open data, anthropology, the Missing Maps project, the Big Pathwatch, Wales, Cornwall, and amongst other subjects.

Links referenced in this podcast

Stealing some time from the finest comms minds at #commscamp15

Room full of people some sitting some standing

My pitch at CommsCamp was a shameless request for help.

I asked people to come and help me write a communications plan for the Standby Task Force. Explaining what Standdy Task Force does from a standing start in 20 seconds turns out not to be that easy. So item one for the comms plan: we need an elevator pitch for SBTF.

This is what I should have said

Standby Task Force is a global network of crisis mappers. We mine social networks and public sources following natural disasters and provide maps and other resources to humanitarian agencies. Our aim is to help agencies understand what the situation is on the ground faster, so they can target support more efficiently and people more effectively, We have no paid staff, in fact up until the end of 2014 we had no funding whatsoever. I’ve been a volunteer since 2011 and I joined the core team this year.

One of my roles on the core team is to focus on communications and that, hopefully obviously, necessitates a comms plan / strategy. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to harness the collective wisdom of a bunch of communications professionals. It’s very easy to get too close to an organisation you are involved in and lose the objectivity you need to do a decent comms planning.

A great bunch of people did come. They quizzed me, they made helpful suggestions, and really helped me to reframe my thinking. Just spending 45 minutes explaining what SBTF does, what the strengths and weaknesses of the model are, what we’d like to do and what we worry about really helped me get some clarity. And I think they, maybe, got some insight into what SBTF and other digital humanitarian organisations get up to.

Here’s my current thinking on a comms plan after the discussion.


Relevant staff in humanitarian agencies globally know what SBTF capability is and activate us when we could assist.
SBTF volunteers feel motivated and involved in between deployments.
SBTF volunteers feel motivated and involved enough to respond in large numbers when we do activate
People with relevant skills and interests know what SBTF is and continue to join us.

So this gives us three key audiences:

– humanitarian aid workers (working in disaster response)
– SBTF volunteers
– potential volunteers

And some broad approaches:

We need to make it easy to understand what our capabilities are.

This should help recruitment as well as helping humanitarian aid workers understand us a bit better. For example the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team builds maps of poorly mapped areas hit by disasters. That’s pretty easy to understand (and actually they do more than that).

SBTF has always innovated and tried new things. That’s a really important part of what we are, but it also may make it hard to get a handle on what it is that we offer. It may be time to list some specific products that we can provide to support humanitarian response. This wouldn’t stop us continuing to work at the cutting edge as well but it would make it easier for agencies to understand what value we can add in the current situation.

We do have a page which sort of describes what we get up to but it could be much clearer.

It might also help internally with training and engagement. If we can link the training and skills development for volunteers to the key products we provide it may help volunteers to see the value of investing their time and effort.

We need case studies.

And SBTF does have case studies, we’ve been around for five years this year and our volunteers have worked on a huge number of deployments. If you’ve heard of a natural disaster over the past few years it is likely that SBTF volunteers were supporting the humanitarian response.

We have some public outputs and some outputs that we can’t share in public. We’ve got blog posts, after action reviews and academic studies (and a book, not just about us but featuring us heavily).

But we don’t have the sort of case studies that comms people are after. They want 250 word, highly visual, tightly structured documents. We have all the raw materials to enable us to produce these (apart from maybe the visuals see next item).

If we develop a “menu” of products, it becomes easier to think about what case studies to work on. So one of the products we would be likely to list would be a “crisis map” showing all the images or reports relevant to the disaster accurately on a zoomable map. Ask any experienced volunteer “what’s a good case study to illustrate that”? and they’ll quickly be able to list several really good examples.

We need imaginative visuals

One thing the group was very clear on was the power of visuals. They are not wrong of course. Photographs create an emotional connection in a way almost nothing else does.

We struggle with photos of our work. Practically we are a bunch of people sitting at computers. We produce resources to help humanitarian agencies in disaster zones but even then the people we are directly helping are themselves sitting at desks trying to plan and coordinate humanitarian support in extraordinarily difficult situations. We can’t really ask them to nip out and take pictures of disasters.

That said, what we could do, is talk about the whole humanitarian response and point out how we were are a part of this. This is a subtle difference to how we tend to talk about things right now. We talk a lot about our specific work (which you would expect) and the specific agency that requested our support. We could probably think more about taking a step back and looking at the wider response, which we have been part of it.

