Guidelines for posting about missing persons

Late last year I wrote a series about dementia, and included an article on the silver alert.

First a little background. I’ve been writing software for justice and public safety for the past few years and as part of that work have been involved in the data standards that implement the Amber Alert (among others). I’ve written emergency management systems, and interfaced with exactly the kinds of software and systems that are behind public safety alerting systems. I have a fairly deep understanding of alerting systems and the technical and human-interface issues involved.

Criteria for Alert

There are criteria for an Amber Alert. These must be met for an alert to be issued. Similarly, there should be criteria for any other kind of alert. Suggested criteria for a Silver Alert (missing elderly) also exist.

These criteria are important because they identify a level of urgency, and a rationale for alerting the public for assistance. It does not make sense to alert the public for a missing person in a wilderness area because this will only encourage people to go out into the bush, and put themselves in danger. Similarly, some missing persons are not at great risk.

Currently, the Amber Alert criteria are for a child (under 18) who is has been kidnapped and is at risk of serious injury or death. In addition, there has to be enough descriptive information about the child or abductor to issue the alert.

Post the information

The most important part of the alert is to post the information about the missing person

  • Where they were last seen
  • Description
  • Suspected direction of travel
  • Who to contact if the person is seen
  • Photo (if possible)

The location is part of this important information, and believe it or not is often missed.

The most useful place to post the information is on a web site or blog. Twitter does not carry enough characters to contain relevant information, and Facebook is a closed system, and not easily indexed in case people need to search for the information.

Share Links

I cannot stress this enough.  Link to the definitive source.

This means if you are posting about a missing person on Facebook, Twitter or any other medium, include a link to the authority who posted the original alert. Definitive here means the lead agency, the one in charge of the investigation, and the one most likely to be informed as to the current state of the missing person.

People love to re-share these links. However, sometimes they are shared many days or even months after the event. Without a link it can be impossible to know if the person is still missing. If a link is going around about someone who is no longer missing, it detracts from a new missing person who we may need to alert on.

Another way to put this is that as the situation develops, sometimes more information comes to light. The original authority may have posted updates to their web site. In order to have access to the most up to date and accurate information, you need to read that web site.

Without a link to more information, sharing a photo or name of a missing person is futile.

Media & News

Media and news agencies are ESPECIALLY bad at the link sharing. They tend to copy the information from the original source, and not to link to the authority. Then they share a link to their own web sites in order to direct traffic there. More often than not, they do not include links to the definitive source, even on their own web site. When they update, they tend to write a new post, and leave the old post intact. This is how people get information that is wrong or out of date.

Media also post pictures and information to social media without any links at all, which makes no sense.

Keep in mind when posting about missing people that the goal is to find the missing person. The media’s goal is to make money. Don’t repost a link to a media web site, repost a link to the police, SAR, or other agency with the most complete information available.

Relevance

Don’t share links for a missing person in Ontario if you are in BC. These alerts are regional in nature. Unless there is information specifically posted to indicate the person may be travelling to BC, there is no reason to post it in BC. A missing person in BC should always be a higher priority for that region.

Relevance is largely geographic for missing people. It is most important to alert the people closest to where the person went missing. Hence, it is not enough to say “Vancouver” — you have to have an intersection.

By keeping alerts relevant, people who can assist are more likely to pay attention. This can make a difference.

Privacy

I mention posting a location. Never post a home address if you can help it. Don’t post pictures of drivers licences, or crop out addresses and numbers. Don’t post phone numbers of private individuals. The police have the power to post private information if they feel that the release is warranted to preserve the person’s life or safety. Anyone else offering up this information can be in trouble.

Cancellation

Cancelling an alert is a kind of update. Getting the information out that someone has been found is important because it means people can stop looking, and stop sharing links that the person is lost. If you’ve been careful to only share links to authoritative sources, then

Summary

  • The goal is to alert people who could assist finding the missing person
  • Re-post links to authoritative sources
  • Update posts with new information including cancelled alert
  • Keep re-posts relevant and geographically appropriate
  • stop posting when alert no longer necessary

In conclusion, it may seem that these are obvious or nit-picky points, but as someone who has both written software to support alerting systems, and been part of the organization to use an alerting system, I feel the deficiencies very strongly. When an alert goes out, someone’s life is at stake. Taking care to follow a few simple guidelines can actually make the difference here.

