In this guest blog post Summit speaker Russel Lolacher discusses a real-life emergency over the holidays and how the customer service strategy from the Ministry of Transportation in British Colombia made all the difference.
A lot goes into providing social customer care during an emergency event considered a “once-in-2000 year flood”. A big thanks to Russel for sharing his experience with us.
As his team leading public engagement and digital communication for BC’s provincial transportation, it’s done with a process that prioritizes intentional effort, accessibility, and empathy. And it’s been well received.
In November of 2021, the province of British Columbia was hit with an unbelievable amount of rainfall that washed away highways, homes and land. Our organization, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, is no stranger to major events. Not only do we address road closures due to various vehicle incidents, avalanche control and construction, but with climate change, we are increasingly stepping up to monumental fires and floods on a more regular basis.
Well in late 2021, Mother Nature stepped up too.
As the public face of digital communications for more than a decade, our team has built a successful social customer care program to inform, educate, engage and build trust with the public. Between TranBC (safety and education) and DriveBC (travel information), and various web applications and customer-centric content, all operating daily, we’ve been connecting with our audience enough to have a good sense of what is expected of us from the public, and what works and what doesn’t.
This event was no different, just at the next level.
So I thought I’d break it down and give you an inside look into what our group does in an emergency like this.
Top Three Focuses
- > Timeliness – as an event that is ever-evolving and impacting so many people in our province, it’s vital to get information and images out quickly while it’s relevant and helpful. Whether a road is open or not, what restrictions are on those roadways for the safety of the highway and its travellers and how severe the damage was that is impacting so many, it needs to be out to the public in real-time. Any manufactured delay doesn’t serve them.
- > Context – the why. It’s very important to provide context around an emergency. For us, of course, the primary information is whether someone can get to their destination or not, but there’s also vital information associated with that. Why are we opening this road and not that road? Why does a highway opened to essential travel only have a 60km/h speed limit? What are we doing about the highway closures? Providing this added background demonstrates our expertise and reassurance that we are doing what we can, as quickly as we can, as safely as possible.
- > Public Engagement – in events like this, you can’t over-communicate and engage. No matter how timely you are or how much context you provide, people have questions, comments, and feedback. It’s an extremely stressful time for many and the public wants to talk with you. It’s essential you do. And that includes reviewing every comment/question sent to you or about you, having to repeat yourself, explaining your organization’s decisions, and responding to any of the negative comments or frustrating feedback you receive. It’s as important to be a resource of information as it is to be an empathetic and accessible human. It’s key to building public trust.
In An Emergency
Once we’re “in it”, there are a lot of moving parts for our team – content to create, information and media to consume and share, people to inform and engage with, messages to monitor for misinformation… it’s a lot over an intense period of time. A breakdown:
- > Drafting and posting regularly on various social media platforms – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter (all written as per the platform) to inform the public of any updates. In this case, it was at least 100 posts a day (predominantly Twitter) in the first 3 weeks.
- > Receive, review, sort, tag multiple (10-50ish) photos daily to share on social media. These would come in through email or text messages.
- > Receive, review, and edit regular videos to share as we do photos, from a quick and dirty 1mb to multiple gigabytes of drone footage.
- > Cultivate an online digital photo album to tell the story from impact to recovery that can be shared and downloaded.
- > Create and regularly update a Travel Advisory page with the latest information on transportation impacts, and supporting resources.
- > Share and monitor real-time updates to DriveBC (24/7 travel info) to ensure our other platforms and content are consistent.
- > Collecting public and stakeholder kudos to share to crews in the field about their hard work in reaching milestones of response and recovery of our infrastructure and keeping the public safe. They do deserve admiration and support. Have you seen the pictures?
- > Monitoring social media conversations to identify questions, comments/sentiment and misinformation.
- > Responding to public social media comments and questions on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Flickr, both public and direct messages (Ex. In the first 4 days, we received 13,163 messages to monitor and/or respond to. This is NOT including blog comments or our email inbox. Speaking of…)
- > Responding to DriveBC and Highwaycam email questions and suggestions.
