As social media sites have become ubiquitous and the primary news source for many, this major paradigm shift has had serious implications for emergency managers. Like it or not, emergency management directors must not only buy into a dedicated social media presence, but continue to embrace it as an important tool to efficiently reach and listen to a mass audience especially during emergency situations.
Social media was credited with playing a huge role in the developing stories surrounding the tragedies in Boston and Texas, both incidents just days apart from each other. Information was shared by public safety officials, journalists and the general public by posting and disseminating photos, videos and news updates on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Emergency managers can take lessons from these horrific events to better prepare themselves for the next emergency:
- Luck favors the prepared: Prior to the arrival of any incident, emergency departments should set up social media accounts on all relevant networks and use the tools initially to distribute preventative messages. This approach allows departments to master communication via the platform without pressure and establish the channel as a reliable source prior to an emergency. People should be looking to the organization as a local authority and reliable source of information during an emergency. Also, understand the capabilities (and limitations) of social media before they may be needed.
- Drinking from the firehose: Once social media accounts are set up, remember these tools are for two-way communication. Social media can be used to listen to ongoing conversation to identify and assess emergency situations, as well as addressing community questions and concerns.Depending on the size of the audience, interactions during an incident can be overwhelming. Be prepared to have dedicated staff available to focus on social media presence during an event. Create a social media officer position, who in many ways will act like a public information officer. This person should be informed, a great communicator and has the ability to think on their feet.
- Brevity is the soul of wit: Cell phone networks are not reliable during emergencies. Text messages are often transmitted more effectively than voice when the network is crowded (or “jammed” to protect the general public as was the case in Boston). Emergency managers should post short bites that are easy to pass along, especially by text. Crafting a message that is short enough to pass along via text or IM may be vital in these situations.
- Worth a thousand words: Remember social media sites allow for real-time dialog with a community but can also be an excellent way to share pictures. Photos can not only be distributed by public safety officials, but also images can be received by the emergency management officials to create a virtual damage assessment of neighborhoods that have been impacted, or identify suspects and vehicles.
- Slow is smooth, slow is fast: Getting information out quickly is important, but don’t sacrifice accuracy for speed. Disseminating inaccurate information may be worse than not any information at all. It is vital for a public safety agency to maintain credibility and nothing can undermine that more than unclear, inconsistent or wrong statements in a breaking situation.
When communicating with the general public, provide context and interpretation of a situation — not just what is going on, but what it means to them. Beware however that communicating risk and threats in a dynamic environment can be complicated and if not done properly can create unintended consequences.
The bottom line is that the focus of a social media campaign during an emergency should be on increasing situational awareness for the public and reducing further damage, harm or injury during ongoing events.
About the Author
Joshua Shanley is Adjunct Faculty at Kaplan University in the School of Public Safety and has been a Firefighter-Paramedic for more than 20 years. He participated in the response to the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and again in 2001. He is currently the Emergency Management Coordinator in Northampton, Massachusetts.