Digital Strategy Comes of Age

This month’s column is about use of digital tools in emergency situations and then digital strategy as a leadership tool. In this case as a response, taking advantage of the immediacy and ease of rapid deployment of digital devices, instinctively, by a generation described by some as, “born with a phone in their hands.” How these tools, digital devices and online resources enabled communications, coverage, and the creation of a nationwide movement -in a matter of days-- is a testament to the coming of age of Digital Reality.

A reality that enables leadership. And can spark a nationwide movement.

The catalyst was horrific, the Valentines Day Parkland incident, an assault weapon massacre in a high school.  Teenagers seeing their friends, teachers, schoolmates, coaches, being shot. Many wounded, seventeen killed. What did they do, how did they react? Immediately these teens were texting their parents, their siblings, their friends.  Others, at the very moments the shooting was occurring before their eyes, were videoing it.  Not for sensational reasons, but to document it for the police and the families. 

Consider that for a moment. 20 or 25 years ago, in the early days of the web, Citizen Journalism was a concept. It had its moment, but never really took off. Some local blogs do well, but they are more the exception than the rule.  What has that morphed into, in the true Digital Era?

What took place at Parkland was at once both proximate and global, Digital Journalism

The connectedness of the Digital Generation, the immediacy of publication (meaning getting online, be it a blog, a news story, a post on a website, or on Reddit, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr, or any of the many Social Media online outlets), empowers notification and messaging with urgency. In the event of emotion, exigency, the dispatch is successful.

With Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland these were acts of instinctive responsiveness to a high stress moment. It was preservation, documentation, a digital response, by a generation that carries a veritable video recording and production unit in their pocket or their purse, everywhere they go. In addition to the video software bundled into every phone, there are free or inexpensive apps they can download to enhance their video capabilities and their production qualities.

 In 2018 we are long past the question of “when should a kid have a cell phone?”  Texting is a bona fide method of communicating. It seemed that every kid at Parkland had a smartphone. They were born into the Digital era. Their parents understand and accept them as connected kids. This led to digital or connected communications amidst the massacre. Some of those were calming, others heartbreaking.

One kid texted his father…”I love you, I’m hiding in the closet with the class—" And then his phone died, leaving the father in state of panic for hours until he learned his son was safe.

What has been the aftermath of the massacre, how have the teenagers from the school responded? With grief, yes. But also with very contained, directed outrage, seeking action. The Parkland kids have taken leadership. Key parts of their toolkit are digital. Their phones, videos, even those videos made during the massacre. Their Facebook group as the home base of operations. Their use of Twitter, of the #NeverAgain hashtag. The posting of videos, calendar and scheduling tools to arrange travel and gatherings. These are perfect examples of a digitally powered generation using the tools natively. Its strategic and instinctive. To them it’s second nature. In some ways it outclasses a few of the top Fortune 500 companies use of digital tools.

Many cable news channel reporters and mainstream media have been astounded by the response, and the  sophisticated level and organization of the actions the teenagers have launched. #NeverAgain is a Digitally Empowered Movement. This is Social Activism via smartphone and electronic media.
These kids have taken leadership.  

A movement was born, emerging out of despair, concern, and a need to do something, have their voices heard, and not let the deaths of 17 of their own be in vain..

Before a week had passed they had organized a demonstration and lobbying trip to Florida state capital Tallahassee, a seven and a half hour bus ride to and from Parkland. They knocked on every State Senator’s door. This was done methodically, with teams sent to different senators.  They arranged a one hour nationwide school walkout as a show of solidarity, and a national march on Washington (named the “March for Our Lives,” scheduled for March 24th) plus same-day support marches in others cities, a month out. The shooting was on a Wednesday. By Friday they’d put up a Facebook page as their online base, their communications outpost. By Sunday the movement had a name (and a hashtag), #NeverAgain. It had a specific, stated policy goal: stricter policy background checks on buyers, raising the minimum age to buy firearms, and the elimination of assault rifle sales to the general public.

The Parkland kids were all over the cable news channels and the main TV news networks. They showed poise, composure, maturity, and elegance and a video online or on-air presence far beyond what one might have expected from kids, especially kid who had only days before been in such an extremely dangerous and nerve-wracking, emotionally jarring situation.  What makes these kids so at ease so capable, so deft at organizing and using their digital tools?  The answer is easy: they’ve grown up posting, hosting and sharing video, for consumption. They’ve never known life without a computer  (most likely a laptop), a cellphone or for the past 10+ years, a smart phone, or a tablet. They are Digital Natives. Being in front of a camera puts them under no duress. This is a regular event for them. Selfies and group shots and capturing moments and events are simply a part of life.  Videos of everything from special events to the mundane are commonplace.  A generation of video-ready, digital ready and camera-comfortable kids are coming of age.

They represent the cultural change, a leap, perhaps, since Columbine.  Most, if not all the students at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, were not yet born when the Columbine tragedy occurred in 1999.  In the day of Columbine parents learned of the incident via phone or radio news bulletins. There was no such thing as every kid texting their parents or siblings. Now the Internet and smartphones carry the messages, notifications and news of the moment. 

Today nearly every kid communicates via text.  Texts with their parents, their friends, their siblings, extended family, in some cases with their teachers, too. Videos, pictures and images (gifs and jpegs) are easily shared via Instagram or Snapchat, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.  Twitter, too, is a social media tool.  And hashtags on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, as well as Flickr, are unifying and identifying for themes, memes and movements. Case in point: #NeverAgain and #MarchForOurLives

Their lives are changed forever. The massacre is permanently burned into their brain, a memory that will not fade.  Even more so is their zeal, their determination to use this deadly rampage as a catalyst for good, for positive change. Their attitude:  We can’t be stopped We can make a change. And they are being heard, gaining traction, and joined by other teenagers at schools across the country.  The word is spreading digitally.  On Facebook, on Twitter, on all the Social Media platforms, plus mainstream electronic media. Schools around the country have already had demonstrations of support.

In the battle against assault weapons, the teens are taking on the NRA.  The NRA is a powerful organization, extremely well funded, with political heft.  But the NRA has never met a challenge like this.  Voters of the future, the next generation, not people who are arguing the 2nd Amendment. But people opposed to assault weapons and who want the minimum firearm purchase age raised, better background checks, and the end of the gun show loophole. Kids who do not necessarily have a political party affiliation.

This time the NRA faces teens wielding Digital Armor.  All the NRA money and firepower has never before been up against this sort of challenge.

What began in Parkland has gone viral.  But viral may be too chic and au courant a term.  Perhaps an older adage is more appropriate.

The earliest use of the phrase 'Think Global, Act Local' was in the context of environmental challenges in the 20th century. Buckminster Fuller, the architect, theorist and futurist, brought the phrase  back to the public eye when his writings were featured in 1968 in the Whole Earth Catalog. This was just before the embryonic dawn of the Internet. In the early days of the World Wide Web, which connected the Internet in ways still growing and expanding today, the phrase took on even new, expanded meaning.  'Think Global, Act Local' became more realistic. The web delivered globally integrated the dispersion of data, news, video, blogs, anything prose or visual, in an instant. Distance was no longer a barrier. Nor was time or time zone.

Global reach may now occur as a consequence of any local post.  A High School post in Florida can take hold and spread to schools across the country.  That which is referred to as viral can be digital wildfire. A generation of Digital Natives using what to them is native Digital Armor sets off a Digital Movement, spreading like Digital Wildfire.

Welcome to the new Digital Reality.



Dean Landsman

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