The Role of New Media in a National Toy Recall

Never doubt the power of a few well-connected people, or a confluence of timing, technology, and information, to have a huge impact on events around the world. I got to witness one of these events firsthand, and even played a very small role in it. You may remember it. It turned out to be one of the biggest lead-contaminated toy recalls in 2006, and one of the first in a long series of Chinese toy recalls that year.

In June 2006, I was working at the Indiana State Department of Health as the Risk Communication Director. Basically, I was in charge of crisis communication, or as I called it, “oh shit” PR.

That’s because whenever some emergency or crisis came up, those were the first two words any of us usually said. We all did, the public affairs staff, the epidemiologists, even the Emergency Response department. Whether it was a Hepatitis A scare at a Pizza Hut in Fort Wayne, salmonella in a Wal-Mart in Johnson County, or a national outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter, we all had the same response when we first heard the news of the latest public health crisis.

I had been working on the job for about three weeks, when I was called down to Legal because “we have a problem.” My first “problem,” in fact. When I showed up, there were eight people sitting around a conference table. They filled me in.

As part of a summer reading program, the Monroe County Library in Bloomington had been giving away bendable children’s toys which were discovered to be dangerously contaminated with lead. The children’s librarian and the lead prevention nurse at Monroe County Hospital had sent samples a couple months earlier to the Consumer Protection Agency, but no one had responded beyond an initial phone call.

Rather than giving up, they then contacted the State Health Department, hoping that someone, anyone, would pay attention to the fact that they had just given out a bunch of lead-contaminated toys, and could we please help them get the word out to their community?

Happily, I didn’t utter my little mantra out loud.

Turns out, another library in another county had also been giving away these toys, which made this a statewide issue. So we decided to send out a press release to all the state media outlets, and see what happened. That afternoon, I answered a few reporters’ questions, and then forgot all about it.

Three days later, I received a call from the director of the New Jersey State Library Association.

It turns out the Muncie Star-Press had run our story, which was then picked up by a librarian blogger. The director read the blog and nearly freaked: they had been giving those toys to a statewide children’s reading program all summer.

Guess what I said, out loud, over the phone.

“You’re telling me,” he said. “What should we do?”

“I don’t know, I’ve been doing this job for three freaking weeks!” I wanted to shout. “This is my first real crisis.”

Instead, I ran through the talking points we had given out to the media, and gave him a few recommendations.

“Could you email that to me?” he asked. “I belong to a listserv group of librarians around the country. I think several of us have been giving out these toys. I can pass it on to them.”

I emailed the talking points and recommendations off to the guy, and then forgot all about it again. Two days later, I received another phone call from the Orange County Register.

The reporter said that several of California’s libraries had been giving away some toys that were found to be contaminated with lead, and since we were the ones who had started this whole thing, did we have any information we could give them?

I explained how the whole thing had started with the nurse and librarian in Monroe County, and how this was apparently being felt in a couple of states now.

“Oh, it’s more than a couple now,” said the Times reporter.

As the days went by, I would go online to see who else had been recalling these children’s toys. Within 24 hours of the OC Register call, the story exploded. Several librarians on the librarian listserv had called their local media with the same story. In a couple cases, someone in one city would read the story and tell their librarian friends in another city, who would then find the listserv information, and call their media outlets.

The tipping point came when the Associated Press sent a national story over the newswire, and local reporters called their local libraries to see if they had those toys. The librarians would go pale and whisper my two words. A quick check always revealed the very same toys for the very same children’s reading program.

A few weeks later, a check of Google News showed something I had never expected: a recall of 385,000 lead-contaminated toys from all 50 states, and more than 530 news stories in the United States, Canada, Germany, England, Italy, India, and Taiwan. And two field agents from the Consumer Protection Agency were suddenly very interested in some bendable toys they had received several months earlier from two women in Bloomington, Indiana.

As I look back on this story, I am struck by one very important lesson: this did not become a national recall just because of traditional media. They had help. What really kicked it off is that a blogger saw an article in her local paper and wrote about it. Then a guy on an email listserv sent it out to the other members. Old-school media played an important part, but it was the new media that really pushed it in the right direction.

All because a librarian blogger was connected to a guy on a librarian listserv. But more importantly, because a nurse and a children’s librarian decided that they needed to speak up about an issue in their hometown, and didn’t quit until someone heard them.

How Health Departments and First Response Agencies Can Use Twitter to Monitor Emergencies, Part 2

Yesterday, I talked about how local health departments (LHDs) can use Twitter to communicate about and monitor public health emergencies. I also talked about how to set up your own Twitter account. For nearly a year-and-a-half, I was the Risk Communication Director for the Indiana State Department of Health. I dealt with the media during public health emergencies, and took part in several incidents and training exercises.

A tool like Twitter would have been invaluable, and saved a lot of time and energy in getting valuable information to other first responders, the Incident Command structure, and even the media and public.