- > Responding to TranBC blog comments
- > Engaging with media (local and international) and connecting them with our ministry’s media relations team. Most were just looking for permission to use our flooding and recovery footage.
Internal Relations within our Organization
- > Attending twice daily district operations meetings to keep in the loop on the continually changing environment and announcements, and so we can provide communication updates on strategy implementation, rising issues from the public and questions being asked the most.
- > Regular engagement within our team to ensure we all have the latest situational updates and upcoming announcements.
- > Engaging maintenance contractors to ensure consistency, monitor any issues and to collect photos/videos.
- > Regular engagement with our Commercial Vehicle Safety and Enforcement (CVSE) team to craft and post timely safety social media messaging for commercial vehicles.
- > Coordination with CVSE and Passenger Transportation Branch to regularly update bulletin forms and notices to relevant industry resource web pages.
- > Regular engagement with subject matter experts within our ministry to get the information needed to answer the multiple and varied questions from the public regarding engineering decisions and flooding impacts.
- > Supporting and advising TMC operators on public engagement through DriveBC and web updates (they did an amazing job)
- > Monitoring and engaging with our technical web teams to support our spike in web traffic during this event.
- > Responding to as and when general questions and suggestions from other business areas on strategic advice.
Stakeholder Relations with other BC Government Groups and Industry
- > Regular engagement with our Government Communications team on messaging and timing of travel advisories and media releases, and discussing what additional supporting information and clarifications are needed to be shared by our digital comms team.
- > Sharing relevant content from related government and stakeholders to provide news and a bigger picture to the public (ie Government Communications media releases, BC Hydro, Emergency Management BC, RCMP, Local Districts with Evacuation Orders, etc.)
- > Attending daily meetings to provide advice and updates to ServiceBC, their call centre and a cross-government communications group on rising public comments and questions.
- > Engaging with stakeholders during the event to answer questions, share photos for their usage and provide information to ICBC, TICorp, Transport Canada, BC Hydro, Washington State DOT, etc.
Why It Works
- > Our organization is customer-centric – The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is well versed in the importance of customer service. Whether it’s opening or closing roads due to construction or a crash, maintaining our roadways, updating policies and legislation, it’s all needed to be communicated regularly, immediately and repeatedly. Our organization has long had a culture of listening to the public and determining how best to engage with them. Our social media is an extension of this.
- > A proven plan and team – sad to say, but climate change is making emergency events like this far more common than anyone would like. The Peace River floods in 2011, the BC interior wildfires of 2017 and 2018… our team has been through many major events (as well as ones that only last a day or two). We drafted a social media emergency communication plans years ago and the tactics are automatic now – a ready-to-go travel advisory page, a ministry that prioritizes getting us information and media, a digital communications team trained and experienced in emergency communications and engagement, a seat at the table at our operations centre, tools (highway cams, photo albums, video platforms) ready to tell the story, and more.
- > A long-established resource and engagement channel – for 10+ years, we’ve had continued success in building public trust and establishing social capital within our organization to be able to properly serve our audience. Being available, reliable, and able to answer questions, correct misinformation, and build an accessible connection with the public is something we do 365 days a year, which only benefits during an emergency. So when an event arises, we’re not starting as a “trusted resource” from scratch. We’ve built a foundation with the public and infrastructure internally for more than a decade by helping and listening to our audience so they know they can come to us for help.
- > Robust collection of proactive content – we’ve made a focused effort over the years to create content that answers public questions on what we do and why we do it. This comes in extremely handy for ourselves to share online and our frontline workers who answer email and phone calls, or for the public to find themselves in their web searches. This content allows us to provide further context and education on relevant and related topics to the emergency, including:
This is probably the sixth or seventh provincial emergency we’ve been through, while also supporting smaller events on a regular basis (vehicle crashes, avalanche control, weather events) so the strategies and tactics you see above are ones we incorporate all the time. But we still continue to tweak and update as we learn from that latest event. This will be no different.
But that’s why we’re here. To help.
SIDENOTE: And to all those friends and colleagues who privately messaged me notes of support and “thinking of you”, I really appreciated it. It meant a lot.