Module 20: Who can help your organization with social media?

Objective: To understand how community members, fluent in social media, can assistant response personnel in all social media activities in a volunteer capacity.

Listen, Understand, Act

Listen, Understand, Act (Photo credit: highersights)

Force Multipliers: Social Media Monitoring

Monitoring social media and responding to requests for information that come from social platforms can become cumbersome and is most certainly labor intensive. With success, meaning a lot of followers, also comes added responsibility. QPS Media in Australia, for example, received hundreds of comments on their Facebook page, everydayduring a major flooding/disaster event. One Facebook post received 1200 comments alone.  Reading and responding to all of those comments can become overwhelming.

Emergency management organizations, both government and non-governmental alike, are starting to understand how enormous this task could be in a crisis and are looking to innovative solutions to solve the problem. One innovation includes the creation of “Virtual Operations Support Teams” or “VOST” to aid their social media efforts. [VOST is a specific name but these types of teams have also been called a “Stand by Crisis Task Force” or a “Twitter Strike Team”]. The VOST can be integrated into Emergency Management operations to help with a variety of tasks depending on the needs and desires or the organization. The tasks the team could be given could include:

  • establishing and monitoring social media communications,
  • helping to manage communication channels with the public, and
  • handling matters that can be executed remotely through digital means such as assisting with the management of donations or volunteers.

In other words, a VOST can be enlisted to extend communication capacities.

What organizations are using volunteers in this capacity? Many organizations have either developed, or are in the initial stages of employing, this concept:

  • American Red Cross
  • United Nations
  • US National Fire Service
  • Los Ranchos, New Mexico Office of Emergency Management
  • Philadelphia Office of Public Health (under development)
  • New York City Office of Public Health (under development)
  • Clark Regional (Washington State) Emergency Services Agency

Researchers at the University of Colorado recently conducted a study of this concept and documented their findings in a paper titled “Trial by Fire” cited below.  They followed the use of a VOST by Kris Ericksen, the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Portland Team (a Type I Incident Management team) which was called to the Shadow Lake Fire on August 31, 2011.  The case study does the following:

“…outline[s] the tools and processes used by this virtual team to coordinate their activities, monitor social media communication and to establish communications with the public around the event. …discuss[es] the potential merits and limitations of implementing a team of trusted volunteers and explore how this idea could be incorporated into emergency management organizations.”

The study describes the tasks the team was asked to accomplish:

  • Follow social media and traditional media trends and report back what you are seeing;
  • Communicate issues and concerns being expressed by the public;
  • Identify misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provide a supportive voice for the NIMO team and its efforts through social media;
  • Push out key message each day (via personal and official Twitter accounts)
  • Post and tweet messages from private accounts with information from @ORfireInfo accounts;
  • Represent the citizen’s perspective;
  • Compile media coverage (traditional and non-traditional) by date;
  • Document the social media conversation – especially if something big happens;
  • Take this opportunity to learn new tools and try new things;
  • Document the experience of participating as a VOST member.

According to the study, “…the team reported using a range of tools to ‘watch and listen’ while at the same time trying to maintain an archive. Any information they found was added to the Keepstream file and was referenced like a virtual file cabinet by the NIMO team.” Regarding the reporting structure, all communication went directly to Ms. Ericksen in the event “..they identified any negative coverage, irritated stakeholder groups, or citizen concerns that required her attention.”

The team also directly communicated with the public through multiple social media platforms, where they correctly characterized their group effort as “volunteer” designed to amplify the message of the official response organization. Twitter, Facebook and a blog were used and integrated—repeating posts from each platform based on the official information. This ultimately increases the opportunity for more people to view the content. (See Module 19--that blog and social media effort was also the product of a VOST deployment.)

Another example: CERT

Another example of this type of assistance is from Anaheim, California. CERT volunteers already serve in a community outreach capacity by supplementing staff in the “hotline room” by answer questions on the phone. Their concept is to extend these responsibilities to social networks. The social media monitoring volunteers in Anaheim will be used primarily to keep track of comments and social data posted to the communities’ social platforms. They will also be allowed to retweet (repeat a message on twitter) anything that has already been put out by the Public Information Officer (PIO).

Developing the team will be done by first, surveying CERT members to gage interest, and then once team members are identified, they will be provided training. The training will include: hot-line room standard operating procedures; reporting protocols; rules regarding what they can and cannot say; and, potentially, will require participation in a monthly twitter chat. Volunteers will also be taught “how” to monitor including which search terms to use etc., as well as which platforms to monitor. However, volunteers will be given some latitude to keep track of all the platforms they “see fit”.  The training currently does not include a module on how to verify information, however, that is a consideration for future efforts.

Linking to Operations

Specifically, regarding reporting protocols and procedures, pertinent information the monitoring team discovers will loop back into the EOC planning and operations section via the PIO (see the graphic above). Any life threatening information will be sent directly to the dispatcher and non-life threatening info will get written down on paper or in an email and is sent to the PIO to review and decide which section it should go to. Currently, CERT “digital volunteers” do not have access to WebEOC, but they have discussed granting limited access so that they can input the information directly. (The CERT coordinator supplied the graphic.) She states: “Depending upon the platform, some steps may require modification.  For example individual [citizens] may post to YouTube which may require a response post or a comment directing individuals to a website or blog with more information. “

There is a lot of information on these concepts. Start with the citations below.

[1]St. Denis, et al “Trial by Fire: The Deployment of Digital Volunteers in the Shadow Lake Fire” March 2012, Proceeding from ISCRAM Conference.

[2] Borregio, Anne Marie, “American Red Cross and Dell Launch First of its kind Digital Operations Center” March 2012>.

[3] Sutter, John “Ushahidi: How to Crowdmap a disaster”  CNN, October, 2011.

[4] CRESA Emergency Management, “Wanna Be Part of a Twitter Strike Team?” March, 2012


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