I was recently asked to talk about the use of social media in times of crisis and disaster management. The topic is extremely interesting to me, fast evolving with many public observations and different types of actors. I found it especially fascinating that FEMA has incorporated social media into their whole community approach and actively listens to “first” first responders (citizens) who are the first at the scene and actively pushes people to use social media as a resilient infrastructure in times when the formal 911 channels are overwhelmed or not available. FEMA’s 2013 National Preparedness Report points specifically to the high value of social media to provide social support, collect input and for citizens to reach out to each other.
In addition, in a recent Congressional hearing utility and tech companies pointed to their tools and processes helping citizens cope with the impact of natural disasters. The notion of first responders broadens and is distributed among many more shoulders and includes more actors than solely government first responders.
The case I am trying to make in the class is, that first responders need a social media strategy and design their tactics for all phases of the disaster management cycle, otherwise they will be overwhelmed with online citizen behavior, miss out on an opportunity to serve citizens better or might even be publicly blamed for not responding fast enough. Social media has proven to be very effective in the moment when an event happens and people seek for clarification, social support and social validation of their situation. Online interactions can help first responders gauge the impact of an event and provide valuable insights when combined with scientific evidence.
First responders’ tasks during a disaster however is to respond on the scene and social media usually takes a backseat and won’t be on people’s minds when they need to provide shelter, blankets or fresh water. Therefore, it is important to build a community before the disaster hits, so that citizens can help each other out, are reachable for government when it is necessary to point them to shelter, new locations of hospitals, or simply to react to a government intervention (such as NYC mayor’s break through messages on cellphones just before Hurricane Sandy hit). In addition, reliable social media use between disasters can help increase trust in government communication and help government to reach citizens in those moments when they need to reach them, but traditional channels such as TV, radio or newspaper announcements are not reaching them. Citizens now tend to vet information, such as emergency announcements to seek shelter, through their trusted friendship and family ties on social media. It is therefore important for government to get into these social awareness feeds, where citizens are willing to share announcements and background information.
Disclaimer: I haven’t done any empirical research on this topic and so far mostly observed online interactions, reviewed reports and Congressional hearings on the topic. It is a fast evolving area and this is my first draft of connecting a long-term social media strategy with immediate social media tactics that constantly need to be adjusted to the circumstances first responders are facing. I am also trying to bring in examples from outside of government, so that first responders can learn, combine or simply passively observe other online interactions that might help them for their own future practices.
Jed Sundwall provided the screenshots to the Measured Voice application to professionally compose, vet, edit and schedule social media posts in government and also pointed me to the FBI press release and Twitter updates