Emergencies: Use Social Media

Experiencing a real emergency? For those traveling overseas, follow this link to the Department of State website. For those experiencing an emergency in the United States, call 911 (do not text unless your area allows it). If you are using an iPhone, follow this link for instructions. For Android phones, follow this link.

I was living in San Antonio when I first wrote this post on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog. I had been sitting in my home office reading Twitter on my laptop, when I noticed a few posts sounding the alarm about an emergency occurring in Boston. I was riveted to my computer screen, and I began searching for information online. This was the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist bombing, where sadly more than 260 people were injured.

I have continued to update this blog post since then. Social media plays an ever-growing, essential role in emergency communications today. But back in 2013, I am not sure many thought of social media as an emergency communication and safety tool. Today, this is fairly common knowledge, although some are still learning about the potential uses of social media during emergency situations.

“So why might government agencies or other organizations not be ready yet to use social media as a platform for emergency management? Well, even though social media may be common among most people, updating social media accounts, let alone during emergencies and disasters, requires a huge amount of time, effort and understanding of social media. And with 74% of social media users expecting response agencies to answer calls for help within an hour, that’s a lot of responding in a very little amount of time. And time is always precious during an emergency.”

Sonia Paul for Mashable

Social Media 4 Emergency Management posted helpful advice in a 2013 article called, “A Role for Onlookers.” “If you are in a jurisdiction that is dealing with an incident of national significance, you are busy learning the following lessons:

  • The world is watching and wants to help,
  • Rumors will run rampant because people try to live-tweet scanners and news broadcasts in crisis events,
  • Images and videos, no matter how graphic, will surface, and
  • The amount of information available will become a sifting and sorting nightmare, but
  • There is now little dispute that the use of social media can rapidly allow agencies to share information and employ the public as additional eyes and ears during significant events.”

Kim Stephens has developed a WordPress blog, idisaster 2.0. In, “Social Media and the Boston PD #Boston Marathon” (2015), Kim provides additional advice regarding the use of Twitter.

  • Valuable time does not have to be spent “wordsmithing” updates to social networks; it is more important to get the message out the door as quickly as possible and to make sure your point is clearly understood.
  • In a fast moving situation, it isn’t that difficult to understand how incomplete or incorrect content can get posted. However, if that does happen, it may be necessary to repeat the correction.
  • Situational awareness information can often be found from the social accounts of other city agencies or organizations.

Twitter was certainly the platform to watch during the Boston Marathon. It was while viewing Twitter that I became aware of the bombing incident in the first place. Kudos to the Boston Police for their quick and amazingly efficient response.

“The Boston Police … seemed as prepared for the communications breakdown as they were for the actual emergency response. Using social media — mainly Twitter — Boston Police was able to spread its emergency notification messages literally across the globe in a matter of minutes; and, thanks to the help of the media and concerned citizens from all points on the compass, that message was multiplied at an exponential rate.”

Paul Rothman for Security Info Watch (April 24, 2013)

On a personal note, I would suggest one way people can help alleviate disaster situations – if you are yourself safe from harm – is to “share” reputable information from disaster management agencies on your own social platforms. Amplify their impact! Follow the local police and fire departments, FEMA and Homeland Security on social media, for instance. They are on top of emergency situations, and the information they are sharing online can be re-shared to the benefit of your friends, family, neighbors and the entire community.


Carolyn’s Activities and Other Resources

From 2015 to 2021, I served as the lead volunteer organizer of Nonprofit Tech Club Austin, a partnership involving Capital Factory, TechSoup and NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network. Just prior to COVID-19 lockdown rules in early 2020, we held a program at Capital Factory on using social media during emergencies. Below is the recording from Austin Tech Live. Our guest speaker was Ashley Morris, who is now an emergency planner in Baltimore. She is very smart and approachable. Follow the link to her LinkedIn profile, and link up!

I enjoyed working with TechSoup on a Nonprofit Disaster Planning and Recovery Program during 2019 and 2020. Initially designed for Texas nonprofits impacted by Hurricane Harvey, the program is applicable to any nonprofit today in any location. The project was funded with a grant from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. To access a number of helpful downloadable resources for personal and organizational planning, follow the link. To sign up for the online disaster prep course, follow this link. To read more about my thoughts on disaster planning on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog, follow this link to read, “No Time Like the Present: Disaster Planning Helps Your Community and Community.”

Special thanks go to my father, David T. Appleton of Arizona, who has shared with me many helpful insights into disaster planning over the years.

Other Resources

  • Center for Disaster Philanthropy provides helpful information for those wanting to contribute to disaster recovery. In brief, disaster giving has a life cycle. The initial emotional response people have to a disaster leads to many helpful, up-front donations. But recovery requires a longer time frame. CDP will help you make smarter long-term giving decisions. Follow them on social media.
Disasters take many forms, from earthquakes to hurricanes, from equipment failure to fires.
  • Facebook Crisis Response. On a personal note, years ago a friend from graduate school who is teaching at a university in Oklahoma, found his campus under a tornado watch. He posted on Facebook while the emergency order was announced and while he and his colleagues were hunkered down in the basement of his building. One nice thing about Facebook is that when I saw what was happening, I was able to rally other fellow graduate students who have profiles on Facebook to cheer him up and urge him to be safe. It was a group counseling session of sorts! Visit the Facebook Crisis Response for information about current emergencies and more.
  • Global Disaster Preparedness Center notes in Social Media in Disasters, “The term ‘social media’ refers to Internet-based applications that enable people to communicate and share resources and information. The emergence of this new communication channels represents an opportunity to broaden warnings to diverse segments of the population in times of emergency. These technologies have the potential to prevent communication breakdown through reliance on just one platform and thereby to reinforce the diffusion of warning messages but also present policy makers with new challenges.” 
  • National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. “National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, membership based organization that serves as the forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—preparation, response and recovery —to help disaster survivors and their communities.”

Advice About Social Media

  • Concerning social platform companies and activity online during emergency events, I want to share an opinion. I was on Twitter when the Boston Marathon attack occurred in 2013. I kept noticing Twitter posts about something being wrong, which led me to news reports and then to television. Social media companies have learned by now they need to monitor their platforms carefully for images that would be disturbing to viewers. During the marathon events, I got on Tumblr, for instance, and someone at the marathon was literally posting photos of victims with their limbs injured. I can also understand how emergency responders would benefit from knowing exactly what is happening and where. I do not know if this is available, but emergency response agency personnel might consider posting a handle or a link to a secure online channel that is easy for emergency viewers to access via smartphones, so these kinds of upsetting but helpful photos and videos can be uploaded securely for the benefit of the overall emergency response effort (rather than posting them online so the public can view them).
  • Auto-posting services on social media: I would say to anyone auto-posting on social media via a professional sharing platform, turn it off during an emergency. There is nothing more jarring than seeing cheerful ads popping up about your business or nonprofit when people are suffering during an emergency. Humorous advertisements fall flat, and viewers can get a negative, “I don’t care about your emergency” opinion of your company or your nonprofit. “Look, we’re having a gala!” as someone is horribly injured makes for a truly jarring combination of messages. Ten years after having jumped onboard with social media, I still refrain from using automatic posting services. Too dangerous to my mind.
  • I was interested to read, “Deadly Collapse of Amazon Warehouse Puts Spotlight on Phone Ban” by Spencer Soper for Bloomberg (December 11, 2021). Today, our smartphones are life savers and I believe everyone should be carrying one for their own personal safety, and all day long.

Thanks to Adobe’s free image library for the photographs illustrating this art

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