COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JON SCHMID

Social media a valuable tool during a crisis

Hurricane Sandy and other recent natural disasters have demonstrated that social media are an important part of an effective communications strategy, particularly during times of crisis. The public has come to expect public agencies’ Twitter, Facebook and other online channels to be updated regularly with valuable information in the wake of a major event.

There are several reasons why social media perform so well during an emergency.

· Smartphones are practically ubiquitous because of their popularity, and as a result, people are using them increasingly as sources of information when disaster strikes.

· Social media via smartphones enable real-time communication, as opposed to many traditional channels that have a natural lag in reporting.

· Viral reach, every marketer's dream, can exponentially increase the number of people reached as individuals retweet important information to each of their individual networks. Evidence suggests that people may heed warnings and take content more seriously when it comes from somebody they know.

· By monitoring the social media conversation, agencies can gather intelligence and dispel misinformation. The public can actually become a valuable source of information.

But if you are going to engage the public through social media during a crisis, you have to jump in with both feet. A timely stream of regular updates is important for an agency to achieve and maintain credibility with its audiences.

When a 7.7 magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of British Columbia at 8:04 p.m. on Oct. 27, it raised the specter of a possible tsunami. U.S. authorities issued a tsunami alert via Twitter three minutes after the earthquake hit. But the first Twitter warning from Emergency Info, British Columbia’s Twitter account, came 39 minutes later. The warning had already been reported by news outlets, and when it was finally tweeted by Emergency Info, the public was critical of the late posting, according to HootSource, a blog on social media.

To be effective during a crisis, it’s important to establish the right tools in advance. Public agencies often worry that their Twitter feed has few followers. But believe me, when the public wants to be in the know, those numbers will mushroom.

Before Sandy hit, Con Edison had about 1,000 Twitter followers. In the wake of the storm, Con Edison suddenly had more than 20,000 Twitter followers. And New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city's subways, buses, tunnels and bridges, nearly tripled its audience on Twitter from 26,000 to more than 75,000 in the days after the storm, according to PRWeek.

For all its benefits, social media can be an unregulated flow of information, and that lack of control is sometimes abused during emergencies. USA Today reported the dark side of social media during a catastrophe in an article titled: “False information can go viral.” Erroneous information during Sandy included a giant wave hitting the Statue of Liberty, 3 feet of water flooding the New York Stock Exchange, and surreal photos of impossibly ominous clouds over the city.

During the flurry of information, true or false, official sites can serve as the reliable source for facts. Agencies should monitor social media feeds, keep their postings up-to-date, and respond quickly to misinformation — maximizing their service to the public, according to David Micallef, writing in Social Media Today.

For all of its power, social media work best as part of an integrated strategy that uses other outlets like the media, telephone options like reverse 911, etc. The more information channels you can orchestrate into your communication strategy, the more effective you will be in reaching the people who need to know: the public.

San Diego County uses a broad range of tools to communicate to residents during an emergency. But depending on the situation, some of those channels might not be available.

“During the blackout a year ago, county communications staff put out press releases, answered media calls and helped prepare officials for a news conference,” said Sarah Gordon, spokeswoman for San Diego County’s Office of Emergency Services. “But, because so many traditional communications means weren’t working due to the power loss, the 123 tweets sent out from the Joint Information Center were a critical information source.”

Residents can sign up for tweets from the county at twitter.com/SanDiegoCounty or search Twitter for ReadySanDiego.

The county also has several apps and text message services designed to help in the case of an emergency or in the event that there’s an outbreak of health hazards, like West Nile Virus.


Schmid is president and CEO of Cook + Schmid, a San Diego-based marketing and public relations company. Read his blog at cookandschmid.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jschmidPR.

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