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Social Media and the Emergency Manager

Posted on Mon, Oct 01, 2012

As Hurricane Isaac churned in the Gulf in August 2012, public sector emergency managers were turning to social media to relay important information, as well as monitor feeds for trends relating to evolving emergency situations.

“This is the first time we’re rolling out full-blown Twitter and Facebook as well as our notification system through e-mails,” said Broward Emergency Manager Chuck Lanza in regards to Hurricane Isaac’s impact. “Any message that we send out will have to do with preparedness, evacuations, sheltering, stuff that’s easy to understand that people can get the message and act upon it pretty quickly.

Emergency managers must adjust to the “new normal” information flow and associated technologies. A new generation of internet-shackled employees is coming into the workforce, and is becoming increasingly dependent on social media for information. Within a short time span, social media has grown from a hobby-like befriending outlet into a vast two-way communication network, unlike radio and television. The concept of social media as a communication tool has garnered the attention of Federal Emergency Management Administration, which introduced a new course in July, 2012, entitled IS-42 Social Media in Emergency Management. 

According to the FEMA Social Media’s course description, “Social media is a new technology that not only allows for another channel of broadcasting messages to the public, but also allows for two way communication between emergency managers and major stakeholder groups.”

Emergency managers can utilize social media to communicate preparations for, necessary responses to, and recovery from an emergency event. Unlike passive traditional press releases and media interactions in which message content was typically controlled and timed, social media is accessible on a 24-hour basis with the potential for average citizens dispersing content. According to the Social Media in Emergency Management course, “The Internet has evolved from a static path of sharing information to a dynamic communication conduit for all to contribute”.

Common social media sites used by Emergency managers include, but are not limited to:

  • Blogger, Wordpress, and similar platforms: Allow for a single author or a group of authors using one account to post content and links as a series of articles or posts arranged in a chronological sequence like a diary or journal.
  • Twitter, a micro-blogging site: Provides users with a platform for 140 character messages that may include web links, pictures, audio, and video content.
  • Facebook and Google+: Allows individuals or organizations to keep others up to date on their status and activities or to advertise events.
  • LinkedIn: A professional platform used form communities of practice, for continual learning, and sharing of better practices.
  • Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, Vimeo, and Tumblr: Media sharing site that can include text commentary, group photos or video. 
  • Wikis: Repositories for information or documentsOnline encyclopedias typically offer subject specific areas where information can be obtained.  Wikis may be used as an outlet for users to submit ideas, solutions, or their opinions. 

“Social media has added credibility challenges to the formerly unquestioned voice of the emergency manager.” - Tom Olshanski, Director of External Affairs at the U.S. Fire Administration

Social media creates its own set of challenges for companies incorporating the newest information medium into its emergency management process. These challenges include;

  • Leadership buy-in: Questions about the reliability of information, fear of the unknown, misuse, or abuse.
  • Potential lack of content control: Any witness with an Internet connection can report on an incident and the emergency response.  The potential reputational fallout can be catastrophic for a company if inaccurate information goes viral.
  • Global reach: Information shared on most social media is accessible by the masses, despite location.
  • Security policies: Social media platforms may be perceived as potential security risks for highly regulated facilities.
  • Personnel privacy: Policies must be in place to determine tracking, storage and usage of sensitive data.
  • Organizational capacity: Emergency management team may be unfamiliar with social media or might lack the skills required to use it effectively.
  • Sustainability: Overloaded emergency staff may not have the time necessary for a dedicated social media effort.
  • Company documentation: Legal records retention requirements for archiving communications at State and Federal level can damper use of social media tools. Social media usage is outpacing changes to legal documentation requirements
  • Multi-channel feeds: One post can be disseminated to a number of social media outlets making information viral before facts are confirmed.
  • Publicity: The public obtains its news and information from multiple sources (television, radio, and the World Wide Web) and chooses what, when, and in what form it receives it. Public relations efforts must cross-pollinate amongst various mediums.
  • Reversed Information Chain: A Company may receive information regarding its own company or facilities from outside sources. Eyewitnesses can be the first to “break the story”, potentially leading to a negative company reputation. The public perception may include discussions of a company cover-up or ignorance to its own failures, if a public statement is delayed.

However, despite its challenges, companies involved in an emergency can benefit from social media in critical ways that aid in emergency response: 

  1. Speed: Direct communication between informants and those who need information enables responders to react faster, minimizing the duration of the emergency.
  2. Relevance: Disseminate the right message to the right audience
  3. Accuracy: Ensure information is correct, confirmed by company sources, and backed up by facts or direct observation. Multiple informants can confirm accuracy or inaccuracies.

Emergency managers, in coordination with public relations personnel, should maintain a crisis management plan to address potential challenges and proactively inform employees, stakeholders, and the public regarding any company incident. This process should highlight situational awareness, company efforts to combat the emergency, and mediation measures to prevent the incident from reoccurring.

Initial social media contact via written messages, photographs, and videos after an emergency should contain the following elements:

  • A brief, focused, and factual description of the situation and initial response actions
  • Processes established to minimize and counteract the emergency
  • A statement of commitment to return to “business as usual”
  • An expression of empathy and concern for those involved in the incident and response.
  • Access to an employee with subject matter expertise to answer inquiries
  • Timing for media follow up (only promise what can be delivered)

For tips and best practices on designing a crisis management program, download Best Practices for Crisis Management.

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Tags: Emergency Management, Incident Management, FEMA, Media and Public Relations, Social Media