Social Media: Put It In Your 21st Century Disaster Kit

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Social media’s reach is hard to ignore, and for good reason: it can flip from a source of amusement to a source of information in a heartbeat. The East Coast’s crazy August week of both an earthquake in Virginia, and Hurricane Irene serve as perfect examples of this. What did everyone do as soon as an unusual rumble rippled up the coast? They posted about it. Where did people turn for realtime hurricane information? Twitter and Facebook. In 2011, not everyone has a battery-powered radio, or a generator to keep things running in a power outage. What most people do have, however, are smartphones and social networking accounts. And what many government offices, media outlets, and resource companies figured out is that they should have these accounts, too.

The short version? If you’re a government agency, utility company, organization for disaster relief, or news outlet, you need social media. Why? So you can:

  • Broadcast information in realtime
  • Answer questions from citizens, viewers, or customers about service outages and developments
  • Get information from people in a disaster location (pictures, text, video, etc.) about current conditions and actual impacts
  • Provide share-optimized information about shelter locations and other relief efforts (i.e. a tweet that has the right amount of characters for mass retweeting)

The Reasoning Behind It

As a Philadelphian, Hurricane Irene’s approach was imminent. While I won’t comment about whether the media sensationalized the storm at all, I will say that social media was an incredibly helpful way for me to get information about what was going on. Since I’m moving apartments in a few weeks, I cancelled my cable, and had no way of turning on The Weather Channel to see what the radar looked like, and the website rendering didn’t give much insight.

Cue Facebook and Twitter.

I found my city’s Office of Emergency Management website, and noticed they had a Twitter handle. I followed it. I then saw other people in my stream who were posting information. Before I knew it, I was getting damage reports, street closures, and a schedule of when the mayor would be addressing the media in a press conference. I saw reposts of pictures that North Carolina residents had shared regarding flooding and damage. I found out that a local news outlet was broadcasting continuous coverage online. If I wasn’t connected via social media, I would have been clueless.

Thankfully, the damage to my part of the city was much less than so many other places Irene touched. However, had it not been for a traffic alert on my city’s social media sites, I wouldn’t have known that two of the major roads I take to work each day were completely underwater. Since Google’s traffic map didn’t so much as make note of the flooding and closures, it was Twitter or bust.

Time To Step Up

So many times, we in the PR/digital creative world focus on how important social media is for exchanging ideas and thoughts with other people across the globe. However, it has a very practical and¬†indisputable place when it comes to emergency situations. Think about it: if you’re without power, you have no Internet connection, no cable television, and likely no phone (let’s be honest: in 2011, not many of us have a corded phone, or an appropriate radio). By mustering up what battery power your smartphone has left to shoot a tweet over to your electric company, you can report an outage. You can inquire about the status. These are avenues social media has created, and they should be maximized.

If you’re an organization who deals with natural disaster and crisis situations, do the following:

  • Create a presence on Twitter and Facebook. Keep these accounts active, even when things are not on red alert. This way, people will know this is a maintained source of information.
  • Post links to your organization’s social media accounts on your homepage. Many people will be unaware that their city government is social media-savvy otherwise.
  • Address followers’ concerns in a crisis situation (and emphasize safety). Your accounts will receive a high volume of activity during a threatening storm or situation, but that’s no excuse to cave under pressure. If you can’t respond to every little request or report, make it a point to address the important ones. If someone wants to know about a tornado warning in their area, tell them about it. Give them additional resources. Let them know you’re listening so they know you’re handling the situation.
  • Don’t create unnecessary panic! Judging by the condition of my convenience store’s shelves, I’d say people are quick to jump on the frenzy train and get worked up about any situation. Report the facts, and stick to that. Address concerns concisely and wisely. This is not a time for opinions or unnecessary input. Let other outlets, like local media, cover those angles in depth.
  • Create lists with additional resources. We all know about Twitter lists. Are you managing your city’s OEM account? Create a public list that follows the city mayor, local Red Cross, utility companies, and other appropriate resources. People will appreciate knowing where to turn when they need information immediately. Running a Facebook page? Add those organizations to your page’s favorites so they’ll show up on the sidebar. A crisis situation is not the time to compete for “best information broadcasting”. Share information.

Celebrities, brands, and businesses aren’t the only people who need to engage in PR and social media efforts. Now is the time to use things like social media to their full capacities, so we can maintain open channels of communication among ourselves. Power companies and city offices need not be afraid of being social via Internet; if your citizens and customers are your most important priority, reaching your audience when they need you is what matters most.

Copyright 2011 Zamolution, LLC. All Rights Reserved.