Module 1: Top Five Reasons to Use Social Media for Emergency Management

 This post is for the doubting Thomas’s in the crowd. When talking to the first responder community about social media there are always people who are convinced that social communication tools are not helpful and/or dangerous.  This is why module number 1 looks at the benefits of engaging your community via social media.

Objective: To provide context of why social media is increasingly being utilized by first response personnel for crisis communications.

1. Everyone is doing it.

This is the type of rationale you might hear from your teenager: “But Mom, I want to because everyone else is!” Of course, the response to that is “Well, if everyone jumped off a cliff would you want to do that too!” But the fact is, social networking is the most popular online activity in the world.

“Social networking sites now reach 82 percent of the world’s online population, representing 1.2 billion users around the world. The social networking adoption trend largely mirrored the global Internet adoption curve, and grew proportionately, showing that as people began to get connected, they immediately began connecting with one another.” Source: ComScore

Not only are people on these networks but they spend tons of time there. “Nearly 1 in every 5 minutes (20%) of the time spent online was for social networking in the month of October 2011.” This is why employers don’t like these tools…but that’s another module!

But what implication does this have  for emergency or crisis communications

In Western Massachusetts I often hear that a lot of people don’t have access to the internet and/or that only young people use social media. Yet, during the aftermath of the spring 2011 tornadoes, people of all ages not only used these tools but found them to be the only way to communicate…for days. See this article (excerpt below) from “Social Media Played a Major Role in Western Mass Tornadoes.”

“The first slew of posts were jokes about Dorothy and Toto coming to Massachusetts. Within hours, hundreds of images and words of shock flooded online social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter as a series of tornadoes tore across Western Massachusetts on June 1.

“I saw pictures of the damage to my classmates’ houses [posted on Facebook] before the tornado even left the area,” recalled Laura Sauriol, 17, Monson’s Facebook heroine during the hours and months following the tornado.

“Everyone was posting so many questions,” said Sauriol. “Instead of having the information pass from one person to the next, I decided to make a group so that everyone could get the right information about what to do.'”

2. People are talking about the scene of an incident whether you want them to or not.

In the past, first responders had complete control over the flow of information from the scene, as depicted on the left. When something happened you could show up, assess the situation, determine what message you wanted to put out, craft a message for the press, clear it through the incident commander and maybe even the mayor, and then 3-4 hours later send it out or read it at a press conference. That was the past. What are we facing today?  This graphic below provided by Adam Crowe, an Emergency Manager and blogger, demonstrates why things have changed. The text reads: “Standard perimeter control cannot keep onlookers from uploading photos and information while the incident is taking place.” It is interesting that the text also states: “Posts to social media websites multiply geometrically, spreading inaccurate and sometime dangerous information.”  However, the reverse is also true: “Posts to social media websites multiply geometrically, spreading accurate  and valuable information.”  As noted in the example above from Monson, people posted images of damage almost in real time. The point: if you are not a part of that social conversation then you have ZERO influence regarding what is being said. You would also have no information about what the crowd knows–including access to those images of damage. Furthermore, if you are not listening to what is being said, then you have no way to understand what misperceptions are out there and what message corrections are required. In other words, you are in the dark.

3. Public expectations have changed.

The public participates on these social channels daily, this does not change during a crisis.  They expect, or even demand that public officials use these channels to not only inform, but include and engage with them throughout the response and recovery period. See this video by a fire chief from Washington State, Bill Boyd (produced by Agincourt Strategies) to gain perspective from first responders who are using these tools.

4. Social Media provide direct communication with your community in a crisis.

First responders and emergency management officials can now direct messages to the public about the crisis and the ongoing response without having to use the media to transfer and/or filter those communications. This is especially important for smaller towns that might not have media on scene at all.  This direct communication allows a more timely flow of information (e.g. you don’t have to wait for the evening news for your message to be relayed). Additionally, these channels are monitored by news organizations and therefore allow for “mini” press releases to occur as information becomes available.

“Our goal is to promote the organization, and at the same time keep residents informed of helpful tips,” the Fitchburg chief said, citing a Water Department advisory about how to avoid frozen water pipes,” he said.

5. Social media provide a redundant means of communication.

Currently there are multiple systems to provide information to community members: text messaging, email, phone alerts, etc. (It is possible that your community might be so small that you don’t have access to these technologies yet.) These systems do provide access to critical information; however, they are proving to have some limitations with our increasingly mobile and non-traditional populations (e.g. a system that makes calls to home phones will miss people who only use cell phones; television announcements miss people playing video games or watching recordings, and text messaging systems only provide a way to push content but not receive community feedback). Social media can provide another layer of redundancy in order to reach the maximum percentage of stakeholders and or community members. And…most social tools do not require a fee for the service.

Your Turn



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