Social Media Lessons from Hurricane Irene

Post by: Kim Stephens

As Hurricane Irene made her way up the coast I prepared my own family for the potential impact and anxiously monitored social media traffic with an eye towards how it was being utilized by citizens,  government agencies and volunteer organizations. Unfortunately, we lost power on Saturday night (see above pic) and did not get service back until late Tuesday. This, however, did provide me the opportunity to view social media content using the one communication devise I had left: my smartphone.

Patrice Cloutier will be leading a team which will conduct a more comprehensive after action review, and I’m hoping to contribute to that effort; but for now, these are a few personal observations. I apologize in advance to my local and state EMA for what might be perceived as being hyper-critical of their efforts. I do appreciate that we are all learning how to operate in this very new medium.

1. Be leerily of hot button issues when retweeting. A disaster, like a surgeon’s knife, can rip holes in a community, figuratively and literally exposing existing problems under the surface. Social media reveals these issues to the world.  I discovered this when I retweeted a plea to help to take in animals from a shelter in North Carolina.  The alarming tweet stated: “All of the animals will be ‘euthanized immediately’. The pics of the puppies made me do it. 

After digging into the issue a little deeper, however, I found that the local government was also using social media to counter this claim with a “Rumor Control” message on their own Facebook page. They stated “This is NOT true. Our shelter is located very close to the Tar River, and a significant storm may cuase some flooding….therefore we may need to transport the animals…to other local shelters.”  The comments, however, tell the real story. The facility does euthanize animals after they have been deemed un-adoptable, and people with a concern for animal rights used the event to highlight this issue.  For my part, I simply tweeted the local government’s position and left it at that.

2. Understand how people access information. Once citizens loose power they more than likely have slow or no access to the internet. The cell towers in my community had no issues during the storm, but I live in an area that gets poor reception without an electric-powered repeater in my home. Although I only had 1 measly bar on my smartphone, I was still able to see a slow creeping tweeter feed. I found it frustrating, however, when government agencies sent out content that required me to visit a website. This tweet is a case-in-point. “County to distribute MRE’s tomorrow to families without power.” Which county? What’s the address of the point of distribution? Who’s eligible? All of these items could have been included in a tweet or two, but requiring the user to go to a website (normally a good practice) ensured that people in most need of the information were the most likely not to see it.

3. Keep track of comments and remove those that violate your decency policy. People can be ugly–that’s a fact, but don’t let them mar your social media presence–delete inappropriate content and do so quickly!

 To my readers, I apologize for leaving the foul language exposed in the picture, but I think it makes my point.

4. Repeat valid, important content from other organizations. From my perspective it seemed that local and state government EMAs did a pretty good job distributing information regarding their own activities (e.g. road closure, pics of people working hard in the EOC) but failed to retweet or even repeat information from other entities. For example, my local EMA never once tweeted that schools had cancelled classes.

Furthermore, EMAs should find out what organizations in their community are also using social media, before a crisis, and create a “community twitter list”. This list would not only help them keep track of those organization’s efforts, but would be a great resource for community members as well.  EMAs should also use their own twitter or facebook feeds to amplify volunteer efforts and government information, e.g. ‘Follow @ourlocalredcross’ for information on their activities during the storm”–a virtual JIC, if you will. Also, as an aside, remind people how to fast- follow you so that they receive your content as a text message.

The State EMA did a better job, but again, directed people to State and local websites, not twitter accounts. Do both.

5. Reverse 911 does not work for a large segment of the community when the power is out. Power outages left communities, not only without lights, but without phone service as well, especially for those of us using cable- based phone service. Our community relies very heavily on reverse 911 for both school and emergency information. This service, however, was only able to reach people with traditional land-lines. News spread quickly, nonetheless– via texting. Our teens knew school was cancelled by receiving texts from friends almost as soon as it was announced. But relying on important information to be distributed via word-of-mouth is really not a good contingency plan.

