Social Media and Emergency Management: Top 10 Questions

Post by: Kim Stephens

Warm weather seems to bring numerous conferences.  After speaking to various groups I am reminded that there is a large contingent of people in response organizations that have heard of social media, but might not understand some of the basics. If you fall into that camp, this post is for you. I have outlined the top ten questions that I often hear, both through speaking and even through our Social Media and Emergency Management chats.

For an even greater wealth of information, however, I recommend Patrice Cloutier and Barry Radford’s marvelous guidebook entitled: “Project to Advance Crisis and Emergency Communications” April, 2011.  This is essentially a social media “toolkit” filled with hyperlinks to valuable sources about how, and why emergency management organizations can use social media not only to provide information to the public, but also to gain situational awareness  from the public. The bibliography associated with this blog, also has great resources to pull from for basic knowledge.

1. What is social media?  

See the U.S. Navy Handbook for Social Media for a basic definition-“Social Media is an umbrella term describing a variety of platforms, social networking being the most well-known among them.” Others define it as  “Websites which build on Web 2.0 technologies to provide space for in-depth social interaction, community formation, and the tackling of collaborative projects.”

Art work by: Lazy Crazy Devian Tart.com

2. What is twitter?

For this answer simply turn to twitter itself. They describe the tool as follows:

An information network

“Twitter is a real-time information network that connects you to the latest information about what you find interesting…At the heart of Twitter are small bursts of information called Tweets. Each Tweet is 140 characters in length… Connected to each Tweet is a rich details pane that provides additional information, deeper context and embedded media. You can tell your story within your Tweet, or you can think of a Tweet as the headline, and use the details pane to tell the rest with photos, videos and other media content. See it in action.”

You don’t have to tweet to get value from Twitter

“You don’t have to build a web page to surf the web and you don’t have to tweet to enjoy Twitter. Whether you tweet 100 times a day or never, you still have access to the voices and information surrounding what interests you. You can contribute, or just listen in and retrieve up to the second information. Some people never tweet, they simply use Twitter as a way to get the latest information on their interests.”

Twitter for SMS

“Individuals, businesses and social causes can use Twitter for SMS and our Fast Follow program to connect directly to anyone with a mobile phone. Twitter for SMS is an instant infrastructure for mobile communications.” –This feature is currently only available in the U.S.

Why only 140 characters? From Twitter:  “… sending a text was originally the only way users could tweet. This is why Tweets are 140 characters — they need to fit into a text message.”

3. What are all those little symbols in twitter?

To the uninitiated, Twitter is full of strange acronyms and symbols. For someone who is not familiar with the “language” it can be a bit daunting. However, there are multiple resources to help you learn this new syntax. See Mashable’s great twitter guidebook for all things twitter. This great resource has hyperlinks to articles from the basic: What is a retweet RT? To advanced: Tools for organizing your twitter community.

4. What’s the difference between Twitter and Facebook? Are there other social media platforms we should be aware of?

See this Mashable article: Facebook, Twitter and the Two-Faces of Social Media, by Ben Parr, but these long quotes boil down his article fairly well:

What exactly is the difference? And is there one? People have used the terms ‘social media’ and ‘social network’ almost interchangeably over the years. It’s inaccurate to say that they’re the same thing, though. In fact, I argue that social networking is a branch of social media, and can itself be further broken down into two distinct branches — the social network and the information network….On Facebook, you’re supposed to connect with close friends. Becoming friends with someone means he or she gets to see your content, but you also get to see his or her content in return. On Twitter, that’s not the case: you choose what information you want to receive, and you have no obligation to follow anybody. Facebook emphasizes profiles and people, while Twitter emphasizes the actual content (in its case, tweets).”

For emergency management purposes these distinctions are somewhat important because,  with Twitter, you don’t have to follow even one person in order to gain situational awareness information–you can just “listen” by watching the various hashtags after an event.

Facebook, however, does require a little more effort. If you don’t actively try to get “fans” by posting often and being a great source for information yourself, then during a crisis people will go elsewhere and even create their own facebook pages about the event. Why should you care? Because if people are actively engaged on your Facebook page–asking and answering questions–that means you have a large group that can be your eyes and ears during the event (see my post about Australia as a best practice example). It also means you can spend more time monitoring your own facebook page and less trying to track down the 10-20 pages that have sprung up to fill the void left by your organization. Imagine having 165, 000  fans and millions more looking at each of your posts from which you could ask, for example, about a missing person or for information on a crime.

What other social networking and social media platforms should emergency management organizations be aware of? There are many, but a quick look through the Center for Disease Control’s toolkit is a great place to start. I often refer to their Social Media Tools, Guidelines and Best Practices  page where they detail how to gain a presence on  Flickr, YouTube, eCards and blogging platforms. Tumblr is another platform that is gaining in popularity–which is basically a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter.  Even the U.S. Department of State and the National Archives are “tumbling”.

