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Social Media and Operations: Lessons from Disaster

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anthony Buller
December 30, 2014

Anthony decCrises can happen at any time or any place. California experienced a yearlong drought and then, suddenly, a pounding rain storm brought flooding and mudslides. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, mass fatality shootings, health emergencies or any emergency or disruption may demand an operational and social media response. A nexus must exist between the efforts of external affairs/public information and the operations staff responding to events. However, to do the most good, the external affairs staff must have an operational mentality and operations staff need to be wise to how social media can both inform and ensure one is informed.

Considering the use of social media from an operational perspective provides insight into what makes an effective social media effort. Below the concept of “the 5-Rs” of social media is introduced. This simple idea can help ensure that external affairs has a strong relationship to the operational delivery of an agency’s mission. Further, by practicing the “5-Rs,” external affairs adds value and in turn may be better resourced to contribute to the mission. Unfortunately, during emergencies, external affairs is often challenged to fully utilize social media.

Social media becomes even more critical during calamity but it’s the most likely form of external engagement to be almost frozen during crisis. Responsible parties get busy. The level of concern grows. Perhaps decision-making rolls upward a few levels. During emergencies of any sort, too many public administrators react in fear, closing down or at least slowing down communication. They believe the message must be just right.

But the lesson from disasters is this: be prepared. For what? Be prepared to engage in bi-directional communication with the public during and after crises. Be prepared to use social media. The best way to prepare your agency is to think in terms of these “5-Rs”:

Release – your messages should have one voice. The print, broadcast and social channels should have the same purposes: to inform and to open the channel for public input. You must release messages, preferably pre-drafted messages quickly customized to meet the specific event. Preparedness is more important with social media because the tweet or post can go out or up immediately – no waiting on news cycles.

External affairs must be empowered to share basic messages that cover a broad spectrum of events immediately. For example, if a city has an effective website, perhaps the goal should be to drive traffic toward it. The message might include the basics of where to find accurate information. To be prepared – be proactive and release.

Review – you must monitor social media. Trained staff should use the tracking tools and other search techniques to ensure visibility of topics and trends. First, monitors can identify information that does harm to the public. For example, a message being forwarded to hundreds and thousands of people about a bridge being closed (when in fact the bridge is open) needs to be caught.

Second, the monitors are a resource delivering critical information to operations. Operationally, monitoring involves much more than identifying and addressing rumors. If allowed, the review of social media trends can influence the direction of service delivery to address public need.

Respond – when the review finds error that should be corrected the monitors need to be empowered to respond. After the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado, emergency managers monitored social media. When public individuals requested that America “send everything,” the response officials conducted immediate outreach, sharing information about donations best practices and warning of the chaos that ensues when volumes of unsolicited and unnecessary donations flood a disaster area. This engagement led to very positive results. The public individuals would often even share the informational resources that emergency managers wanted distributed.

Report – social media managers need to develop and share qualitative and quantitative information to provide a full picture of public expression. The data must be evaluated and analyzed to show trends and impacts. To the operational-minded, the reporting of social media can seem unimportant unless external affairs provides insight into the trends and even better – actionable information that directs service delivery.

Repeat – social media efforts occur constantly, but also on a cycle. External affairs releases information to multiple channels, then there is review and monitoring. Social media managers respond to the public and report results and specific issues. As the event follows a life-cycle so does the information the public needs. Establishing a routine for new messages helps operations liaise well across functions.

The goal of both external affairs and operations staff should be to fully utilize the strengths of social media. The “5-Rs” help set the foundation. By recognizing that each of the “5-Rs” is critical, administrators themselves should respond by:

(1)    Conducting planning around likely scenarios.
(2)    Pre-drafting example messages.
(3)    Setting expectations for the speed and content of early messaging.
(4)    Empowering external affairs staff to release and respond.
(5)    Ensuring that external affairs is properly resourced so that staff can delivery on social media’s promise.

No matter the emergency – social media will be used for public expression. Public administrators who embrace the medium can be ready to operationalize the information to flow in both directions.


Author: Anthony Buller has deployed to more than 30 major disaster declarations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Working in operations, he has coordinated with external affairs to ensure that public feedback is incorporated into day-to-day operational decisions. He can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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