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Social Media and the Emergency Manager: Friends or Foes?

The April/May/June 2012 print issue of PA TIMES published a series of articles on the topic of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery. The piece below is part  of a Student Symposia from that issue.

Jacqui Knife

The potential use and benefits of social media in the field of emergency management are popular discussions. While a great deal of research does not yet exist, a cautious optimism for future opportunities is based on its positive use in recent large-scale disasters.

Social media refers to web-based and mobile technologies, which are built on a Web 2.0 platform. These applications facilitate participatory information-sharing, user-centered design and collaboration. According to Sabra Jafarzadeh, author of Emergency Management 2.0: Integrating Social Media in Emergency Communications, they serve as a medium for dialog, as opposed to passive consumption of content.

…social media is not simply another way of pushing information out, but rather, it is a way to become part of a conversation and create partnerships.

The benefits of social media have been positively correlated with the response and recovery phases of emergency management. After Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, social media was used to link healthcare providers requiring supplies to those who had them, and in both Haiti and the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, trapped victims were able to use social media services via their mobile phones to summon assistance and communicate with responders.

Notwithstanding these successes, the preparedness phase of emergency management is considered the most formative period for engaging the community in social media use. A recent case study on the Queensland floods in Australia during 2010-2011 affirms the benefits of developing an online community before a disaster strikes. Pre-disaster engagement was shown to be an effective tool for developing early trust and credibility, and for creating and shaping a social media strategy rather than choosing to engage reactively post-disaster. One of the successes of this campaign was reflected in the number of “likes” attributed to the Police Service Facebook page, which rose from 17,000 to 100,000 within a 24-hour period of flash flooding, according to the Queensland Police Service (QPS).

At a social media-networking workshop in March 2010, a number of attendees commented favorably on the advantages of social media and echoed the need for engagement in the preparedness phase. Amanda Ripley, in her research for The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why, comments that people actually become highly social during disasters and have a need for comfort and human connection.

While many proponents of social media point out the advantages to its use, it would be remiss not to consider some of the proposed disadvantages. Concerns around the need for increased resources and funding to support an active social media strategy do appear to be founded, albeit not quantifiably documented. Participants in the aforementioned workshop allude to this requirement through ‘lessons learned’ comments: “actively engage your audiences”, “pages must be kept fresh every day”, “make people available to answer questions”, “be timely” and “update continuously.” Each participant subjectively supported the need to identify resources in support of the project. In contrast, Jafarzadeh comments that social media initiatives have proven less time intensive than initially anticipated.

Issues of trust and perpetuation of misinformation are well-documented although, it can be said, equally refuted. Information released through social media channels is largely found to be ‘self-policing”, concluded the social media-networking workshop, with participants quickly correcting any misinformation and the “wisdom of the crowd” prevailing. Additionally, through active engagement in the process, agencies create the ability to correct any misinformation firsthand. QPS initiated the Twitter hashtag #mythbusters for this very purpose. When erroneous reports of sharks in flood waters surfaced, they were quickly rebuffed by the police service who were carefully monitoring social media traffic.

Similarly, the idea of social media contributing to heightened panic or hysteria is unconfirmed. People experience fear in a crisis, but rarely panic, said Jody Woodcock in Leveraging Social Media to Engage the Public in Homeland Security. Information-sharing quells fear and instates confidence in people’s decision-making ability during an emergency situation, saving lives and establishing public trust. Moreover, social media facilitates a speed of information not available through traditional media channels.

In reality, the majority of concerns appear to stem from social and logistical considerations and false notions around perceived liabilities. An Expert Roundtable on Social Media and Risk Communication During Times of Crisis notes three main barriers to adopting social media: leadership buy-in, sustainability and IT/access issues. A survey conducted by Jody Woodcock identifies lack of acceptance of social media as a direct result of the age of public safety leaders. Many of these leaders are representative of a generation skeptical of technology use as well as unfamiliar with, and uncertain of, its potential.

On balance, a paucity of research on the subject makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions either as an advocate or detractor, which makes it evident that further research is needed. Woodcock suggests that effectiveness requires better evaluation, smart practices need to be developed and shared, and experiments within trusted and valued networks completed before definitive conclusions can be reached.

However, social media can rightly be considered one tool among many within a holistic communications strategy for emergency management agencies and arguably the pitfalls of social media can be sufficiently mitigated with early engagement of these tools. By harnessing its potential during the emergency preparedness phase, emergency managers create a strategic ability to initiate proactive education and guidance that serves to inform, collaborate, establish trust and empower their online community. This can be seen as instituting an emergency management continuum whereby different social media tools can be invoked during different phases of emergency management, their selection directly correlated with communication objectives for each phase.

For example, in the emergency preparedness phase, social networking sites can be used to share emergency plans; blogs can provide household preparedness tips and individual experiences; YouTube can examine protective action recommendations and how to implement them; Widgets can provide emergency checklists for known disasters; and followers of Twitter can register for emergency alerts. During the emergency response and recovery phases, these tools can be tailored to meet other objectives such that social networking sites can be used to reconnect the public with lost or missing persons; RSS feeds can provide emergency room wait times; You Tube can provide situational awareness to responders; and Twitter can be used to request blood donations or volunteer assistance. Indeed, the versatility of social media is limited only by the imagination.

Although still in a relative stage of infancy, social media technology is rapidly evolving. Agencies need to appreciate that social media exists and is being used on a significant scale whether they actively engage in the process or not. Ultimately, public demand and competition will drive the use of future social media applications. Organizations embracing the new technology include traditional media channels that are increasingly adopting social media within their content. In addition, U.S. organizations such as FEMA, the Red Cross, Seattle Police Department, Seattle Department of Transportation, Puget Sound Energy, Comcast, Pierce County Transit, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and even the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) have active social media campaigns.

As Woodcock states, social media is not simply another way of pushing information out, but rather, it is a way to become part of a conversation and create partnerships. So why not consider social media as a new acquaintance with the possibility of becoming a good friend?

Jacqui Knife is a consultant to both the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Olympic Games and is a graduate assistant in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University.

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.


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One Response to Social Media and the Emergency Manager: Friends or Foes?

  1. Rebecca Williams Reply

    June 4, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    I am sharing “The Use of Social Media for Disaster Recovery”-field guide. The guide was written to share what we learned with Joplin Tornado Info.


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