Valley Fire Social Media Coverage and Traditional Media’s Giant Fail

I had quite an interesting night, watching live coverage of a massive fire unfolding in Middletown (Lake County, California) … which also happens to be my husband’s hometown. But rather than seeing anything at all about it on the evening news, I received nearly 100% of my information from Twitter and Periscope. While watching the live coverage on Periscope, I finally experienced firsthand what so many in both business and marketing circles have been talking about for so long: digital (or social) darwinism in action.

Below is an overview of a few people on Twitter who shared their thoughts about watching the fire while it was unfolding on Periscope:

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 10.27.23 AMIt was indeed a defining moment for me, catching live video streams on Periscope, with some of those streams coming directly from various firefighters’ iPhones. Meanwhile, I found it delightful that the general public (and various people tuning in from around the globe) were encouraging them along every step of the way with words of support and concern as these periscopers did their best to share what was happening with viewers live and in real time. In one case, we watched a stream as the number of viewers started at below 100, and within a few minutes grew to over 1,500 viewers.

Not only was this in-the-moment, informative news that I wasn’t getting from any mainstream media sites, but rather than instilling a sense of fear and drama (as is often the case with front-line news reporting), the overall feeling evoked a sense of realism, as well as support, encouragement, and care from the community based on the sentiment of the comments that were filtering through the live chat.  At one point I even saw a Sacramento Fire PIO comment to the firefighter livestreaming that they were sending in additional firefighters from the Sacramento area … which of course brings up an interesting question for brands: have you ever thought about tracking the conversations surrounding your brand on Periscope?

Needless to say, the hashtag #ValleyFire quickly caught on, and within a few short hours it became a trending topic on Twitter. Check out a small sampling of the the Twitter chatter about this mainsteam media fail below:

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 9.53.36 AMBecause of the citizen journalists, we felt like we were at least getting somewhat reliable information and able to also see pics in real time:

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 9.59.23 AMWhat’s so significant about this to me, is that expectations of brands and particularly news media during an unfolding crisis have changed drastically. As of this morning, nearly 24 hours after the fire had started, there was nothing up about the fire on the Lake County Record-Bee, the county’s main media website:

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 10.46.38 AMThere were also no official tweets or statements throughout the night about what was happening (other than some updates from @Calfire_PIO), at least that anyone could find as evidenced by the conversations happening and questions being asked across Twitter and Facebook. And while I realize the area is considered rural, it seems as though there could have at least been a blurb quickly added to the top of the local news website with links to where people could find up-to-date info about the fire and where local shelters were being set up. Next to nothing was being covered about it on regional or national news stations.

While we always hear about the need for brands to be agile in today’s digital economy, the fact is if your brand is not agile, does not have a crisis communications plan, or is not in a position to respond/engage quickly, then your brand will quickly become irrelevant, and worse yet, lose the respect and attention of those who matter most: your viewing/repeat/engaged audience. In the words of Brian Solis, it’s #adaptordie.


    • Thanks for sharing, that is a positive, but still a testament to how fragmented communications has become. In a perfect model, the business website should be the hub of communications, with social media acting as the spokes …

  1. Something to add to the conversation is the inaccurate reporting of social media. Many of your tweets show pictures with statements like “entire neighborhood burning” when there is actually one house burning. Other tweets indicate entire towns are destroyed when in fact they are not. Something can be said to wait and make an accurate report versus jumping to conclusions and rumors. That is all social media is good for, rumors and specific points of view. It will not come down to a historically accurate report of the situation.

    • Hi Michael, I absolutely agree with you and know too well that social media can spread rumors quickly. The point is that there was no where to go for information for hours on end and so social media became the default. Periscope replaced conventional news reporting in this instance.

    • Appreciate your comment. That’s great to hear, but on the whole people on Twitter and Facebook were in the dark based on conversations happening into the early morning hours under the #valleyfire hashtag.

      • The thing is, most of Lake County – a county, not a town, incidentally – relies exclusively on Facebook for news. Sadly, this “news” is generally in itself a wildfire of rumors and gossip, but regardless, it’s where people there go to be in the know.

        “Local” news comes out of the Bay Area, which is very rarely relevant to the folks in Lake County. The fact that the Record Bee was using Facebook instead of Twitter speaks to how in tune the truly local news is to its residents.

        For those living outside of the area, yes, other types of media updates were more pressing, but for locals looking for info, Facebook really was the best way of getting info out.

        Your words are definitely food for thought, though, and something the media in general should be aware of.

      • Hi! Great comments! I completely understand what you’re saying, and while Facebook on the whole could very well have been the best way to get info out locally, I still disagree on a few points. First example: no crisis communications strategy should rely on one social media channel alone. Case in point: I have several relatives in that area who never even thought to look at Facebook’s Record Bee page. This speaks to the fact that communications is fragmented and complex, and in a crisis there should be a better strategy than just Facebook. And with recent Facebook changes, the view rates of posts have become surprisingly low. The reach of those posts would rely very heavily on who was sharing them and/or whether or not people already knew to go there directly for information. Second and much larger story: this was top regional and national news last night. It shouldn’t have taken regional news outlets (news broadcasts, area news sites) around 24 hours to fist start reporting info on it. For the first 12 hours after people were evacuated, there was next to nothing that could be found about it, which was a shared sentiment among those who were scouring for news.

  2. I am truly amazed at how far reaching the periscope broadcast was. While I was broadcasting I was watching the viewer count climb. At some point my phone froze and I could no longer see what the viewer number had climbed to. I did hesitate for a moment prior to the first scope. I realized that it was possible some of the viewers may watch the destruction of their own home. I reasoned that they would want to know, one way or another. I knew it would be a controversial subject when it was all over. I am watching to see how this will be accepted by the public, fire agencies and the media. I did make the conscious decision not to scope the morning after the fire. I did not want to be the guy that showed the people who lived there the devastation.

    • Wow! Thanks for your response. It was quite riveting to watch the periscope broadcasts and it was refreshing for many yo be able to receive the real time info. I think in any catastrophe, it’s better to know than not to know, and if people didn’t want to see it they wouldn’t have watched. Thank your for your contributions!!

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