I look forward to really analyzing more information about social media’s use during this event–which continues to unfold in Vermont even as we write our after actions. Even though it wasn’t as big of a disaster as expected (for some), it can serve as a great learning opportunity:  MSELs compliments of mother-nature.

Goodnight Irene.

16 responses to “Social Media Lessons from Hurricane Irene

  1. You make some very good points here. Particularly about not always driving ppl to a website from Twitter … but actually use tweets to provide actionable info. A lesson learned for me for sure.

  2. Thanks Patrice. That was probably the most frustrating for me personally. This is also why social media “dos” for business don’t always apply to crisis communications.

  3. Pingback: Social Media Lessons from Hurricane Irene | New Mexico Emergency Management |

  4. Nice write-up.

    In the MEMA tweet you cited, I agree, simply linking to their site vs. also being more verbose was detrimental to fluid social communication.

    That being said, my inference from your article is that you found the link frustrating because the site simply wasn’t responsive in a bandwidth constrained environment?

    If so:

    A larger contributor was likely that the site wasn’t optimized for mobile. The evacuation zone checker for also wasn’t optimized for such an audience, and was either overwhelmed or too slow when it mattered the most.

    Your average twitter client however is far more optimized for low-bandwidth environments and thus provides for a more tolerable experience. If the MEMA link was optimized, it would have been as good an experience, if not better.

    In conclusion, I don’t think links in tweets should be discouraged. I certainly don’t see it as a “business vs. crisis communications” issue. There are some very powerful capabilities that can be delivered over the mobile web and Twitter remains the most powerful delivery medium for such links.

  5. I agree that links might still be included during the response phase but in a much more limited fashion than during the preparedness phase, for example. EMs need to understand how to reach their citizens that are most in need of the information–which in this case was people without power, and for the most part without internet access. We can’t just assume people have the ability to reach the internet, particularly in a crisis situation when bandwidth might be overtaxed (such as the case after the earthquake). The reference I make to the business model is simply an oft cited best practice to include hyperlinks in tweets as a way to increase retweets. The way businesses operate to gain customers is not the model we should use for crisis communications.

  6. Thanks for clarifying your perspective. Twitter belongs to the internet and runs on the same infrastructure. So if people lose access to the internet, they lose access to Tweets unless you are one of the small subset of people who know how to follow and tweet via SMS.

    Also, you’d be surprised how much impact a mobile optimized website can have during the preparedness phase. What if you could have a mobile friendly site for creating an interactive “readiness plan” which could then be tweeted/facebooked to your family+friends and collaborated with? That would be possible on the mobile web. No app download required and no high bandwidth connection needed.

    Agree completely that thrifty biz marketing tactics during any phase of a disaster is not acceptable. The community generally wizens up real fast to such stunts and it backfires.

  7. Thanks for this, it made very interesting reading. Personally it was very hard to keep up with all of the tweets leading up to and during Irene; mostly because I was in the thick of the planning and response. When I did have time, the most helpful information came from short and sweet tweets. I whole heartily agree on your 2nd point. As a general rule I don’t click links from people I don’t know/trust. Plus the batteries and browser support on both of my smartphones won’t allow a lot of link clicking. During the height of Irene prep and response, I had no time to check a link.

    P.S: As far as I know, reverse 911 only reaches the people with landlines. I know a large number of people who rely on cell phones; and not always living in the same area code as when the phone was purchased.

  8. Pingback: Hurricane Irene After Action Underway | CrisisCommons

  9. My frustration was not dissimilar to Kim’s. I was mostly blind to all but text, with cell networks extremely unstable or non-existent. Add to that limited battery power that needs to be conserved and the last thing needed was to spend 2 minutes waiting for a short link to resolve, only to find it fails, or worse, it resolves to a photo a crew posing before deployment. Love to see you guys, but please save those for after the event!