Be sure to visit yesterday’s post to see how to set up a Twitter account and what applications will make this extremely useful.

Today, I want to show what a Twitter exchange would look like.

A few more issues to take care of first:

1. GroupTweet.com. GroupTweet is a web-based service that lets you send messages to an entire group, rather than sending something to all of your followers, or typing in their names one at a time. If you need to speak to, say, an entire POD or the entire EOC, set up a group in advance, and assign all the members of that group. Then, when you need to send a message to only those people, follow GroupTweet’s instructions.

2. For training exercises and real emergencies, it’s helpful to set up accounts for the different NIMS roles (e.g. ISDH_INCMD is the Incident Commander for the Indiana State Department of Health). As the shifts change, make sure the new people have the username and password to the Twitter account.

3. If you are using a special term or keyword during the incident, like “ISDH” or “anthrax,” you can use a program like Tweetfeed to monitor Twitter traffic. This will pick up all traffic with that keyword, so you may be inundated with more traffic than just your group.

4. Set up a laptop running TweetDeck or Twhirl (or both), with an LCD projector to show the message windows on the wall. Make sure everyone can see it, but try to squeeze as many tweets on the wall as you can. (Use the display settings in the Control Panel.) Everyone working in the EOC is using the EOC software, as well as their own Twitter account, but they will be able to see the Twitter stream on the wall. They will also be able to respond to the messages from their own station.

5. Have the PIO could have a separate, public Twitter account that he or she can use to contact the media and public directly, rather than waiting for the TV news and newspapers. Updates are immediate and can be made as needed. Information given to a TV station could be obsolete 15 minutes after the news van has left.

Also, use the # hashtag if you’re talking about a more common term AND your timeline is public. This will let other people, like the media and concerned citizens, also monitor what you’re doing. Anyone who is using the #hashtag will show up in the general Twitter timeline through Twitter’s search function at search.Twitter.com or TweetFeed (they show the same feed. There are not separate feeds for each program). This is an important way for the PIO to monitor Twitter traffic on the incident.

Here’s how Twitter can work during an emergency.

Scenario: During a POD deployment in Clark County, you’ve got too many volunteers in one POD, you’re running out of medication at another, and a TV news crew is on site, but the Clark County PIO is not available.

Normally to handle this, the Operations Officer from Pod#1 would have to call the EOC to find out if they need to redeploy the volunteers. Someone else would call to get more medicine. A third person would frantically be trying to track down the PIO, and running around to find her. I’ve been in the scenarios where all these things are playing out simultaneously, and it’s often hard to get an answer because everyone is searching for their own answer, or working on their own part of the incident, and can’t be found.

While Twitter won’t eliminate this problem, it can help alleviate some of this chaos by making information more readily available. Here’s how:

The volunteer supervisor sends a Tweet, followed by a response from the EOC Incident Commander

Clark_VOLSUP: Clark County POD #1 has 12 too many volunteers? Send home or send elsewhere?

ISDH_INCMD: POD #3, First Haven Church, needs new volunteers. Send 8 there. Rest can go home.

Clark_VOLSUP: They’re on their way.

POD#1_OPS:We’re running low on doxycyclin. Will be out in 2 hours. Does anyone have more?

POD#3_OPS:We have plenty. Will send volunteer with 5 cases.

POD#2_OPS:Sorry, we’ve got just enough. Might run short near end of day.

POD#1_OPS:Channel 4 from Louisville is on site. Can’t find @Clark_PIO. Does anyone know where she is?

ISDH_PIO:@Clark_PIO is caught in traffic. I’m on site, and can handle.

POD#1_OPS:We’ve just sent processed our 10,000th person. How’s everyone else doing?

POD#2_OPS:We’ve had 8,000.

POD#3_OPS:We’ve had 12,000.

ISDH_PIO:Can I share this with the media? Any talking points I should give?

EOC_OPS:@ISDH_INCMD says Yes. 30,000 people through PODs, everything running smooth, enough meds for all. All PODs should finish by 10 pm today.

ISDH_PIO:Understood. Will contact @ISDH_INCMD when interview is done.

This short exchange has accomplished a number of things:

  1. They saved a bunch of phone calls, and chasing down different people to get an answer.
  2. It allowed for flexibility of someone else answering for the Incident Commander. The IC could have been standing nearby, unable to type out an answer, so someone else was able to do it for them. By using the @ reply feature, the IC can also see that someone has done this. It’s not lost in the shuffle.
  3. Using the @ symbol also delivered messages to the intended people, but publicly, so others can answer. The person who received a reply answer (@IDSH_PIO) was able to get the information they needed, but so did everyone else. Now, if someone needs to know where the PIO is, they have that information, instead of racing around again, trying to find out.
  4. It creates a record of what happened, which will help write the After Action Report (AAR), plus it gives a written transcript of the conversation, if needed. Just copy and paste all the Tweets into an index as part of the AAR.
  5. Each POD Ops director was able to share the number of people processed through POD with everyone. Best of all, they did it without sending an email. The information was immediately accessible, visible, and available to everyone. Emails tend to get buried and forgotten.
  6. The ISDH PIO was able to pick up some useful information – the number of people through each POD – just by following the general timeline. He would not have found this out otherwise, because the Operations.
  7. The Incident Commander was able to give the most important talking points to the PIO in a matter of seconds, not minutes on the phone. Or worse, the PIO never being able to reach the Incident Commander on the phone.

