Livestreaming in Disasters: Orlando Mass Casualty Atrocity

 Orlando's Police Chief and Officials Hold a Media Briefing (As Seen on OPD's Periscope Channel)

Orlando's Police Chief and Officials Hold a Media Briefing (As Seen on OPD's Periscope Channel)

There is ample evidence that the new world of livestreaming is changing the way we communicate in disasters. As the Orlando mass shooting atrocity at the Pulse nightclub demonstrated, livestreamers broadcasting on such platforms as Periscope and Facebook Live are able to immediately share to the globe what is happening from their own vantage points as it unfolds.

While there was certainly no shortage of media coverage of this event, livestreaming gives public agencies and disaster communicators the power to be their own broadcast channel and reach the public directly with a message unfiltered by the media. During a weekend of tragedy that would test their response and communications capability to the max, the Orlando Police Department (OPD) held multiple news briefings that it broadcast live on Periscope.

On Saturday June 11, Orlando Police Chief John Mina and other officials held a news briefing on the previous night's tragic shooting death of singer Christina Grimmie by a crazed gunman following her concert. That briefing was broadcast live by OPD using Twitter's Periscope app, and as of this writing, had counted more than 79,000 viewers. Then, around 2:00 am on Sunday, June 12, the horrific Pulse nightclub shooting massacre occurred. OPD again took to Periscope on both Sunday and Monday to broadcast their news conferences. The Sunday broadcast alone tallied more than 102,000 viewers.

OPD was courageous and forward-thinking in its use of livestreaming. Public agencies would do well to be prepared for livestreaming critical information during disasters by starting now to go live on a regular basis so they have experience in streaming and can do it at a moment's notice. Here's what it takes to do it well:

1) Trained communications staff and total buy-in from leadership.

It is critical that public information officers or other communications staff members be trained on how to use the apps, equipment, and effectively conduct a live stream. For example, best practice with Periscope is to spend somewhere around 60 seconds welcoming viewers, introducing yourself, setting the scene, and mentioning what you're going to be covering before you actually jump into content. That's because it takes viewers anywhere from a few seconds to 30 seconds or more to see the Periscope notification, click on the app, and join your broadcast. Management support is essential. This is the way communications is going.

2) Decide which platform to use.

Facebook Live is new to the livestream party, having just launched for most regular users early this year. It has the power of the largest social media platform behind it. Assuming your organization has built up lots of followers, it you have the ability to reach them. Notifications are sometimes an issue, though. On Periscope, users by default are notified instantly when a broadcaster they are following goes live. With Facebook Live, followers need to remember to turn on Facebook Live notifications for people they want to receive notifications from.

3) Knowledge of the correct livestream techniques peculiar to each platform.

Effective livestreaming is more than just pushing the Start Broadcast button with the camera pointed at a podium. While some broadcasts in emergencies may differ, most broadcasts need a "host" communicator who can explain what's happening, welcome viewers, identify speakers, and emcee the online event. In some cases, Public Information Officers may be the ones on camera themselves delivering crisis updates direct-to-camera from the Emergency Operations Center or Field Command Post using approved information for release.

There needs to be an understanding of camera positioning, and bringing extra value to the livestreams by responding to viewers' comments or having a subject matter expert be interviewed by a spokesperson. Livestreaming agencies need to remember to specifically ask viewers to share the broadcast for greater reach, and also give viewers an action step at the end of the livestream, such as going to a web site for more information.

With Facebook live, interaction does not always feel as immediate and fast-paced as on Periscope. When you're broadcasting to Facebook using the Facebook app, your video feed is square, which can give you framing challenges that you need to compensate for. But there are other third-party apps that broadcast to Facebook Live, such as Terradek's Live Air Solo, where video is normal widescreen aspect ratio (16:9). Solo also lets you monitor audio levels, overlay lower third graphics, and even insert pre-produced videos, as well as switching between the two smartphone cameras. As you can see, there's a lot to know to livestream effectively!

4) Using the right equipment.

Video quality, and especially audio quality, are absolutely critical. There are many excellent choices of smartphone and tablet microphones to assure great audio, both wired and wireless. (An easy trick is to place a wireless mic right by the PA system speaker to make sure everything gets picked up during a news conference). There are many small battery-operated LED video lights that can provide all the lighting needed for a great looking picture. And there are a whole host of smartphone and tablet tripod mounts, and even handheld electric gimbals (like a small Steadicam) that deliver stable shots with professional results. Another consideration is the smartphone itself. Too often, communicators are given smartphones with inadequate memory to do multimedia communication, and they often quickly run out of space to save videos, photos and graphics. (I recommend iPhone 6s or 6s+ with 128GB of storage for maximum utility). See my equipment page to get a look at the array of smartphone/tablet livestreaming tools that are available. And last but not least, all communicators MUST have a large backup battery to keep their phones and tablets running for the long haul. I recommend nothing smaller than a 12,000 mAh battery, which are often capable of charging smartphones more than a dozen times.

Livestreaming is here to stay

One thing's for sure: livestreaming is a tool that's not going away. This is absolutely something that agencies need to learn, and Orlando Police Department showed that it's on the right track with the way it is using live video. More and more, this will be how people communicate. The agencies that master livestreaming quickly will reap the benefits in terms of public perception of their openness, transparency, and ability to be smart communicators.


I’m Kerry Shearer, "The Livestream Expert." I'm a communications and broadcast professional based in Sacramento, CA, specializing in live streaming, social media, web video and emergency communications. I’m a conference speaker, workshop presenter, social media trainer and coach for businesses, entrepreneurs and public agencies. I thrive on helping organizations and individuals create compelling content, reach and connect with their audiences, and successfully grow their influence! I am also available to be on scene with brands or organizations during major events or promotions to host or coordinate their live streaming broadcasts on Periscope or Facebook.