Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Best practices in the use of social media in emergency management: too soon?

Cheryl Bledsoe wrote a very good post this week on her site about the lack of any verified "best practice" in the use of social media in emergency management. While I agree with her in many ways, I think that some of the observations during disasters in the last two or three years, point the way to what I'll call "commonly accepted practices".

Here's an excerpt from Cheryl's post:
The real challenge is how can you measure the tangible results from the relationship-based dynamics that occur on social media.  It is my position that we have few “best practices” yet in the #SMEM community, but rather “good” and “developing practices” that are yet to be replicated enough times or in enough jurisdictions to reliably call them a standard.
I believe that one obvious such "commonly accepted practice" is the use of social networks (Twitter and Facebook in particular) as emergency information tools. Some examples really demonstrate the benefits associated with using social networks to communicate with vast audiences during disasters.

The most recent is during Hurricane Irene in late August 2011. The officials of Fairfax County in Virginia clearly understood the fantastic power of a fully integrated digital media presence marrying social media, blogs and website integration. In a span of five days (from Aug. 25 to the 29), the measured a dramatic increase in their reach:

  • nearly 51,000 views of their new emergency information blog
  • 335,000 views of their posts on Facebook
  • 3,000 % increase in the number of views on their emergency management web page.
This helped county officials keep their residents informed. It will also pay dividends in the future with more than 3,000 new subscribers to the Community Emergency Alert Network. These results certainly look impressive to me. The lesson to learn: a full integration of web, blog, social networks AND mobile.
Making info available to mobile devices during a disaster is now a must. Full report here.

Another example can be found in the extraordinary work accomplished by the Queensland Police Service earlier this year during the floods that hit that part of Australia. The following excerpt from their report on their use of social media is telling of their outlook:
Our social media strategy centered on public communications and community engagement issues. This was arguably during the most difficult period of natural disasters in the history of Queensland with more than 90 per cent of the state disaster-declared. Through the use of social media, we were able to communicate directly to the people of Queensland which was invaluable, helping us become more effective in supporting and serving the needs of the community

 In the 24-hour period following the flash flood of January 10, 2011, the number of “likes” on the QPS Facebook page increased from approximately 17,000 to 100,000. This same day the QPS Facebook page generated 39 million post impressions, equating to 450 post views per second over the peak 24-hour period.

Why this success? Because in many cases, the usual channels from other government agencies were not available so residents turned to a trusted source to get the info they needed to stay safe. What were police doing? They were providing a constant feed of details and updates on Facebook and Twitter. They also monitored social networks to quickly dispel rumours and counter false information ... and they engaged with their audiences by responding to online queries, Twitter replies and Facebook comments.

 A similar report was prepared for the flooding that occurred in the State of Victoria. It also shows the strength that social networks can bring to communications during a crisis or disaster.

These are just a few examples, in just one aspect of emergency management. I'll come back to further explore the use of social media in preparedness, response and recovery. Emerging practices abound,just take a look at the recent Hurricane Irene social media after action report.

In fact, I'd dare say that we are on the cusp of widespread acceptance of the use of SM in EM. This means that sooner or later, common procedural, policy and operational features will emerge thus moving us into the realm of "best practices". Things move fast, it might be as soon as the next major disaster.

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