    I did wonder whether the new enforced twitter short linking is adding to the problem. It may be adding an extra redirect level, from twitter short link to short link before arriving at the actual page. Best practice might be to now stop using those other short links and instead let twitter do it’s thing, which at least cuts the number of redirects down?

    But ultimately, the problem is, I agree, people in impacted areas need critical information included in the 140 characters as plain text. Anything else relies on people from outside the impacted area to access the sites for them then RT in plain text. Which of course is where #VOST can come in.

    Glad everyone came through safe and well.
    Joanna Lane

  10. Great post, Kim! As somebody who uses her phone for Twitter from time to time, I especially appreciate your point about unnecessary links. This is really critical to keep in mind when people are without power and have to go to their car to recharge their phone. But it is something to keep in mind all the time. Anytime I’m using my phone for Twitter, links, especially Twitlonger, annoy me. Looking at too many means my battery will run down fast. If I’m out and about, I might not even have a charger with me.

  11. Thanks Joanna for your comment. For those who might not know the VOST is a Virtual Operations Support Team. My experience with the VOST created by Jeff Philips, otherwise known as @LosRanchosEM, is that there is nothing more comforting than having a team of people outside of the impact area concerned for your safety and sending information out to your friends and family regarding your well-being. Although the team concept wasn’t designed for that purpose alone, it was wonderful to know they were there if I needed them.

  12. Well done Kim, I need to tread carefully here but will add a few things… I did notice at one point during the event that MEMA did sent tweets directly @ mentioning local emergency management twitter accounts and other agencies for folks to follow. They did do the same thing at some point with links on facebook.

    My personal lesson learned managing my department’s accounts through the event was 1) They exploded… I went from around 200 facebook likes to over 1,555 in less than a week. 2) Engaging when comments are active does take a good bit manpower but it is actually much more efficient than the time spent if the comment was a telephone call. 3) Just because “operations” have died down and you decide to grab a nap doesn’t excuse not posting regularly in the immediate aftermath of the event. Call in someone qualified to relieve you even if you think you are not going to need them.

    I will pose a question though for idisaster followers: Given comments such as the one that Kim displays from MEMA’s Facebook wall, is free speech ever a concern when censoring content even if it is obviously slanderous or profane? Does having a fair and honest comment policy in place impact your answer to this question at all?

    Kim- I am not going to be able to make the next couple SMEMChats (I know I have been slacking on them in general) but this question may be valuable to work into one of the upcoming chats.

  13. James,
    To answer your question, free speech works both ways. If the wall is covered in profanity by trolls, it’s very off-putting for others who have equal rights. Important information they seek may become obscured, not to mention that it would be a sad day indeed if an OEM page became an R rated site. As Kim said, delete inappropriate content and do so quickly!

  14. Is there a difference between old fashion Verizon phone service and the new package of cable-based services, like FIOS?

  15. Claire or shall I say Ms. Diva, yes, there is a difference. Read this great article: which describes why cable based phone service is out when there is a disruption in the local power supply. Here’s the relevant quote:

    “While cable providers vary in the way they deliver services, they generally involve a fiberoptic network. Verizon FIOS, for example, uses a 100 percent fiberoptic network that is dependent on electricity from the home, according to company spokesman Lee Gierczynski.
    Here’s how it works: First, Verizon installs fiberoptic cables in neighborhoods — these are glass strands that are either laid underground or hung on telephone poles. While these strands don’t conduct electricity, they do deliver light pulses that carry voice, internet and TV signals.
    The data is then transferred directly to each household through an individual wire. A box located at the house, powered by electricity, receives and converts these signals.
    ‘The power needs to come from your home,’ Gierczynski said.”

  16. Kim,
    This is very helpful. I am doing an independent study for my masters program on social media and emergency management. Concurrently, I am attempting to seek permission to utilize social media in Carroll County for the purpose of sharing information and directions during emergencies. I feel that it is an integral part of my job as the EM Planner. I hope to rely on you and James for help in the process, I want to do it the right way. Thanks

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