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What Law Enforcement can Learn From the Reaction to an Amber Alert

March 31, 2015 1 comment

Screen Capture of the 3/28 Amber Alert

On Saturday, March 28, 2015 around 5:30 a.m., Michigan residents were jolted awake to an ominous alert on their mobile phones. The warning sounded like the sort of alarm one hears at the end of a James Bond movie, as the arch-villain’s lair is about to collapse on the minions running frantically in the background as 007 and his female counterpart zipline to safety.

A six-year-old child was abducted by her father from a small town near Flint, Michigan. The Michigan State Police (MSP) feared she was in immediate physical danger and had a solid lead on her abductor, so they made the decision to send an immediate message using the Wireless Emergency Alerts program which can deliver messages to any mobile phones in a geographic area. This system is different from text messages (it receives priority over other data sent to phones so that it can go out more swiftly).

What I’ve learned from my years in public relations and the crises I’ve worked on is that nothing teaches you more about crisis communications than an actual crisis event. This Amber Alert was no different – and here are some of the insights I’ve gathered:

Citizens are Customers First

Customers have come to expect options and transparency from every brand they interact with – and the Michigan State Police brand is no different. While it would be great if everyone treated the loss of sleep caused by the Amber Alert as a minor sacrifice all citizens should make for the safety of the whole – not everyone shares that viewpoint and they have the power to opt out of these warnings. As a result of that choice the citizen-consumer has, law enforcement needs to think about citizens more as consumers and realize that they have an obligation to persuade (even sell) them on the benefits of opting in to the alerts.

Unfortunately the tone thus far from the MSP has come off as insensitive to the “customers” that were startled awake by the alert. To wit: “The Michigan State Police’s AMBER Alert coordinator told 24 Hour News 8 Monday she doesn’t regret sending out a loud, early morning text alert over the weekend and that she would do it again if it would help a child.”

This leads to another insight…

Framing the Message is More Important Than You Think

Instead of adopting a defensive stance, this Amber Alert could have been treated as a heartwarming and concrete example of the effectiveness and importance of the alert system. It’s an opportunity to position the role of everyone who received the alert (to make them more inclined to remain opted-in): selfless heroes whose noble sacrifice helped return a child in danger to her home. Sure it’s hyperbolic – but it employs a tried-and-true customer service tactic: thanking upset customers changes the trajectory of an interaction by helping disarm anger.

Your Audience is Larger Than You Think

In talking to the Grand Rapids news media, I found that the MSP were treating this case as a local story in Flint and primarily giving interviews and comments to the reporters there. Yet the alert went out state-wide. That means it’s a local story in EVERY locality. The MSP should have braced for the deluge of both local and state-wide interest from the news in this story and used it as an opportunity to tell the success story of the girl’s recovery and shore up support for the Amber Alert system.

This is one of the things I love about social media monitoring in crisis situations – it can help you identify blind spots you would never have considered otherwise. Its reach and two-way nature means that you can be made aware of stakeholders, agendas, and questions you didn’t know existed.

In a Crisis, More Communication is Better

The actual text of the alert was very simple, and some recipients were confused by what it meant. Here’s what it read:

“Emergency alert

Bancroft, MI AMBER Alert: LIC/7KJC97 (MI) 2000 Teal Ford F-250 Pickup

Type: Amber Alert”

Mis-communication frequently occurs when we make assumptions about what the audience knows. For example; one Twitter user mistook the message for an alert about a stolen vehicle; since the missing child is not explicitly mentioned in the text of the alert. It assumes that everyone knows that an “Amber Alert” means a child in danger. It’s not an unreasonable mistake to make (exacerbated by the vehicle being the focus of the investigation, and not the perpetrator or victim).

The messaging protocol likely has a character limit, which is why details were so sparse (and why no information about the victim or the perpetrator was included). This is a challenge, but one that can be overcome with more communication through other channels. This leads to another important lesson…

Use Social Media Engagement to Your Advantage in a Crisis

The good thing is that after the initial alert, users (customers) took to Google and social media to find more information – which is now the standard practice for every significant event. Unfortunately they would have found little on social media to fill in the gaps in their knowledge; there were no tweets, Facebook posts, or pages on the MSP’s website with the full story. That’s a missed opportunity to both (1) empower citizens to help, and (2) explain to citizens who are upset what the justification for the intrusion was.

The good thing is that there is still an opportunity to use social media to build the credibility and trust in both the MSP and the Amber Alert system (though the window is quickly closing). Were I to advise them on next steps – here they are:

  • Respond to every user you can find on social media that tweeted or posted about the alert. There are probably a few hundred of them, so it will take an investment of time – but realize that it’s time well spent. For every user you reach, you tap into their social graph (all the people they’re connected to) which exponentially expands the reach of your message.
    • For the Positive Comments: Thank the user for helping share the information that ultimately saved this child’s life and for their continued commitment to public safety.
    • For the Negative Comments: Apologize for the intrusion, tell them the success story, and tell them you hope they’ll consider remaining opted-in to the alerts.
  • Use this case to create an informational campaign about Amber Alerts while the event is still fresh in the mind of the public. You have their attention – USE IT:
    • Speak openly and transparently about the criteria used to make the decision to issue this alert (to assuage their concerns that this will now happen every weekend).
    • Inform them about how the technology works.
    • Empower the audience by telling users can find more information about these alerts (which isn’t easy to find – it varies by carrier and by phone).
    • Show them other examples from around the country where the system has saved missing children.
    • Expand your message to talk about missing & exploited children, public safety, and any other relevant topics you’d like the public know about.

