Category Archives: VOST

Simple Strategies and How-To’s for Monitoring Social Media

Post by: Kim Stephens

Monitoring social media seems like a daunting task. In fact, during large-scale emergency events millions of new posts, pictures and videos  are added to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. every day. How could a small local public health or emergency management agency sort through all of that! Because this seems so overwhelming it might be easy to decide that it is too difficult and therefore not worth doing at all. However,  your agency doesn’t have to read and catalog every update. In fact, what you monitor on social media depends first and foremost on what you want to accomplish. Once you determine that, monitoring doesn’t seem so intimidating after all.

In this post I will talk about setting realistic objectives for monitoring social media and point to some simple steps that can be employed.

Setting your objectives

Learning to monitor social networks does demand a change in mindset. No longer is your organization simply pushing information to the public, but now you are also actively listening. You might have several objectives in terms of why you want to monitor and  what you want to listen for:

  1.  To see if your organization’s message is getting across or if conflicting information (rumors) is being conveyed: Are people  confused about what to do (e.g. how long to boil water)?
  2. To determine public sentiment regarding your organization or, during a crisis, about the overall government’s response efforts: Are people angry about something that is happening?
  3. To determine the most commonly asked questions and concerns.
  4. To quickly answer direct questions, or questions directed at the community political leadership, on topics that involve your organization: Are people asking when debris will be picked up in their neighborhood?
  5. To determine what other organizations are saying, in order to both ensure messages are coordinated, and to amplify mission related content.
  6. To determine the extent of damage and impact of the event. (Advanced)

How To

Of course, part of the strategy for listening or monitoring social media has to include determining who will be responsible for doing these tasks. I recommend you also read the post on VOST (Virtual Operations Support Teams) for some ideas on how you can expand your efforts when it is required. Nonetheless, there are many things that can be done to make monitoring social media a bit easier, especially if some of it is completed before a crisis.

1. Create Lists and Like Pages(Objective: To determine what other organizations are saying, in order to both ensure messages are coordinated, and to amplify mission related content.) It is important to know and keep track of what other response organizations are saying on social networks, even if they are in a neighboring county. If you put out conflicting content, believe me, the public will notice. (This happens in quickly moving events–road closures are a prime example.) It should be noted that in addition to doing the work online, every government official responsible for posting to social networks  should participate in recurring meetings to talk about strategies and coordination when there is not a crisis. (How can we ensure all road closures are updated simultaneously?)

(Note: See the list of organizations on this WMASMEM blog for a good start  of who is in the social space. Look for the tab “Web-Based Communications by County.”)

On Twitter, set up a list of all “trusted sources” including government agencies, first responders, political leaders,  volunteer organizations and local news media–don’t forget to include federal agencies such as FEMA, EPA and HUD. You can make more than one list. It is important to update your lists when a disaster strikes because, as we all know, new volunteer groups tend to pop up. explains how to create a list in 4 simple steps:

To create a list:

  • Go to your Lists page. This can be done via the gear icon drop down menu in the top right navigation bar or by going to your profile page and clicking on Lists.
  • Click Create list.
  • Enter the name of your list, a short description of the list (if it is too long it won’t save), and select if you want the list to be private (only accessible to you) or public (anyone can subscribe to the list).
  • Click Save list.

To view Tweets from a list:

  • Go to your profile page.
  • Click on the Lists tab.
  • Click on the list you’d like to view.
  • You’ll see a timeline of Tweets from the users included in that list.

On Facebook, “Like” all of these same organizations; once you “Like” them, you can see what they are posting and also share that content from your “Home” tab.

2. Invest in a smart phone for the person monitoring social media (Objective: To quickly answer direct questions, or questions directed at the community political leadership, on topics that involve your organization.)

Smart phones are a great way to monitor your social media presence when you are away from your computer. Both Twitter and Facebook can provide notifications to the administrator every time your organization is mentioned, replied to, re-tweeted, etc.. You can also set up a way to receive notifications when other organizations post updates as well. Again, has a great help page on this topic, but I’ve listed the steps here as well.

  1. notificationsLog in to
  2. Go to your Settings.
  3. Go to the Mobile tab.
  4. If your mobile device is connected to your Twitter account, you’ll see options to change your Mobile notifications preferences.
  5. Click on the box next to the mobile notifications you want to receive and/or turn off.
  6. Click Save changes at the bottom of the page.

notifications2You can also turn on notifications when specific person(s) or organization(s) send out a message (maybe you want to do this for your local Red Cross Chapter or utility company, for instance). Again, Twitter’s help page show us how. On the web:

  1. Visit your Settings page (click the gear symbol to the right of the search box).
  2. Click the Mobile tab.
  3. Look for the area labeled Text notifications.
  4. Check the box for Tweets from people you’ve enabled for mobile notifications to receive text message notifications any time a specific person Tweets.
  5. Visit the profile page or click on the username of the user whose updates you want to receive via SMS (try typing in your browser’s URL bar, or click through from your following page).
  6. Click the person icon on the user’s profile and select Turn on mobile notifications from the drop-down menu.
  7. If you no longer wish to receive text message updates from this user, select Turn off mobile notifications, from the same drop-down menu.