5. What is a Tweetdeck? 

There are multiple tweet management systems (Tweetdeck and Hootsuite are the most user-friendly in my opinion) that allow users to see multiple twitter streams and content at one time, on a single screen. Essentially, they make it much easier to sort and view pertinent information. For example, one row could show every time you or your organization is mentioned, another could list every tweet related to the crisis (e.g. #joplin), and yet another could  list all of the response organizations you have connections to or are following (e.g. @FEMA, @NYCOEM, @LAFD). Here’s a blogpost about Tweetdeck that has two videos describing the basics.

6. Who in the office should be in charge of social media? Everyone is already so busy-no one wants an additional duty.

There is no doubt that currently quite a few emergency management organizations are short-staffed. Most small, local emergency management organizations probably don’t have a dedicated Public Information Officer, therefore, the responsibility of engaging on social media platforms usually falls to the person who is either interested in doing the job or who drew the shortest straw. I have seen, however, great success by organizations when the emergency manager themselves take the twitter helm. Why? Anecdotally, it seems to me that if the person at the head of the organization uses and understands the medium then the chances of its success will be increased.

Another approach is to take turns. I love the example from the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission Facebook page. The small office of about four people decided that in order to keep it fair, they would rotate the responsibility, one person per week, one time per month. They currently have over 40,000 fans–which is a huge number, so they must be doing something right. This approach might be especially effective for EMA’s during the preparedness phase. Furthermore, this would allow for continuity of social media operations since everyone would know how to use the SM platforms.

7. We are a homeland security agency, we can’t tweet or do any social media because we worry about security. Besides you can’t trust any information on social media, it’s all rumors.

The notion that social media platforms perpetuate incorrect content and rumors is not a hypothesis that is supported by fact. Does incorrect information make its way onto those platforms? Of course. But it has been proven in academic studies that the medium is very  self-correcting. Content analysis indicate that people retweet incorrect information significantly fewer times than correct information. Often people will not retweet (e.g. spread) content unless it is linked to a URL and a reputable source. See Alex Bruns research in this area.

One quick example of how the public reacts to content can be found in an exchange on the aforementioned Fish and Game FB page. One person asks about the limit on how many raccoons one person can kill (remember, its Arkansas) and another citizen correctly answers: zero–because the season hasn’t started yet. This is then affirmed by the Commission. This points out another key factor, if you are not involved, then you won’t have an opportunity to understand what misinformation is circulating.

Regarding security of information, this concern is usually about internal staff–people posting more information than they should. In fact, the U.S. Navy has a new expression “Loose Tweets Sink Fleets”. See their great take on security in their handbook (pages 5-6) on how to handle potential problems. I think this quote applies to public safety organizations as much as it does to the Navy:

“Establish expectations for your Sailors’ behavior online, set the example for them to follow and hold them accountable for their actions online just as you would do elsewhere.”

8. How do we get out the message that we are using social media, particularly to people who live in our community only seasonally?

Getting people to become your “fan” is not particularly an easy task when there isn’t a crisis. Therefore, it is necessary in all of your printed materials and on your website(s) to point out and link to your social media presence. Some businesses in the private sector often display “Like us on Facebook” banners, and public agencies–particularly those in seasonal communities, should be doing similar campaigns. This type of advertising can also be done to teach people how to “quick follow” your organization. If possible, it might be a good idea to have Hotels add your information in the portfolios they give guests. Also, ask your local Chamber of Commerce for ideas in how to get the word out.

9. During a crisis, all communications will be out.

This of course, really isn’t a question but more of an assumption we’ve all built into our catastrophic plans. However, recent major disasters have shown that web-enabled communications are more resilient than previously thought. Even after the massive earthquakes in Japan and Haiti messages were getting out via social media platforms either immediately or within 48 hours. Furthermore, don’t assume that if the power is out locally, no one will be viewing your content. One point to keep in mind–people from all over the world, depending on the scale of the crisis, will have an interest in your disaster for a myriad of reasons: a desire to help, a desire to understand  how friends or family might have faired, or just pure curiosity. No matter the motivation, it’s important to understand this potential audience. This is the group of people that can crash your website.

10. What do we write about? And/or how often should we post?

This is a question for the prepaparedness phase because during a crisis, what content to post should be self-evident. Some organizations simply want to have a social media presence ready to go in the event of a crisis. Others have a desire to build an audience and communicate emergency preparedness information. In other words, only by defining your goals and objectives for your social media presence will you understand what content to promote and how often. For ideas on how to create a great preparedness campaigns on social media platforms check out this post: Five Ways to Pump Up Your EM Facebook Presence.

These are just the basics, so please let me know what I’ve missed.

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3 responses to “Social Media and Emergency Management: Top 10 Questions

  1. Pingback: Social Media and Emergency Management: Top 10 Questions « Geospatial Science and Technology Policy

  2. Great post! Thanks four outlining some really informative responses to these questions, and also for the links – it’s great for new people to social media in emergency management as well as those who have been around for a while.

  3. Pingback: Karen’s PR & Social Media Blog » Incorporating new and traditional PR & Crisis Communication Practices into digital landscape

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