Understand Conventions

Were I to make a recommendation to authorities and wireless carriers, it would be to change the tone currently used for the Amber Alert. The particular alarm that is employed already has a clearly-defined psychological implication to the general public: immediate physical peril to oneself. It’s effective in the case of severe weather or a national emergency, but an Amber Alert doesn’t fit that convention. It’s a crisis only to the victim and their immediate family – the rest of us are spectators and only a tiny handful of people who receive the alert have relevant information to help the investigation. Something as simple as changing the tone could do wonders to temper the negative reaction to being woken from sleep to an alert.

Another convention that customers are now well-accustomed to is being able to silence all of their messages for a given period of time (such as when they are asleep or in meetings). This message broke that convention, so the anger seen on Twitter was in part about the larger issue of a loss of control. That has to be factored in to the decisions about how to communicate with the audience.

In the big picture, this is an opportunity for wireless carriers and phone makers (perhaps even app developers) to use technology to mitigate this intrusion to keep users from opting out of receiving Amber Alerts. What if, for example, users had the ability to set the alerts so that they are delayed if the phone hasn’t moved in a given period of time? (i.e. when someone is away from it, or it is sitting on a nightstand because they are sleeping) – That might entice more people to stay in the system (which is only effective if a large number of people do so).

Consider the Context

The Wireless Emergency Alerts protocol has been available to law enforcement since 2012, and this was the first time the MSP opted to use it for an Amber Alert. That lends more significance to the event than one might think. This means two important things:

  1. Any communication about the Amber Alert protocol will have been forgotten or ignored by the vast majority of people because it didn’t immediately affect them at the time (now it does – which is the most important time to communicate).
  2. This case may be your ONE AND ONLY opportunity to convince the average person to remain opted-in to the alert messages. You have to seize it.

Hopefully someone in law enforcement finds this valuable and is able to put it to use in the next event.

For what it’s worth, below is a curated list of example social media posts I gathered from the West Michigan area that illustrate the conversation that took place after the alert went out.

London Looters: Openly Committing Crimes in the Age of Radical Transparency is Stupid

August 10, 2011 3 comments

Looting in the Age of Radical Transparency

Hey kid – would you put down those Foot Locker boxes and have a bit of a chin waggle for a minute?

Martin Luther King once said “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  What’s burning up London right now is an unheard population, and while I can sympathize with the sentiment, the violence isn’t something that can be condoned and it’s utterly and completely daft.  Here’s why:

  1. London is one of the most surveilled cities in the world (just behind Chicago).  There are over 500,000 cameras throughout the city quietly recording with unblinking eyes.
  2. Facial recognition technology has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, and it’s so commonplace we all have access to it in Facebook.  The pool of photos is growing all the time, both on social networking sites and off in private databases.  Even if you’re wearing a mask or covering your face, it doesn’t matter because police will be able to match your clothing from other video footage when your face was uncovered.
  3. You can’t count on your friends because all it takes is an errant tweet or Facebook post to incriminate you.  Police are already watching for incriminating evidence of activities in process and arresting tweeting looters.
  4. Your technology can narc on you.  Given how prevalent mobile phones are in the UK and how flimsy the security is, it should be relatively easy for police to use scanners to identify all mobile devices within range of a certain area where the riots are taking place.  That would help kick-start any investigations or facial recognition searches.  Not only that, but if the companies that produce all the electronics that have been nicked in the past few days have added any sort of security to them, connecting to the Internet could identify a looter (or someone who received stolen property).
  5. London Police can crowdsource the investigation with ease.  [Update: …and they already are] Back in 1997, a bunch of people in a neighborhood near Michigan State University rioted after MSU lost to Duke in the NCAA finals, burning couches, stealing and destroying property.  Even back then, there were plenty of people shooting video and taking pictures which the local police took and looped on a cable-access TV channel with a message inviting the community to tip them off if they recognized anyone in the photos.  That was 15 years ago – just think of how much easier it will be to crowdsource identification with Facebook ads or mobile apps.
  6. The evidence will stay around “forever.”  That means Law Enforcement can take its time with the investigation – as it does so, the technologies and pattern-recognition algorithms will continue to improve.  I’m also pretty sure England doesn’t have a statute of limitations – so prosecutions could happen even years after these fires have been extinguished.
That’s the new reality whether we want it or not.  The world is much more transparent, and we need to respond accordingly.  My hope is that this new level of disclosure enables important messages to reach their intended audiences without violence like this.

In the meantime, mind the gap! (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

[Update: This just appeared on Mashable and is obviously highly-relevant recommended reading – “NYPD Creates Unit To Track Criminals Via Social Media“]

[Update II: Scotland Yard Confirms It’s Using Facial Recognition Tech]

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