Report recommends ways for an organization to use social media in a crisis

Emergency management organizations must get ahead of the rising tide of social media and incorporate it into their risk communications strategies, advised a roundtable of experts in a recent report.

Communications methods that involve user interaction–such as Twitter, blogs, social networking sites, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, and others–provide emergency communications an unparalleled opportunity to reach wide audiences in times of catastrophe, observed the report, titled “Expert Round Table on Social Media and Risk Communication During Times of Crisis: Strategic Challenges and Opportunities.”

“The use of social media during emergencies-from the 2007 shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), to the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai, to the 2009 salmonella-related peanut recall-is leading to a roadmap to help public health and emergency management craft a unified strategy on applying social media to crisis communications,” the report stated.

The sort of situational awareness resulting from social media communications was lacking during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the levees around New Orleans broke and the city was flooded, the report said.

Some government agencies have been leading the way in demonstrating how to incorporate social media into their communications with the public, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for instance, has been making use of social media tools to reach out to US citizens. The report pointed to an example of how CDC does that with the agency’s “Hurricane Tip of the Week,” which provides an estimated 34,000 e-mail subscribers and 1,600 Twitter followers with guidelines on hurricane response.

The report offered tips for how organizations might best use social media during emergencies. Those tips included, among others:

* Make social media efforts message driven, not channel driven.
* Keep messages brief and pertinent. People are not really reading, they are scanning.
* Make sure you can receive public input. Remember that social media is not just about you talking to the public; it also is about them talking to you and to each other.
* Use social media to support a unified message. Instead of creating a new message for social media, use social media to support your existing message in a larger communications model.
* Avoid “shiny new object syndrome” (being quick to adopt every new social media that emerges…as soon as it emerges).

The report also recommended ways to establish social media best practices. Those recommendations included:

* Develop a research agenda that will allow for evaluation of the effectiveness of social media in a disaster communications model.
* Initiate a cultural shift. Allow your group/agency the room to grow in developing a new approach to social media. This is where leadership is key.
* Remember that people are there because they want to be. They are not being forced into a social media environment.
* Seek ways to address technical hurdles (e.g., mobile phone towers not working during a hurricane).
* Be relevant. Do not spam users with too much information.
* Choose a few social media tools and develop them well.

The report resulted from a risk communications roundtable–held March 31 in Washington, DC–sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton, the American Public Health Association, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, International Association of Emergency Managers, and National Association of Government Communicators.


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