The Friday, June 29 line of thunderstorms that tore through the Washington DC metro area was described by a term I'd never heard of before, a rare weather system known as a 'derecho'. A Spanish word meaning 'straight', a derecho refers to the storm's powerful, straight-line winds ... winds in this case that topped 80mph, equivalent to a Cat 1 hurricane. VA Governor Bob McDonnell said the storm "caused the broadest non-hurricane related power outage in Virginia history". It's also one of the biggest opportunities for numerous orgs, media outlets and businesses to super-serve hard hit communities.
I'm thankful we didn't lose power, other than a string of annoying hiccups where power went out for a few seconds to a minute at most. With temperatures setting triple digit records beginning Friday afternoon, just hours before the storm's arrival, loss of power was and is more than just an annoyance for hundreds of thousands of people - and pets - in the region I call home.
As I remained glued to my laptop, iPhone and TV throughout the weekend, I noticed a profound difference in the way various entities leveraged social media to inform and 'pitch in' during this emergency. Fort Belvoir, the nation's 3rd largest Army installation, went into overdrive, utilizing Facebook and Twitter to hyper serve base personnel, their families and extended community with power outage updates and critical info about cooling centers, traffic issues and more. I've been following the VA Dept of Emergency Management Page since the super rare 5.8 earthquake rocked my area in August of last year. VDEM has been churning out tons of impactful info since Friday's storm hit.
WTOP has been leveraging its robust digital presence (read: WTOP restructures newsroom for digital, Dec 2011) to augment an all-news radio voice that's well known to the affected region. Recently launched competitor WNEW made a great move by taking over a sister CBS music station's signal, relaying all-news coverage to enhance its reach during this crisis (hat tip to DCRTV.com). Both radio stations have been weaving social engagement into on-air news coverage and conversation. WNEW is persistently asking its listeners to tweet storm thoughts and situations to @WNEWNews using hashtag #DMVStorm. In some areas, with mobile networks down as well, many are dusting off battery powered radios to get important updates.
One particular traditional/new media hybrid really caught my attention: InsideNoVA, covering hard-hit Prince William County (it lost its 911 service), has been steadily building a vibrant Facebook and Twitter presence. In addition to a steady flow of info, InsideNoVA's active and sizeable community constantly peppers its page with questions, updates and helpful tips, adding a crowdsourced army of citizen reporters to a news service whose roots go back 143 years. Contrast that with other local news outlets who don't have their social sea legs yet ... who still lack the vision or will to fully bridge the digital divide. My county's main news outfit has been in existence for 195 years, and unfortunately, as evidenced by one tiny Facebook blurb since the storm hit, still acts like it's 1817. Many in my county, myself included, are now going to FauquierNow.com, a one year old hyperlocal upstart with double the Facebook fans of its 200 year old competitor. And while FNow needs improvement - a visually appealing, more usable website for one - it's a big step in the right direction.
Those who weren't prepared, who don't understand the long-term value and impact of social media, are missing an incredible opportunity to serve their community, and make lasting connections and positive impressions. I've looked and looked far to see how area businesses have communicated - or not communicated - since Friday's storm hit, and one thing is crystal clear: most missed the train completely. Dominion Virginia Power is not one of those, thankfully. DomVA, literally at the center of the storm with its army of power line crews working non-stop to get the juice flowing again, is doing a superb job communicating via Facebook and Twitter. Home services businesses come to mind as having great potential to be key sources of information and help in this type of situation ... electrical service shops in particular with so many power related issues. Electricians with years of experience and a wealth of knowledge could pass some of that along - not as a marketing pitch - but as a way of helping the community. Does it add marketing value? Of course! But that shouldn't be the main focus.
In times of crisis, drop the pitch, and pitch in. Unfortunately, across the board, nothing but silence since Friday from home services providers, until one blog post I came across today pitching home generators as a power outage solution. Note: I have former and current home services clients. I know very well how busy they are doing their physical jobs each day, and how challenging it is to get people 'socially' interested in their message and services, as valuable as they may be. I've made it a mission to try to help inform the public about, for instance, the value of electrical safety inspections, because residential electrical fires kill and injure scores each year and cause tremendous property damage. But they're not shops or restaurants you frequent or hang out at. You may only use/need them once a year, or in time of crisis. But when that moment comes, you may really appreciate all they do. And if you the business operator are 'social ready and willing' ... all of that hard work, persistence, time and money invested can pay off, for those you serve, and for your business itself.
I follow a ton of businesses, large and small, near and far, via Facebook, Twitter, blog RSS feeds and such. Part of it is business related, part of it is to stay informed about stuff I like. And while it's nice to know which restaurants are open for business - power on and staff ready to serve - it would be even nicer to see local business communities come together and leverage their collective voices to pass along impactful information ... from Fire/Rescue orgs, police, hospitals, gov't, media and citizen-generated content. When the first thing out of your social mouth is "hey, the power is on, come on in and enjoy a steak dinner!" ... you're mostly just marketing. You're using a crisis as a way to pitch yourself, as opposed to pitching in during a crisis as a way to help people. Did you get that? Do you see the difference? Build a robust digital presence - the 'click' that compliments your 'brick' ... to grow your business. But remember that the hard work requried to build and manage and nurture that digital presence can pay big dividends when that moment comes, in this case blowing in at 80mph at 10pm on a Friday. You'll be ready, willing and able to be more than a business. You'll be a valued member of the community, and you won't miss the train. The community won't forget, I promise.
There will be more trains (opportunities). Will you be ready??