Post by: Kim Stephens
Virtual 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.
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.
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
- External Support (Amplify and Monitor Only)
- Hybrid Support (Amplify, Monitor, and Respond on behalf of the organization, but with specific limits)
- 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?
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.