The Carr Fire’s social media hero

Katie Quinn, the wife of Lewiston, CA's fire chief used social media to provide key information and a sense calm during the recent Carr Fire. Depending on your organizational culture, industry, and maturity, you should think twice before replicating such a governing model. Or if you do, you might want to reach out to Katie for some training!

Kristina Podnar
August 29, 2018

Earlier this month I helplessly watched from the Washington, DC area as the California Carr fire burned just 20 miles down the road from our house in the Trinity National Forest. Some residents of this rural county of 13,786 [1] left the area. Many with local jobs, kids, or animals had to wait. Of particular note is the town of Lewiston, population 1,193, whose residents were forced to evacuate as the fire burned on the edge of the town.

While this event was devastating for the county, information was hard to get since most of the US population (and the major news channels which serve them) have little interested in this remote area. Amongst all of the silence on the national scene, I found a source of excellent local news in the form of Katie Quinn. Married to the Lewiston Fire Chief, Katie went all in during the fire crisis, buying food, cooking, and serving firefighters and in spare moments of the day, posting to social media updates on the fire, people's homes, and animals.

What struck me about all of Katie’s Facebook posts is they were delivered in a manner that most organizations strive for, but often can’t seem to attain. Every bit of information that she shared was:

  • Timely
  • Informative
  • Factual
  • Relevant
  • Empathetic
  • Respectful

Katie isn't a paid social media specialist. She is about 70 years old, and her personal Facebook profile page would probably make most human resources director cringe. She didn’t follow a social media playbook, didn’t have a digital policy in place, nor any formal training. What she had was that "use good judgment and common sense" guidance that most organizations advise in their employee handbook or social media policy. But could this model work well in an organization?

If you are a small organization (think under 1,500 people) where a single point of contact handles formal social media, the answer is probably "yes." You can likely vet the individual who will be your social media spokesperson and make sure that they have a good head on their shoulder. Ideally, they would have a knack for distributing information like Katie, who opted to her updates to individuals who then disseminated to other social media channels. But what about any larger organization?

In my experience, this type of social media governance rarely scales. Having worked with multinational corporations and large non-governmental entities, you get too many interpretations of what is "good judgment and common sense." If you have decentralized communications, a high public profile (i.e., reach), audiences from different cultural backgrounds, or multiple individuals speaking on your behalf in social media, the more formalized guidance you likely need. After all, the higher the chance you have for a very public mistake, loss of reputation and brand, the more tightly you should govern online conversations.

While social media outreaches such as Katie’s have given people like me much appreciated information and a sense calm, your organization likely should not attempt this on its own. Or if you do, you might want to reach out to Katie for some training!

[1] Trinity County, California, United States Census Bureau.

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