How (and Why) To Livestream During a Disaster: What Public Agencies Need To Do

Disasters WILL Happen...and Your Agency's Response Is In The Spotlight!

Coffey Park neighborhood, santa Rosa, CA

Coffey Park neighborhood, santa Rosa, CA

When a disaster strikes a community - like the wildfires, floods, storms and intense heat waves we've been experiencing in 2018 - city, county and state public agencies are in the spotlight. They must coordinate the response, direct resources, and communicate clearly.

Regarding communication, it's no longer enough to just put out traditional news releases, send text-only tweets, or hold periodic news briefings. The public expects (and deserves) more.

I believe public agencies must use their social media platforms to the max - usually, it's Facebook and/or Twitter - with a steady flow of reliable information. And not just text posts. They must use video, both livestreaming video and fast-turnaround recorded video produced with a smartphone.

Video is Effective

Video is huge on social media. That's because it is easy to create, and easy to share. Video gets a big boost from the social platform algorithms, which prioritizes it and shows the content to more people than standard text posts. And the more a video gets shown, the more it gets shared, giving it extra traction.

Does this sound daunting? It shouldn't! In fact, every Public Information Officer (PIO) and crisis communicator should be working to develop and hone these skills, because this capability is what's needed from a fully-capable Public Information Officer.

I had a chance to put these skills to the test during the terrible northern California wine country wildfires in October, 2017. I served in the City of Santa Rosa Emergency Operations Center as part of the PIO team during the fires that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and displaced tens of thousands of residents.

Here is what I did, and what I recommend you do, to communicate to the public using video during a disaster.

Assign a 2-Person Smartphone Video Team

1) Assign a team of two people to create live or recorded video content. At least one of these PIOs should be super-comfortable being on camera and working from a page of notes, or able to read from an iPhone teleprompter app and make it sound natural.

Both should know how to create a livestream to Facebook Live or Twitter Live, and shoot and edit video on a smartphone. I recommend iOS (Apple) devices for this due to their better software, consistent interface, ability to instantly AirDrop video files and photos between devices, and ease of use.

Grab Brief Video Shots of Everything

2) Collect "b-roll" video of the disaster, and the response, so you have plenty of clips to use to illustrate the videos you produce during the course of the response. In Santa Rosa, I toured the disaster area with a police officer for a couple of hours to gather the footage I needed.

I shot 10-second video clips of everything: damaged neighborhoods, fire crews, utility crews, roadblocks, donations, shelters, recovery centers, signage, and more. These were invaluable when creating videos during the crisis response and recovery.

Create a Video "Studio"

Initial version of video shooting area, santa rosa EOC

Initial version of video shooting area, santa rosa EOC

3) Set up a mini "studio" in a corner of the EOC or Joint Information Center (JIC) where you can livestream from or record video opens and closes for produced content. The studio does not have to be complicated. All you need is a tripod with smartphone mount; a wired lavalier clip-on smartphone mic; an LED video light, and a backdrop with your logo. (See the equipment I used here).

The photo shows the initial setup, including video light, tripod and backdrop, that I used for the first couple of videos. I later repositioned the studio and so viewers could see a glimpse of the work going on in the EOC behind me when I gave live or recorded updates.

Turn News Release Content Into Video

4) Take every piece releasable information produced by the PIO team and turn it into video content for Facebook and Twitter. That includes content from news releases; Frequently Asked Questions coming into the Call Center; urgent evacuation (or re-population) advisories; how-to videos to help residents cope with the disaster or access recovery services; where to deliver or pick up donations; etc.

Do all the most urgent updates as a Facebook Live, Twitter Live, or Periscope video; the rest can be quickly-produced recorded videos. Here is an example of a livestream done during the disaster on the City's Facebook Page.

Broadcast Community Meetings

5) Livestream the community meetings that are often held in the wake of the emergency to answer community concerns. This is a huge benefit to those who cannot attend the meetings in person. In Santa Rosa, the meetings were held in a high school gym.

We contacted the local cable provided, who quickly set up a dedicated wireless internet connection so I could reliably livestream the community meetings on Facebook.

It's important to have a fast, dedicated connection when there are hundreds of people attending a meeting. I used the phone to stream one of the meetings, and a computer with external video camera to stream the rest.

The Reach and Views of Video Can Be Stunning

Using this approach during the Santa Rosa wildfires gave incredible results. We saw "reach" statistics in the tens of thousands, and in some cases 125,000 or more, with specific videos. The content was highly shared, and the public was kept informed.

There was another benefit as well: Combined with the near-real-time responses of the PIO team on Facebook and Twitter to questions the public was asking, video put a human "touch" on the response. Citizens could see a face, hear a calming voice, and develop a trusting connection with the on-camera communicator.

As a result, many of the comments being posted on Facebook were extremely positive, and the clear impression was that the City was doing an exceptional job responding to an unthinkable calamity.

I highly recommend that public agency communications teams prioritize video as part of their EOC and JIC operations, and learn to do it well!

Want To Go Deeper? Learn How To Do This During My Webinar on August 28, 2018

I'm doing a live 90-minute webinar training on how to do all this. It is set for August 28, 2018. Click here to watch a brief video about the training, and to register for the paid webinar. This training WILL improve your communications readiness and build your confidence in using these tools! Get Info Here