September 14, 2017

We have a lot of new ways to stay in touch with our communities when big news hits, but during Hurricane Irma, some newsrooms turned to a tool that's been out there for awhile – Facebook groups. Here's how they did it. 

Hare: Are you as tired as I am this week, Ren?

LaForme: I just un-evacuated St. Petersburg. Is that a word? It is now. Anyway, it took 16 hours to make a nine-hour drive. I’m pretty tired.

Hare: Yeah, my flight back into Florida keeps getting canceled. We need a distraction. Let’s talk tools. What do you have for us this week?

LaForme: Rather than introduce an entirely new tool this week, I think it’s worth talking about a really helpful and informative thing some newsrooms did with a tool we all already use. Did you see what the Palm Beach Post and Tampa Bay Times did with Facebook groups during Hurricane Irma?

Hare: I saw PBP’s, and it made so much sense. Facebook was definitely some place I was checking constantly Sunday night. How did these newsrooms use those groups?

LaForme: Both newsrooms set up Facebook groups dedicated to posting Hurricane Irma-related topics and taking questions from readers.

Hurricanes are confusing enough. ”Where can I find food and gas and water, and is my tap water safe to drink and …” it goes on. Irma was even squirrelier (Is that a word? It is now.) than most with its twisting path and diverging spaghetti models. These groups set up a place where people could ask their questions, get answers and be super helpful to other people who had the same questions. 

Also, both newsrooms were putting together all kinds of great stories and sharing them where most people were looking for them, on Facebook. But we all know the plight of the Facebook algorithm: Someone posts something and there’s probably a miniscule chance that someone else sees it. Setting up a group let the newsrooms bypass that problem. It was sort of a win-win. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a news organization do this before. Have you?

Hare: I know I’ve seen Facebook groups around topics, but I’m not sure I’ve seen them around events. It was a really smart move, like a pop-up information booth. What else do you think these would be good for?

LaForme: Probably all sorts of things, right? I’m thinking they’d especially be good for big, planned events, which always come with a million questions.

In Tampa, for instance, we have Gasparilla, which is this insane thing where everyone dresses like a pirate and gets drunk and watches boats storm into Tampa’s harbor, and then there’s a parade for some reason. People are always asking about bathrooms, where to hang out, where to park, which streets will be closed off, where to buy novelty parrots for their shoulders, all sorts of wild stuff. I know there’s always an event page for these types of things, but what the Times and the Post did was more curated in a way. It felt like there was someone there with credible answers.

Obviously, it would work for any other disaster like this, too.

Hare: Shoulder parrots are the best. What do you think journalists need to do to prepare for something like this ahead of time?

LaForme: First off, I think it’s important for journalists to know that not only do they not have all the answers, they don’t even have all the questions. We’re in partnerships with our audiences, and we need to be ready to listen to them and go find answers.

Second, it’s probably smart to be familiar with how Facebook groups work. Make sure you’re in a few (there are a lot dedicated specifically to journalism) and taking note of how people are responding to others. As “no duh” as it sounds, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this, and I saw a couple of wrong ways out there during Irma. It’s important to put yourself in others’ shoes and think about how what you’re writing is going to come across to them.

Hare: Like, maybe consider the tone of the group and don’t overshare gifs, for instance, as the hurricane is hitting?

LaForme: Exactly! Or, five minutes after someone has asked if their town is still standing, don’t ask people to share their cool hurricane videos. Or whatever. If there’s a possibility that someone is going to perceive your post as callous or insincere, you should reconsider. The last thing we want to do is further that narrative that journalists only care about clicks. We’re here for people, and we should treat everyone we talk to, even the people in comments (who can sometimes be mean), as actual people.

Hare: It would be smart to practice this when the stakes are rather low, I’m guessing, like maybe for a sporting season or, like you said, a drunken pirate festival. Then, when big news does come, you know how to do this and really be of service to your community.

LaForme: Right! You want to know how to use a tool before you have to use it in an emergency. You wouldn’t want to be learning how to use a power screwdriver to hang boards over your windows when a hurricane is two days away. For clarity’s sake, I already knew how to use one! That was just an example.

One thing I should mention is that it seems like it could be a challenge to promote a Facebook group and help people know about it. If you do that wrong, it could come across as insensitive, especially if it’s during a disaster like Irma. One good way to get it out there is to get individual reporters to share it and then pin a post to the top of the group that invites people to invite others.

Hare: That’s such a good suggestion. We should try one of these for the 2018 Pulitzer Prizes. That could be fun.

LaForme: Ohhh, that does sound like a good idea. We could get people to read and analyze some of the possible winners as a group. It’d be like a big, nerdy group book report. I dig it.

Hare: It’s a deal. Hey, is your power back on yet? You should have a sleepover at Poynter.

LaForme: It’s not, but I think I’m good. Nobody here would like my dog, Finn, very much.

Hare: Well, you and Finn get some rest, and hopefully next week we’ll be cleaned up, powered on and ready to talk more amazing tools. 


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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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