Security | 29. November 2010

DLR's presence on blogs and Twitter during the volcanic eruption in April 2010


As the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, in Iceland at the end of March/ early April 2010, its ash cloud created an unprecedented situation for European air travel. By mid-April, air travel over northern and central Europe was resumed. DLR was involved in investigating the ash cloud and its effects on air travel in several different ways. I'd like to use this blog entry to illustrate our experiences and learning processes in online communication over this period in mid April 2010, especially on DLR blogs and on Twitter.

Firstly we published the satellite pictures of the volcano, obtained by the German Remote Sensing Data Centre (DFD) and the DLR Institute for Atmospheric Physics in Oberpfaffenhofen, which clearly showed the vast size of the volcano's crater. As air travel resumed, our Falcon 20E research aircraft, also came into play. Our colleagues in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich, worked through the weekend of 17-18th April to prepare the Falcon for an assessment flight. It should be noted that the DLR research aircraft are not set up specifically just to research volcanic ash – they are normally kept in a hangar, ready for future, scheduled use. On 17 April came the first media reports suggesting we had an assessment flight planned for Monday, April 19. Over the weekend, several comments piled up asking, "Why wait until Monday?"


The Falcon research aircraft being readied for its measurement flight. Credit: DLR.

PresseConsidering the effects of the ban on air travel, this question was put to us with understandable urgency. And so, DLR faced the challenge of investigating the ash cloud as quickly and accurately as possible. DLR's Corporate Communications Department was tasked with informing the public about what was going on — in the media as well as online. Marco Trovatello, Head of the DLR Corporate Communications Department's Crossmedia Team, described our online communication philosophy in his blog entry: "We want our users to be able to speak to us and reach us, we want to react quickly in an open and transparent way and, occasionally, also in realtime." This is how we told you, for instance, about how preparing a research aircraft for a new mission normally takes a few weeks, but that the DLR team managed it in 72 hours. We set up a special page on the DLR web portal and answered a myriad questions.

On Sunday, April 18, 2010, we published a blog entry written by DLR Chairman, Jan Wörner. He explained that rather than the measurement flight preparation being slow, it was actually extremely fast in comparison to normal response times, and there was no emergency service in place for such cases. The response to the blog post was overwhelming. Within a few days it received five times as many hits as any popular web article on usually would in a month. The 20+ german comments posted on the blog entry is still a record for DLR blogs.

The ash cloud of mid-April 2010 was a collective event that affected millions on a personal level. The hopes of thousands of stranded passengers were resting on the Falcon measurement flight. Twitter is a good medium to communicate small updates very quickly – and for interacting with people, as this example shows (see the Tweets in the image, arranged here in chronological order from top to bottom, contrary to Twitter logic). Please note that most of the twitter communication presented here is in german. User @Sebaso was very sceptical at the start and represented the public's critical view that we were taking too long to prepare our measurement flight. After our direct explanations why and that it was actually quick rather than slow, not only was he convinced by the facts but he also became truly inspired by our work. And so we were able to turn scepticism into inspiration. We had similar experiences with other followers.

For us, the wave of awareness that spread over this period was just as great as the pressure to provide test results as soon as possible. Despite all our best efforts, the fact that the world of science does not (or cannot) work as quickly the media expects means that there was enormous potential for a storm of controversy. What would have happened if we hadn't responded like this? Nobody knows for sure. But cases such as the Nestlé KitKat-gate (viral promotions such as "Give the Orang-Utan a break!" by Greenpeace) show that controversies can quickly crop up across social networks. This did not happen to DLR in the case of the ash cloud. By the afternoon of 19 April, the mood on Twitter was overwhelmingly positive. And this sentiment has spread since. Twitter may primarily be a general marketing tool for us, but a host of journalists are constantly tuned in to this medium and source their information from here.

It may be a truism, but I want to spell this out here: people are most interested and respond most passionately when they are personally affected by something – for instance when they're stranded at an airport and can't get home. For DLR as a research organisation, the ash cloud measurement flights of mid-April 2010 were a rare opportunity to generate as much public awareness as possible, and demonstrate the social relevance of our research.

Personally, that weekend and the day of the first measurement flight (Monday, 19 April) were my most exciting and challenging days at DLR. My main assignment that day was communication via social media. Through my tasks I've learnt that 'transparent communication' is not just a buzzword for social media conferences but is crucial to actual communication work. Nobody can or wants to turn back the expansion of social networks. But in communication, we need to learn how to manage the loss of control over our messages. And to do that, we need to be prepared.

In this case, it was a necessary for us to have built up a Twitter community long before the volcano erupted, and learnt and followed the rules of the game (the hashtag #ashcloud, for example, which many followed). In this case, and in the media, we managed to prevent a potential storm of controversy. It shows how social media can turn a challenge into an opportunity. You can see the impressive human interest in Twitter from our chart of followers: in just a few days the followers of our german-language Twitter account grew by more than a third (+ 500). And these followers have stayed with us for more than six months.

This blog post is written for the third Science Communication Forum now underway in Mannheim, Germany. Marco Trovatello and I are talking about "Web 2.0 Communication" in a presentation that carries the subtitle "Feedback welcome." As always, the same applies to this blog.