 

 

 

 

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4 comments on “Guidelines for posting about missing persons
  1. Matthew Bleach says:

    Our FB Page has a Global Reach, so while we will predominately focus on Northern Ontario/Ontario we will also post items up from other areas in Canada, the USA and the UK, in respecting where our audience is located.

  2. When you post about things outside your region you dilute the message – someone subscribing to your feed may just skip past messages after a while not realizing when one is in their area. Think like an online marketer.

  3. Matthew Bleach says:

    It is a very fine balancing act and I pay very close attention to my FB Page stats. For example Right now I have 1086 Fans, Insight currently is playing catch up and is tracking 1083. I am engaging 50% of my fan base with anyone of my posts.

    888 are Canadian
    679 are “Local” within a 90min Drive of my SAR Units Town (I’m in a Rural area with a small city 20min East and a medium city 160k pop 1hr West to its core)
    209 are scattered throughout Canada
    157 are American
    38 are in other Countries around the World.

    According to Insight in the last 28 days I have reached 26,816 people, out of that 43% (11,362) were “Local”. Another 29%(7872) we scattered across Canada leaving 28% as my International Reach.

    According to your logic I should ignore 23% of my fans and 57% of my reach. To me this is not reasonable or good business sense. My Core Fans are loyal and when I have a Local SAR or Missing Persons my Reach reach is in the 1000’s within the hour.

    Now I do discriminate when it comes to posting items from other areas. I make sure I have fans in that province if not the area and that the content is relevant. And that I am not drowning my own page with posts from other areas. I will always post Missing Children under 14 yo, as well as Amber Alerts. But Missing Persons Posts will be dropped during active SAR Missions in our Area.

    If I were I to ignore that 57% I would lose fans and the potential extended reach I get from them sharing my posts.

    Perhaps I am in the minority with my reach and fan base I don’t know. Would be an interesting study.

    And that’s my 2 cents. I do love a good educated and civilized debate though :)

    • Matthew;

      First please note I don;t know what FB page you’re referring to so this is all very general.

      The thing about analytics (Google, Twitter, Facebook, whatever) is that you have no idea who those people are and whether they are reading what you post, or even more, acting on it. The company producing the analytic information has a vested interest that you believe their overstated “engagement” and “reach” numbers.

      To illustrate, let’s measure engagement and reach by the number of people who click through to my web site when I share a link. This Click through rate (CTR) is how SM marketers measure success at delivering a message. For instance on a page I manage FB says we have 1.9k likes, 1.7k reach (although engagement is more telling, and the number you should be paying attention to), and 1.6K views of our posts PER DAY. However, the web site sees 200 views a day, and only 278 in the last month referred from Facebook, giving us a CTR of 0.6%

      Another way to measure it is in a recent missing persons case we posted info on a FB page with 700 likes, got a reach of 3.3K, but only 118 people clicked the link (3.5%).

      The astounding and humourous thing is that I get more shares and re-tweets than I get views. A LOT of people sharing those links couldn’t be bothered to read them. It gets even sadder when you look at Google’s “time on page” statistics which are very low. In the end I just hope a few people

      But all that is just numbers.

      Now, as for the “business case” — the business is to find a missing person. The people who can find the missing person are the people near where the person lives (most of the time). So the instruction is to ignore the audience who are outside the useful sphere of influence, or in the words of new-age internet marketing, not your demographic. People who can’t act on the message don’t need to see it.

      Have you ever watched reality TV and noticed how they blur out certain logos? They do that because they want to highlight the brands that paid to be on TV. The other brands dilute the message. By posting information to your marketing channel that people either don’t want (ie: a missing person outside their region), or don’t expect you are diluting the core message – these people start to ignore the message.

      And in case you’re wondering, this opinion is based on reading quite a bit about the Amber Alert, and the real fear that when it is over-used (as it has been in several significant cases in the past few years) that people will succumb to “Alert Fatigue” Which is why, in the case of the Amber and Silver alerts the criteria are all-important. It has to select for the most vulnerable, who could be saved by immediate intervention, and geographically targeted to the right audience.

      My takeaway message
      * Your fans in other provinces are not your problem
      * strive for quality not quantity
      * by narrowing your posting criteria you stand to gain fans who can assist, so if you lost a few in other provinces who cares?

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