Alex Casey talks to the master communicator and meme-maker behind the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Facebook page.
Just before 1am on Tuesday morning, with Cyclone Gabrielle roaring into a sleepless North Island night, the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Facebook page posted an update accompanied by some charming Dracula clip art, addressing its “vampire squad” of over 48k followers. “Here’s a bit of a plan for how the next wee while might look,” the post began, before calmly explaining that all coastal areas should stay on high alert for evacuation as high tide looms, and assuring the tired and anxious community that the team would continue to update them through the night.
“We will still have people here keeping an eye on things, fueled by a sense of community service, Fruit Bursts and Red Bull.”
While dozens of official Civil Defence and council social media channels continue to work tirelessly to keep people updated with the latest on Cyclone Gabrielle, it is clear from the hundreds and hundreds of comments from locals that the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Facebook page has struck a chord like no other. “I don’t think I would have got thru the night without you, keeping the people informed and with such compassion and care,” one commenter wrote. “You guys were the beacon of light that we needed,” said another.
The person behind these beloved posts is Emergency Management Bay of Plenty’s public information manager and former TVNZ journalist Lisa Glass. Having been in the role for three years, she says it was her deployment to the Westport and Nelson floods last year that hugely informed how she wanted to approach crisis communication in future. “Those communities wanted to know that you can see the ridiculousness of it all too – How is this happening? What on earth is going on? What did I do in a previous life to deserve this?”
It is that sentiment that can be felt in many of the posts she has made over the last few days, with sly asides like “how is it only February?!?”, “time and space are just concepts” and even Notting Hill memes peppered through vital updates about the rising tides and potential evacuations. Was it a planned or organic move to adopt a more relaxed, relatable tone? Glass says a little of both. “A lot of people in quasi-government or public information roles are very, very conscious that they need to be seen as a trusted authority,” she says.
“We’re starting to realise that authority doesn’t always have to come from just telling people what to do, authority can come through showing people that you’re in the same boat as them, and you actually are them.”
Richard Irvine, a veteran social media manager who worked for Spark during the Christchurch Earthquakes, says the page is a “refreshing” example of crisis communication. “I do think we’ve lost a little bit of that human touch, especially in larger organisations that are probably being a bit risk averse,” he says. In times of emergency, he says it is essential to remind the community that the organisations are made up of real people too. “It is all just so human,” he says of the page, “right from the graphics they use to the way they spoke.”
Glass says their team will adjust their tone as appropriate, and will never compromise on communicating accurate and necessary information at all times. On Monday night, their Civil Defence headquarters in Tauranga’s CBD was abuzz with 30 or so people, all wearing different coloured vests to signify their role and make communication between departments easier. “We’re like little Lego people,” she explains. “So public information management is purple. The controller has a white vest, and they’ll have letters on the back if they are a team leader.”
Working so closely with those on the ground, Glass says it was easy to get quick answers for those asking after particular areas on Facebook. “You could just say, ‘hey Jeff, can you just pop out and have a look at what’s happening down on such and such street?’” A giant wall of computer monitors linked up to cameras “all around the place” was also essential. “We were watching the cameras along the Tauranga Harbour and the Whakatāne Harbour when we were really, really worried about how far up the water was going to come at high tide.”
When it got to about 11 o’clock on Monday night, the room started to thin out. “We started realising some people have been there since 7am, and we needed people to come back tomorrow morning, so we needed to start sending people home’,” says Glass. She made the call to stay in the office and continue updating the Facebook page overnight, letting her husband know to save her some kung pow chicken. “I thought it was best we keep our powder dry for when we need more people in the morning, so that’s what we did.”
Thankfully, the coastal inundation that was keeping locals awake did not eventuate and, just before 2am, Glass found a colleague’s sleeping bag and signed off for the night. “Time for you to get some sleep if you can,” she wrote, before taking a tired selfie with colleagues and sharing it to the page.
“I didn’t do it to say ‘hey, here’s me looking like a hero’,” she hastily adds. “I just wanted to say ‘here are some faces of some people in your community who are here for you’.” She found a cushion and a quiet dark nurses station, and rested for a few hours. “The peak time of high tide had passed, and I wanted to be there in the morning, because I knew we were going to start getting media calling from about five o’clock.” Glass doesn’t remember sleeping, and acknowledges it was probably a mistake to keep her beeping phone next to her makeshift bed.
At 6.40am Tuesday came another detailed update, this time accompanied by a cartoon boy with very dark undereye circles, reflecting the mood and appearance of many across the country. “You made it through the night, everyone – well done and thank you to all the lovely people who kept us company,” the update read. Again, a flood of gratitude. “thank u 4 your company during the night,” wrote a woman in Manawatū. “My family are in Tauranga. I am keeping an eye on what is happening on here, thank you for the information,” wrote a woman in Scotland.
Irvine says that the page is a “brilliant” example of crisis communication. “You can see it in all the comments – this was just what people wanted. I got a really warm, fuzzy feeling about the Bay of Plenty community, like they were going through a tough time but doing it all together.” He even noted one commenter invited the social media team over for a port, which didn’t get past Glass either. “I thought that was so cute – not a beer or a wine but a port? You stay classy BoP.” Even classier still was the local asking her whether he could still heat up his knives.
A day later, as Glass awaits an update on whether her and her colleagues will be deployed to help out in more severely-affected regions in Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti, she reflects on what posting into the wee small hours taught her. “It was amazing that the people on the page were invariably lovely. We had no trolls, we had no conspiracy people, we just had one bot that kept trying to give people financial advice,” she says. “There’s ratbags everywhere of course, but most people just want to do the right thing and look after themselves and others.”
“It’s a real cliché but it’s true: when things are at their worst, people are at their best.”