My latest blog post for Harvard Business Review tackles the challenge of surviving a social media emergency. It was inspired by what turned out to be a minor emergency: the earthquake that rattled most of central Canada yesterday. As it happened, I was in Ottawa at the time — and in the office of Public Safety Canada, where I witnessed my sister-in-law Jen using social media to get out the message about earthquakes and emergency preparedness. The lessons for communicators and social media strategists are in my HBR post.
That covers the business lessons, but what about the human lessons?
Even before the quake hit, this trip to Ottawa had me thinking about family. I basically grew up as an only child of a single parent, so for most of my life, my mom has constituted pretty much my entire notion of family. All the cultural stuff about the importance of family has mostly passed me by — I can sometimes understand it at an intellectual level, but I’ve never connected with it emotionally.
Witnessing the sibling relationship between my own kids has given me some vague sense of what I’ve missed. There’s something different about family, about the people who’ve shared the foundational experiences that made you who you are. The more I see that bond between our two kids, the more I’ve felt regretful about missing that fundamental bond myself.
When Rob first introduced me to his family I had the brief fantasy that his large extended family — he’s one of four siblings, with a network of cousins that encompasses most of central and Eastern Canada — would make up for my own tiny one. We flirted with the idea of moving back to Ontario so we could be close by, but once we committed to our lives in BC, the fantasy of his family becoming my family largely deflated. In the past couple of years we’ve hardly seen his family at all.
Then Rob had to travel to Ottawa on business, and brought our daughter with him. She took to her cousins instantly, and returned to Vancouver full of stories of the time she’d spent with them. “I don’t want to live in Canada anymore,” she announced. “I want to move to Ottawa.”
Two weeks later I arrived in Ottawa on my own. I went straight from the airport to see Rob’s brother Rick, and his wife Jen. In the two years since I last saw Rick, he and Rob have converged: I found myself staring at a man who was almost a carbon copy of my husband.
Jen and I had a good laugh over the fact that our husbands now look so much alike, before moving onto family news and war stories about the shenanigans of our respective kids. When it was time for the boys to go to bed, and me to go to my hotel, I felt wistful about how geography keeps us from being more a part of one another’s lives — as it does for so many families these days.
Happily, it wasn’t the last I’d see of Jen. In a happy coincidence, she’s a fellow social media enthusiast, and part of a network of civil servants who are helping integrate social media into the marketing and communications efforts of their respective departments. She organized a morning session that brought about fifty of these folks together to participate in my workshop on How to Bring Your Online Community to Life.
As I describe in my post for Harvard, I was still enjoying a post-workshop catch-up with Jen when the earthquake hit. Watching her swing into action was eye-opening in terms of helping me understand what it takes to operationalize social media under time and logistical pressures. But the professional insights paled in comparison with the personal impact.
Jen has been part of Rob’s family since long before I came along; in fact, I first met Rob’s parents and siblings when we went to Ottawa for Rick and Jen’s wedding. At the time I was so new to the team that I took care to position myself at the very edge of the wedding photos, so that Rick & Jen could crop me out if things didn’t work out with Rob.
Happily, no cropping was needed. Over the years I’ve made it into many other family photos, and seen Jen at many other family events. But that’s been the lion’s share of our relationship: we see each other at big gatherings, or during family crises. Our relationship to one another is always mediated by the larger family context.
Yesterday I got to see Jen on her own, in a context that had nothing to do with family. Because of our shared interest in social media, we had the chance to work together in thinking through some of the workarounds that could get Jen’s message out, and the chance to enjoy the connection that comes through collaboration. It reminded me of why I love doing social media projects with my friends: it’s a chance to get to know them better, and to deepen relationships through common creativity.
With Jen that collaboration was different. Her calm response to that Blackberry message, conveying an urgent deadline….her ability to focus the task of getting her tweets out, when people around her were still panicking….the little jokes she made to put the people around her at ease….why did they all seem so familiar?
And then I realized why. All those big family events, and in particular those family crises: Jen was just the same way, the quiet presence in the middle of the storm. The woman navigating a social media challenge was the same one I’d seen navigating the toughest times a family can encounter — that our family had encountered.
So this was the family connection I’d heard about: the ability to see someone else through the lens of your shared history. The knowledge that whatever might come of your collaboration — whether it yielded joy or conflict — you’d remain irrevocably connected.
Today, I’m once again 4,500 kilometers away from Jen, Rick and their boys, back to relying on Twitter for their latest news. But after our social media adventure, that 4,500 kms feels different. Now I know it’s the distance between me and my family.