Facebook has similarly helpful “How-To” page about how to receive push notifications on a mobile device. Facebook states:

Manage push notifications for Close Friends List Activity or Group Posts and Comments from within the Facebook app:

  1. Tap  
  2. Account > Account Settings
  3. Facebook Notifications > Push Notifications
  4. Check the boxes to turn on either Group Posts and Comments and Close Friends List Activity

There is also information here about the Page Manager App that lets admins check on their Page activity, view insights and respond to their audience from their mobile device. This app is only currently available for iPhone and iPad. 

3. Read

I once asked the social media manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency how he monitored social media and he simply stated: I read.  Reading what is happening can be done strategically based on the human resources and time that you have available. You can limit what you read to all or one of the following:

  •  Read comments and questions directed to your organization. (Objective: To determine public sentiment regarding your organization or, during a crisis, about the overall government’s response efforts.) This step is probably the most important because if your organization is actively posting content more than likely, people will be posting comments and questions…AND they will expect a response. They will also be talking about your agency, maybe even indirectly. Reading comments will allow you to gauge how your efforts are being received.
    • How? On Twitter when someone mentions you directly you will receive an “@” message. You can find these messages by simply clicking @Connect on the menu bar on the home page of your Twitter account. You can also receive these notifications as an email and as a message on your phone.
    • Facebook also sends notifications (mentioned in #2) when you receive a new comment.  Not all of the comments will require a response, however, it is important that people know a person is “listening.” Simply posting a quick “Thanks for the comment” can go a long way to fostering goodwill with your community.
  • Read what is being posted on the lists that you created.
    • How? Go to your home page. Click “View my profile page” and then click on “Lists”. All the tweets from the various organizations and individuals will be revealed. You can only view one list at a time on but can see multiple lists side-by-side on tools such as Tweetdeck and Hootesuite.
  •  Read information based on keywords and hashtags. (Objective: To see if your organization’s message is getting across or if conflicting information/rumors is being conveyed. And/or  To determine the extent of damage and impact of the event.)  This strategy involves searching for key words, such as the name of the event, in order to find pertinent information.
    • For instance, is the local radio station using their Twitter account and Facebook page to ask people to bring clothing and other items to a specific donation drop-off location using a hashtag such as #tornadohelp?
    • During an active event, people often post pictures and video to Twitter (more so than other platforms) and mention the location and /or name of the town. (For specific instructions see Twitter advanced search and the “How-To“).  It is important to note, however, that any early pictures should be treated cautiously. Some folks think it is quite funny to post fake images.
    • Possible search terms: name of agency, name of event, name of municipality.

Whomever is monitoring social media will also need to be empowered to answer questions and provide content back to the operations division or whomever needs to address any issues brought to the organization’s attention.  Again, it is important to make these decisions before a disaster event. 


The strategies listed above all use free tools that do require either volunteers, staff or contractors to manage.   There are many different tools that are coming onto the market such as Agility and Radian 6 that lessen the amount of human resources required but increase the software price tag.  For small organizations, these advanced tools aren’t absolutely necessary, but again, it depends on your objectives.

Let us know, what are your objectives and/or your listening strategy?  Tell us in the comments section.

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Understanding VOSTs (Virtual Operations Support Teams) Hint: It’s All About Trust

Post by: Kim Stephens

voicebroadcast_graphic1Virtual Operations Support Team(s) or VOSTs is a concept created by Jeff Phillips and it was explained in detail in “Module 20: Who Can Help your organization with social media?” Jeff will be available on two conference calls for WRHSAC stakeholders: Thursday, December 13th at 11:00EST and again on Friday, December 14th at 1:00EST. If you would like information about how to dial in, just provide a comment to this post.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept please take a moment to review the Module 20 post. This current post is intended to provide even more context and examples of how VOSTs can be used by emergency management and public safety organizations. In general, it should be noted that VOSTs are typically deployed during a crisis or disaster event, and are generally not utilized for day-to-day preparedness communications.

VOST Defined

For just a bit of background, repeating content from Module 20, a VOST can be defined as a team that accomplishes some or all of the following:

  • Establishes a social media presence for an organization that previously did not use social networking tools to communicate with the public;
  • Monitors social media communications;
  • Handles matters that can be executed remotely through digital means such as assisting with the management of donations or volunteers;
  • Follows social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicates issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective;
  • Identifies misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provides a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplifies the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or official social media accounts);
  • Compiles media coverage (traditional and non-traditional) by date;
  • Document the social media conversations – especially if something big happens.

