Jennifer Hefty and Kara Chiles

546. Gannett develops SMS strategy to text breaking news during Hurricane Ian

When Mother Nature turned her attention to Florida and unleashed Hurricane Ian in late September, a trio of Gannett newsrooms turned to text messages to help keep their subscribers up-to-date on weather conditions, closures and how to reach emergency services. 

Using the short message service (SMS) platform Subtext, a team of reporters across Gannett’s newsrooms around the country can help provide short, detailed texts to subscribers, giving them updates on need-to-know situations. 

“One of the first times we used SMS in a natural disaster situation was in Texas last year during the freeze,” says Jennifer Hefty, social and emerging platforms strategist for the USA Today Network. “I remember being in a news planning meeting. One of our editors said ‘Hang on, I’m texting my friend the updates because she doesn’t have power or internet and I’m trying to get her the news we know about.’ In that moment we knew we have to get people this context, because it’s public safety information, even amidst the chaos of breaking news. Everyone’s exhausted. Everyone took turns to send out text message updates to people who didn’t have power, didn’t have wifi.” 

When Hurricane Ian began to approach the Florida coastline, the team went back to the same techniques that worked well a year before. 

“We’re fortunate to have a large network where other people can help answering questions,” Hefty says. “We started by saying we’ll send three updates a day, morning, noon and night. We’d send questions to reporters for FAQ stories. If a lot of people had a question about something, like a bridge being out, we’d be honest whether we had an answer. As the storm subsided and passed through and we moved to recovery, we changed the cadence a bit. We tried to keep things contained in the message. We included links but understood people might not be able to access them. We were trying to provide as much information as concisely as possible.” 

But it’s not just reporters sending out information to readers and subscribers. It’s creating the possibility of a two-way conversation, says Kara Chiles, senior vice president of consumer products for Gannett.

“We do get direct feedback. One user said ‘These updates have been my sanity and my lifeline.’ That’s why people ride out storms in newsrooms,” she says. “They want to be that resource for their community. Text allows us to serve people in those communities and also allows us to pivot to other communities that might not be living and breathing that storm but they want some updates. We can message different audiences different information.” 

One of the first regular uses of SMS and SubText for Gannett was in sports coverage, with reporters providing fans the kind of behind-the-scenes information and images they crave.

“It’s not just the breaking news or who won, it’s the ‘did you see that play,’ it’s the bragging rights and the competitive spirit of it,” Chiles says.

The SMS tool is still relatively new and Gannett is developing a series of playbooks of best practices and how to use text messages to build and support a community, in addition to determining when to make their text service available to a larger audience as a public service.

“We’re also working on getting together people in our network where people can bounce ideas off each other,” Hefty says. “The other thing I recommend is if you see something someone else is doing, sign up for it. Let’s see what other people are doing, let’s see what else is happening in the industry.” 

Jennifer Hefty, social and emerging platforms strategist for the USA Today Network, and Kara Chiles, senior vice president of consumer products for Gannett, talk to It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell about how they leveraged the SMS platform Subtext to text breaking news and public safety updates to their audience during Hurricane Ian.

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