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Getting social media right during disaster management- lessons from the trenches

Over the weekend, there was a significant earthquake off the coast of British Columbia and almost immediately, the provincial agency tasked with providing support and broad coordination during emergency events was on their heels. Or at least that was the public perception.

Whether Emergency Management BC (EMBC) responded appropriately or not, will be revealed in the weeks and months ahead. Like most people, we’re in no position to critique or praise EMBC’s overall response. The vast majority of activity occurred out of public view - between the province and smaller cities, districts, municipalities towns and villages. The government and the agency itself will need to look at all of the data and decide how they performed. Where EMBC did stumble was in the court of public opinion. In particular, EMBC failed to realize the importance of being in charge of their social media channels at time of crisis.

To put this in context, EMBC made a point of establishing a Twitter account and instructed the public to ’follow’ the account as a means of notification at time of disaster. When Saturday’s earthquake occurred, many people turned to Twitter for updates. What they found was a silent Twitter stream…no news or instruction. EMBC took almost a full hour to post their first tweet. When they did chime in, their initial tweets weren’t to provide important details about the quake but were in response to negative comments from other Twitter users who had grown frustrated.

The value of social media at time of emergency can be debated at length but any agency that encourages the public to engage with them needs to show up. EMBC for their part, said they were silent for almost an hour because they were “confirming intel.” Unfortunately, there was no way for the public to have known this. It simply appeared as if EMBC was absent at a time when other media and social channels were exploding with information (and misinformation) about the quake and possible tsunami.

After about 30 minutes, you can be sure many wrote off EMBC’s Twitter stream as a source of information. As would be expected, the public began looking for details elsewhere - a problem and a dangerous one at that. With each passing minute, EMBC’s audience grew smaller and smaller. This exodus left EMBC with diminished capacity to communicate critical information at a time when it mattered most. If Saturday evening had evolved differently, EMBC’s management of their social stream could have had very real consequences.

Lessons:

This event like any, provides a number of lessons that everyone in emergency management should be taking into consideration as they evaluate their own commitment to social media usage in disaster management.

  1. In or out?

    If you are going to encourage the public to engage with you online at time of emergency, you need to be online and you need to be firmly in control. If you’re not sure about the value of social media or lack the resources (personnel or training) to utilize the tool properly during a crisis, do not tell the public to look for guidance from your social channels.

  2. Broadcast:

    Twitter is a conversational tool but in the early stages of an incident, the objective should be the rapid dissemination of lifesaving information to as many members of the public as possible. Do not engage in one-to-one conversations when the greater public good should be the focus. Make broadcast messages your priority. The time for individual exchanges will come later.

  3. Communicate early:

    It is critically important to let the community know that the lights are on. Send a quick message early so that the public knows you intend to share important details via your chosen social channels. We’re here. We’re working hard to separate fact from fiction. We will provide an update asap.

  4. Message often:

    If information is sparse, let the public know - don’t go quiet. Maintaing the attention of your audience is supremely important. You need the public to be listening when you DO have critical information to share. Be prepared to send out generic messages if your team is gathering intel – this will maintain interest and further public safety. Take the time to compose these messages in advance for any number of anticipated incidents.

  5. Work your plan:

    After any disaster, things will be hectic. Don’t expect you’ll come up with a clever game plan on the fly - even for something like Twitter. As with most things, structure works best. Ensure communications are in simple terms and lingo free. Know that you will post your first message ASAP. That subsequent updates will come every 10 minutes, even if you have no new info. Know who is in charge of outbound communications and have identified objectives that you are working toward with your social channels. 1) Save Lives 2) Save Property etc.

Conclusion:

Saturday night was undoubtedly very tense at EMBC. A 7.7 magnitude quake is potentially catastrophic (the 2010 Haiti earthquake measured 7.0 and killed an estimated 316,000 people) and there was the very real possibility of a tsunami that could have impacted life and property.

If things had played out differently and the epicentre of the quake was closer to a population centre, EMBC’s usage of social media might have done more harm than good, at least in the early stages. That being said, BC got lucky and EMBC benefited from some very valuable and rare practice. This was as real a dry run as any emergency management agency will ever be given and it will yield very valuable lessons that should be shared.

In the aftermath, we should all revisit EMBC’s usage of social media and look at what they might have done differently. This event provided an invaluable (and public) learning experience for all of us. Smart organizations are looking at how the evening unfolded - analyzing the good and the bad and then reviewing their own social strategies in light of their findings. We learn this way. We improve this way. The best organizations are the ones that know we’ll never get it perfect, that in everything we do there is room to improve.