Post by: Kim Stephens
Patrice Cloutier, James Garrow and I have colluded a bit to reflect on SMEM in 2012: James is writing up his top five social media lessons learned during the year; Patrice is taking note of the SMEM great events of 2012 (including disaster events where social media played a pivotal role in providing both situational awareness to first responders as well as vital information to the public); and my self-assigned task is to write about the challenges we face in the year to come. The three of us are equally passionate about social media, and share the mindset evident in statement from Garrow’s post “Top 5 SMEM Lessons: The Public Uses Social Media”
The public has integrated social media into their lives. The fruits of that integration are demonstrated during every disaster… Ignoring the state of the world is, for an emergency manager, tantamount to malfeasance. Our greatest lesson learned this year is that we can no longer ignore social media or keep it out of our planning.
Nonetheless, I think there is a “but.” Although I agree that emergency managers should no longer ignore social media, there are many challenges that come with getting emergency management professionals proficient with these tools. In this and subsequent posts I will outline some of these challenges and link them to emerging solutions. (I have adapted some of the post below from something I wrote for Western Regional Homeland Security Council in Massachusetts.)
Challenge #1: “I don’t have time.”
Although there are an increasing number of emergency managers swimming in the social media tide, some folks remain firmly on the beach. They might even know how to swim (for instance use Facebook for personal reasons) but are reluctant to jump in wearing their emergency management suit. The explanation these professionals often give is that they don’t have time. Although the statement “I don’t have time” could be code for “I don’t think this is important” it also could mean a multitude other things. For instance, I don’t have time…
- to devote to learn the tools;
- to devote to developing a meaningful social presence;
- to update social networks during a crisis;
- to answer all of the questions from the public posted to our pages.
These folks also understand that if they build a presence on social media people will come to these sites during an event and expect timely content. This is not a comforting thought. They know that will have set up an expectation for information dissemination that they cannot meet.
Honestly, I completely understand the predicament. Although some organizations have a full-time staff person devoted to social media, most do not. Only bigger cities have a full-time PIO and increasingly, small communities don’t even have a full-time Emergency Manager. Often these part-time EMs are dual hatted, so if they had a couple of hours a week to write and post a few preparedness tips to their Twitter account and Facebook page, during a crisis, they might literally be the same person on the other end of the fire-hose.
Help! Can I Outsource this?
Supplementing staff during a crisis is not new; it is new, however, in terms of social media. The idea of handing over the reigns of these accounts is very difficult concept for some. Who would you trust to be the voice of your organization? 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 arrangement 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 often do include public information officers, it is not realistic to assume that communities will have the opportunity to use an IMT every time there is an incident. But even small, localized events can stretch resources and limit an organization’s ability to “deal” with social media. This is why the concept of a Virtual Operations Support Team is increasingly gaining in popularity. For just a bit of background, repeating content from previous posts, a VOST (a concept developed by Jeff Phillips) 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;
- Documents social media conversations.
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 or organizations, those folks have been pre-identified by the community (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/organization has seen this 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 communication 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 me know.