Post by: Kim Stephens
When using twitter to communicate with the public, one important aspect to learn is the art of the hashtag. As more and more emergency management agencies come online with social media, it is interesting to watch what hashtags are being used during a crisis or disaster event. During the discussion about the use of hashtags in the last #SMEM chat, it was noted that presently no standard set of tags are being used; so far, individual states and localities are creating their own. For example, during the big snow storm this week, some states used the systems of <hashtag> < storm>, or #NMstorm. Oklahoma adopted #OKice and #OKwx among others. That, however, didn’t stop the public from using many other tags including #SNOMG and #blizzard.
But first, what exactly is a hashtag? According to the Twitter Fan wiki page: “Hashtags are a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets. Hashtags were developed as a means to create “groupings” on Twitter, without having to change the basic service.” So, in terms of emergency management, the hashtag you assign to your tweets will either create a group, or include you in a group that has already been created around that specific topic or event. Tweets without tags limit their amplification. If you do not tag a tweet at all it goes ONLY to those who follow you, and is not included in the “group”.
Some best practice examples:
(1.) Be Prescriptive. Some emergency management organizations have adopted hashtags that they use for every event (e.g. the New Mexico example above: #NMwx, #NMstorm). This makes adoption easier for the public to follow because it becomes part of the lexicon. If you choose to do this, educate the public about your intent in a multi-media campaign, just as you would promote any other public safety information: include the hashtags in printed materials that you give out, blog about your intent, post information on facebook before an impending crisis, include the information on your website, mention it in news interviews, etc.
Alternatively, you could use a new hashtag for each event, but if you want to be prescriptive, you need to be WAY ahead of other users. For example, in Australia, the Queensland Police Service began using the hashtag #TCYasi before the cyclone’s threat was even fully understood. This post on their facebook page includes the hashtag as part of the conversation.
(2.) Adopt what others are using. Even if you try to be prescriptive, sometimes people start using a tag that catches on, whether you want it to or not, such as #SNOMG. In this case, if you want to be part of the group and get your tweets seen, you will need to adopt that usage. There are several ways to determine what’s being used. A search on the social media site OneForty.com yields several applications for uncovering trends:
“Awesome visualization and multi-media on twitter aggregation to watch as an emergency unfolds. As you see users RT [re-tweet] certain messages you can begin to drill down into the re-tweeted source and use other apps like tweetgrid to monitor those more usable sources to watch the trend unfold.”
(3.) Monitor and be part of the conversation. One great benefit of being part of a group is that you can monitor what others are saying; opening the door for two-way communication. Pictured right is an example from the conversation that occurred yesterday around the hashtag #NMwx as the storm was passing through. Many different people, including both private citizens and news organizations, adopted the hashtag #NMwx (New Mexico, weather). People were reporting on car accidents, the amount of snow fall they were getting, and repeating official information about school and government closures.
Monitoring has the benefit of allowing you to ask questions and clarify what people are seeing. For example, in NM a person indicated a problem but did not give the location. The local emergency manager saw the tweet and immediately simply asked the person: Location?
Also, being part of the group allows you to know information quicker than you might otherwise. For example:
“!! #NMStorm RT @haussamen: There goes the electricity in Las Cruces. Great… #nmwx”
The debate over what to do with situational awareness information coming from the public via social media is ongoing, and I don’t really want to delve into that in this post. My point, in sum, is simple: be mindful of the tags you use and aggressively insert yourself into the conversation. It will increase your chance of reaching the most people possible. Isn’t that the point of creating a message in the first place?
A couple of points people are making about this post on twitter. Hal Grieb, who is mentioned in the post, indicated that some agencies he talks to are concerned that by establishing a tag before an event, you might be setting the agency up for a legal duty to respond, like 911. What do you think about that? Is that a concern of yours?
Also, I was reminded by listening to Cherly Bledsoe’s interview on Gov Loop how important it is to add the state’s Q character identifier to your tweets, as I highlighted with the New Mexico examples. This allows for anyone monitoring an event to understand the context and location of the tweet. Local counties are not exempt from this practice, especially since so many counties nationwide have the same name.
- Use the Hash tag and don’t send all tweets to LinkedIn (charlottebritton.co.uk)
- Social Media and Emergency Management: Chatting Away (idisaster.wordpress.com)
- Establishing Effective Twitter Hashtags Before The Crisis (piosocialmediatraining.com)
- A quick guide to using hashtags on twitter.