Trust and Trust: The Incident Management Team Model

There are two huge issues here: trust and trust. Who do you/would you trust to potentially be the voice of your organization and  to answer questions from the public?  Although this concept  may initially seem like a stretch–I would never allow someone else to be our voice!–there is a perfect example of how “outsourcing” can work: Incident Management Teams. When an IMT comes into your community you do trust them to do what is required/asked.  However, this delegation is not without strings attached–a  “Delegation of Authority” agreement is signed between the two parties detailing expectations. Below is an excerpt from a sample DoA:

You have full authority and responsibility for managing incident operations within the framework of legal statute, current policy, and the broad direction provided in both your verbal and written briefing materials. You are accountable to me. A formal evaluation of your performance will be conducted prior to your departure. This formal evaluation may be followed up within sixty days after your departure once the Agency has had the opportunity to review accountability, claims, financial matters, and other items, which require time to evaluate.

Although IMTs do include public information officers, it is not realistic to assume that communities will have the opportunity to tap an IMT every time there is an incident. Even small, localized events can stretch resources and limit your organization’s ability to “deal” with social media. Which is why you might want to consider using a VOST. However, an agreement, that borrows from the IMT or Mutual Aid agreements, could be utilized.

Who serves on the VOST?

Unlike IMTs, VOSTs are not pre-formed, nationally trained teams. One current misperception is that the “VOST”  will swoop into your community after a disaster.  Although there are people who work on VOSTs for specific communities, those folks have been pre-identified by the community or organization (I cannot emphasize that enough).

In other words, if you are interested in having a group (or even just one person) ready help with social media after a disaster, you have to take responsibility to foster that relationship and come to a terms of agreement before the disaster. Communities have done this in several different ways (explained in more detail below). Some have turned to CERT members (e.g. Anaheim California’s Office of Emergency Management); others have tapped  savvy social media community members (e.g. Cecil County, Maryland); and still others, including the NYC Public Health Department, have developed a VOST from within their agency by training their own employees–e.g. people willing to add additional duties for the opportunity to do something unique during a disaster response.

Like an IMT, VOST members can supplement resources and potentially even bring in a new set of skills.

VOST Models 

From my perspective, three models have emerged for the use and structure of VOSTs. Interestingly, the model or category an organization falls into seems to be a reflection of the both the level of trust with VOST members as well as the level of trust and knowledge/comfort with social media in general. The models I have identified are

  1. External Support (Amplify and Monitor Only)
  2. Hybrid Support (Amplify, Monitor, and Respond on behalf of the organization, but with specific limits)
  3. Internal/Embedded (Full range of social media duties and support)

1. External VOST Support:

Organizations that are both new to social media and the concept of a “VOST” might consider using support from team members in a more conservative manner. In this model the following support might be provided:

  • Follow social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicate issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective);
  • Identify misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provide a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplify the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or established community VOST social accounts).

Team members could provide this support from afar–in fact, getting this type of assistance from folks outside of your community might be a great option since they would be out of the impacted area and would therefore have power in their home, or office, etc. Remember, monitoring social media does not have to happen in your EOC.

  • But who? Team members could be emergency managers from the other side of the state,  for instance.
  • But how? It is important to note that with any of these models, communication between the team members and the organization is vital for success. For example, if the team identifies a potential issue that needs to be addressed quickly (e.g. people posting angry comments on Mayor’s Facebook page about conditions in the shelters) they need assurance that the “customer” has seen their “red flag”.

2. Hybrid Support

In this model, the team does everything identified in the external support model, but also responds to questions from community members and posts content on behalf of the organization.  Unlike the model above, these individuals would be made administrators of those accounts. In this approach, however, there are specific limitations placed on the team members. For instance, they are allowed to post on behalf of the organization, but only information that has already been cleared by their organization’s PIO or posted on other official government accounts.

  • But who? I have seen this model used with CERT volunteers.
  • But how? Similar to the way 311 employees use pre-scripted responses to citizen’s questions, the social media volunteers are provided answers to frequently asked questions that they can type into the Facebook page, or post to the Twitter account. They would be responsible for monitoring these accounts and flagging any out-of-ordinary questions and obtaining quick answers: e.g. Is Elkton Road flooded?

3. Internal/Embedded

In this model, the VOST team leader  is given the full range of social media duties. This model is often utilized by small communities that do not have a full-time (or even part-time PIO) and the Agency’s staff person, responsible for social media communications, has many other duties during the response to a crisis or disaster.

  • But who? Often this type of arrangement is made with people very familiar with the organization and maybe even retired PIOs. The organization has an established, trusted relationship with the person or team members.
  • But how? In order to provide this type of support, it is often best to have the team, or a least the team leader, embedded at the Emergency Operations Center.

There are many examples of what VOST members have accomplished during the past two years. Click on the links below to see some of the social media pages they have built. Sorry for the extra-long post. I hope you have made it to the end! If you have any questions about this concept please let us know.!/WildlandFires