Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Using social media to be heard during a crisis or disaster

The recent storms in the central US have proven devastating. They also have showcased the extraordinary resiliency of communities that have been affected. In some cases, social media is a key recovery and response factor.

But a critical point is the inclusion of SM in your emergency information capabilities. From warning/alerting to volunteer and donation coordination. How do you ensure you can be heard?

I believe you have to be engaged in the full continuum of communications activities, using social networks and your website. Building a presence, prior to any incident, and being able to capitalize on it. By engaging (in particular key influencers ...) you become a credible source of info (another key is not to use your SM platforms for inane/political messaging ...)

Doing this allows you to occupy the public space immediately at the onset of an incident. That is critical in a world where expectations from your audiences are for YOU to communicate with them within minutes! That means having a full crisis communications plan in place for your EM program with a strong focus on SM.

During the response phase, you need the ability to monitor SM in real time and ensure any valuable info is shared throughout your EOC and command. Second, you need to use your online influence and your credibility (built up prior to the incident) to quickly dispel any unfounded rumours and falsehoods. More than ever, this is a crucial component of your activities during that phase because the public perception of your response is now shaped within a matter of minutes. You no longer have the luxury of waiting for the next "news cycle" (if there is still such a thing ... and I don't think there is ...) before acting.

Ignoring social media is a sure way to fail in today's world. We are now in an environment where the distinction between traditional and social media is becoming blurry. A good read from Gerald Baron on this topic. A solution exists in looking at your emergency info/PIO function as broadcast enterprise where you use the web, social media, streaming videos, chats and other means, to get YOUR messaging out among the multitude of ongoing conversations taking place as your disaster unfolds.

Oh! and by the way, forget about any notion of controlling that message. All you can hope for is that it will resonate and prove relevant to your audiences. Jim Garrow posted an interesting outlook on this.

If you do all of this right, you can actually improve your organization's and your community's resilience. Social networks provide a fantastic outlet for a collective wave of empathy that surges from all around the country and the world during a disaster. Surf that wave, take advantage of it and use these channels to give out official info on donation, rebuilding and volunteer coordination for example.

That contribution of social media during the recovery phase has been noted by legacy media outlets.

I hope you can see the pattern here: by engaging on SM platforms before any incident, you can better use these tools during the response and recovery phases. In fact, any late entry into the SM world (in other words, when the stuff hits the fan) would have a great probability of failure because people would not necessarily be looking for your info if they haven't heard from you on Twitter or Facebook before.

The last words belong to Gerald Baron and Chief Bill Boyd, both avid proponents of the use of SM in EM and crisis communications.

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