By Kevin O'Keefe

Hurricane Sandy : Social media imperatives during emergencies

social media emergenciesAs Hurricane Sandy unfolds, government agencies and emergency services are sending out updates to citizens through a variety of communication platforms and social media sites. Traditional media are curating Tweets, Instagram photographs, and blog posts to run news and footage the media could never get from their own reporters and traditional sources.

Tara Coomans (@taracoomans), an educator at Pacific New Media, shared some thoughts on social media during emergencies and disasters yesterday after being evacuated from her home Saturday night due to a Tsunami warning.

Social media kept me connected and as importantly let people know I was safe. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that the tsunami sirens didn’t tell me as much as Twitter did. Is Twitter today’s warning siren? I was reliant exclusively on Twitter (mostly), Facebook and my car radio to get updates for the tsunami. I wasn’t alone. Evacuees throughout the state were convening online and offline. The radio station I was listening to constantly referenced Twitter, as did the TV station before I left my house. At one point, waiting for the all-clear, when a collective sigh swept throughout the state, Twitter WAS the news.

Coomans turned her attention to the East Coast and Hurricane Sandy and shared suggestions regarding the use of social media use during large-scale emergencies. Her thoughts with a few comments of mine:

  • Hashtag Coordination: Local, state, federal agencies should coordinate around a single hashtag and alert news outlets to the hashtag. If a community-based hashtag already exists as is the case with #hitsunami, then consider using that hashtag. This very simple step would increase the ability of all to follow accurate sources of a story. Emergency management organizations should adopt hashtags on Twitter ahead of time so that they and the public are ready for events.
  • Utility companies need to get in on the action: Regardless of what type of utility, TV, Gas, Electricity, Telecommunications, updates on preparation and their own emergency steps should be incorporated as well. When your customers are without power, it is your duty to not only bring power back, but to also keep your customers in the know about what is going on. Social media may be the best way to provide customers with timely and accurate information during a storm or emergency.
  • City, State and Federal Agencies should incorporate public training: When Coomans participated in CERT (Citizens Emergency Training) last year, there was no training built into the class about using social media during a disaster. The number of people using social media sites has skyrocketed over the past few years. As long as people have some power in their tablets or mobile phones they can use social media to receive news during disasters. Social media training for emergency management is necessary for all City, State and Federal Agencies.
  • Listening: And of course, all of this could have been at least partially resolved if response agencies and news agencies were LISTENING to the discussion as much as they were pushing information. In the case of a disaster, when phone lines are jammed, sometimes Twitter is the only way to disseminate and receive information. Not only do news agencies need to be sending out information regarding the storm but they also need to monitor what others are saying. This is a good way to determine where the trouble areas are.
  • Hotels, Airlines Should Participate: Any storm is destined to create immense amounts of travel troubles. Hurricane Sandy has already grounded thousands of flights. Airlines should be using social media to provide passengers with news and any information that could be helpful when it comes to their flight and rescheduling a new one.

I have beed monitoring social media, especially Twitter, during storms and emergencies for quite a few years. It’s probably the news junkie in me. It still feels like the public is way ahead of government agencies, utility companies, and other organizations during times pf emergency.

I’m with Coomans.

The time to implement is before a disaster. To engage a committed audience before they are needed. Incorporating social media will take a concentrated, coordinated, planned effort. And that effort should be a considerable priority. Social media isn’t a frivolous game when it comes to emergencies – its an imperative tool.

Here’s a few sites with listings of who and what to follow on social media during Hurricane Sandy.

For those of you on the East Coast stay safe. And for those of you new to Twitter, just try following hashtag #Sandy and Instagram for all the pictures coming in. You’ll get a taste of how Twitter works during a storm.

Kevin O'Keefe
About the Author

Trial lawyer turned legal tech entrepreneur, I am the founder and CEO of LexBlog, a legal blog community of over 30,000 blog publishers, worldwide. LexBlog’s publishing platform is used on a subscription basis by over 18,000 legal professionals, including the largest law firm in each India, China and the United States.

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