But we also need to square the circle that we will never get that many images from the areas we are working to help but we need images to help all our audiences understand and connect with our work.

I think we need to find more ways to use visuals of our volunteers. One of the privileges of being on the core team is I get a really good view of how diverse and widespread our network really is. Most people don’t get that same sense. We can say “we’ve got 1600 volunteers from over 100 countries” but that’s not the same as showing you photos, videos or testimony from our volunteers (where they are happy to do that).

I keep returning to a fundamental truth about SBTF, we are 1600 volunteers, and our volunteers are amazing.

And we DO have maps and data and with a bit of creatibe input we could make these much more visually engaging.

We need a work plan

We’ve started a small comms team within the SBTF network and we hope to exapnd that a little. Assuming we agree on the broad approach the next step is to translate that into a sensible action plan. Instinctively I feel that this will need to be limited by the time our volunteers have available but does it? If we have a sensible, workable plan then could we apply for funding or pro-bono support from a PR/marketing agency?

That’s a genuine question. We need to make sure we protect the things that make SBTF uniquely flexible and effective. We are a volunteer network but we could, potentially, access funding for activities that will support the voluntary heart of our work.

What happens next?

I hope that this post will stimulate some discussion about whether this broad approach is sensible and what a work / action plan would look like.

We need to discuss that within the SBTF network as well as with the wider stakeholders.

I’d really value any comments in the comment field below or to or on skype:likeaword

Image credit: CommsCamp15-045 by W N Bishop, used under a creative commons NC-SA licence. 

What’s the difference between SBTF and VOST then?

It is possible that this is a question that has never occured to you. In fact I’d be willing to bet that the number of people who have ever asked this question is incredibly small. That said, if you are reading my blog I would say there is a high chance you have asked that question or something quite like it.

I must accept my share of responsibility for any confusion. I am on the core team of Standby Task Force and I’m part of a group trying to get VOST adopted in the UK. Sometimes (often) I conflate the two in talks.

In an attempt to help here is my, entirely personal, view about what the differences (and smilarities) are.

There is more about VOST on the site and more about Standby Task Force over at

The things we have in common

SBTF and VOST are not the same but there certainly are similarities. Indeed during the SBTF recent deployment to Nepal we worked closely with the VOST community and many VOST volunteers worked alongside SBTF volunteers and brought valuable skills and experience.

In both cases you have groups of people online monitoring social media in emergency situations and providing reports or maps to help responders on the ground get to the right place to help the right people.

The things that make us distinct.

SBTF is a global network of digital humanitarian volunteers. Essentially we offer to produce maps, databases or other information resources for humanitarian agencies following natural disasters. We can be activated by any humanitarian organisation and their request is tested against our activation criteria.

VOSTs are smaller and more focused teams. They typically exist to extend the capabilities of a local emergency management organisation. The organisation(s) they support will have a good understanding of the team members and will include them in training and exercising.

Though VOST team members are typically not paid for their work on VOST there is no reason why a VOST could not made up of paid team members. In fact one of the things we are exploring in the UK is the idea of training comms teams in the various organisations involved in emergency response to form VOSTs. In that model VOSTs could be formed entirely from paid staff.

There are no paid roles in SBTF and though it is possible that, one day, SBTF might employ a small support team. The strength of the SBTF is in the huge numbers of volunteers able to bring a wide range of skills and work around the clock around the globe it will always be a global volunteering endeavour.

Though each VOST is locally focused and (compared to SBTF) small, there is a global network of VOST teams. They try to follow a common framework and workflows. That makes it easy to scale the response with volunteers from other teams. The VOST(s) are always given tasks and directions for the emergency management organisation(s).

Scale of incident.

SBTF’s activation criteria starts with this statement:

SBTF typically activates in a humanitarian emergency declared under the International Charter Space & Major Disaster (, or in a political situation that may lead to a major humanitarian disaster.

SBTF will not activate for a winter flood event in Herefordshire, UK. If we had a Herefordshire (or West Mercia) VOST it almost certainly would activate for a winter flood event.

VOSTs bring local knowledge and expertise which really enhances their ability to rapidly sift information and turn it into intelligence.

SBTF volunteers are typically working around an area they have limited experience of (though one of the many great things about the SBTF network is that we almost always do have some volunteers with local knowledge).

What do you think?

As I say, these are my personal opinions. I’d really like to hear from SBTF and VOST folk about whether I’ve missed things, misconstrued things or, even, hit the nail on the head.