There are many more ways health departments and first responders can use Twitter. In fact, there are several social media technologies that health departments can use:

  • Ning social network engine to create a closed social network for all local health departments;
  • create a blog to give the public quick news updates, post press releases, address any rumors, and serve as a news source to the media. (Blogging can also help you keep the public updated without waiting for news channels;
  • and, using a a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki_software”>wikito create and share information (password-protected, of course) among health departments concerning large scale events, such as pan flu.

I’ll write about these technologies in future posts. In the meantime, if you have any comments, questions, or stories about how you’ve used these technologies, leave a comment.

How Health Departments Can Use Twitter to Monitor Public Health Emergencies

This post was originally published at the DeckersMarketing.com blog

A couple years ago, I worked at the Indiana State Department of Health as the Risk Communication Director, otherwise known as “Oh shit!” PR. (Because that was my first reaction every time one of the epidemiologists called me with an emergency like this recall of lead-contaminated children’s library toys (my first incident, two weeks after I started the job. I swore a lot that week). Or this. Or this. That’s when I had to deal with the media, who sometimes had the same reaction.)

When I was the ISDH, we still had our feet firmly planted in the 20th century. Sure, we were using email and BlackBerrys to communicate with each other, but it was 2006 and we were, well, using email and BlackBerrys to communicate with each other. To make matters worse, if we had to email each of the state’s 94 local health departments (LHDs) – we had a distribution list, which made life easier – it could quickly get clogged with Reply Alls, email threads that were miles long, and 94 people all chiming in at once with a their thoughts about what to do about this particular incident, or what everyone’s response should be.

We occasionally did exercises with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, and they had an expensive piece of software that was supposed to monitor this sort of thing, but it was heavy and cumbersome and a general pain in the ass to learn, let alone use. You could put in information, sort of like a wiki, but it was awkward to access, and you couldn’t easily find the information if you weren’t familiar with it.

Enter Twitter. It slices, it dices, it lets you easily follow as many people as you want. For free. (And since state and federal government budgets are being cut, especially those in the Preparedness world, free is about the only way to get new technology now.)

With the increased popularity of Twitter, this has become an important tool for anyone in the crisis response business to use. And since many first responders use BlackBerrys, this is still a viable option.

So how can 94 LHDs hop on the Twitter bandwagon and use it to keep up with what’s going on in your district, the state, or even the country. Here’s a step by step process of what to do, what to use, and where to find it.

1. Set up a Twitter account for your LHD. Go to www.Twitter.com, and sign up for one using your county and title. If you’re the Local Public Health Coordiantor (LPHC) for Clark County, register as Clark_LPHC. If you work for the state, use the agency acronym and your title (ISDH_RiskComm)(Government types LOVE standardized naming systems, and this makes it easy for people to see where you’re from, and what you do. Plus, it makes you NIMS compliant.)

Be sure to fill out your bio, including your role and the name of your local health department. Be sure to include the name of the state too. (You’ll see why in a minute.). Try to avoid abbreviations like LPHC, in your bio.

“Bob Smith is the Local Public Health Coordinator for the Clark County Health Department in Indiana.”

If you want to set up a personal account, be sure to use your home or private email. Don’t tie it in to your work account. If you leave the position, you don’t want to lose access to this account.

IMPORTANT: During setup, click the Protect My Updates box if you want to keep your Tweets (Twitter messages) private. This may be important during a public health emergency. If you want the public to be able to follow you, consider setting up an account for the whole department (ClarkCounty_HD).

2. Go to http://search.twitter.com or www.Twitterment.com and do a search for other LPHCs. Use “Public Health” and “Indiana” in your search terms. Follow those people. You will also receive an email whenever someone follows you. You’ll need to approve them, since you protected your account.

3. Download TweetDeck, a Twitter client you can use on your computer desktop. You can create different columns to collect groups of people you follow. Create a group for your district, and one for your county emergency response departments (because you’re going to get them to use this, right?).

I also like Twhirl, a client that lets you run several accounts in several windows at once (TweetDeck doesn’t). However, Twhirl only has a single column view, not groups, like TweetDeck. You may have to make a tradeoff, or during an incident, run both programs on two different computers or monitors.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss how health departments and first response agencies can use Twitter to monitor public health emergencies.