Emergencies: Use Social Media

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. Follow this link to CNN for a timeline of what happened in Boston back in April, 2013.

I have updated this blog post a bit since then. Social media has continued to play an essential and growing role in emergency communications. 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 potential uses of social media during emergency situations. And some organizations are reluctant to put much energy into social media, which I believe is a terrible mistake.

“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.

“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.

Emergencies 2

Additional Resources You Might Enjoy

I enjoyed working with TechSoup on a Nonprofit Disaster Planning and Recovery Program during the second half of 2019. Designed for Texas nonprofits impacted by Hurricane Harvey (but applicable to any nonprofit), the project was funded by a grant from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. To access a number of helpful resources for personal and organizational planning, follow the link.


  • Zoe Fox for Mashable, “Why Social Media is the Front Line of Disaster Response” (May 21, 2013).
  • 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.”
  • If you live in Texas and you would like to get professional training on how to deal with emergencies as a concerned citizen, you might like to join TEXSAR: Texas Search and Rescue. And, to receive alerts in Texas via text, email or phone, you might consider WarnCentralTexas and CodeRED. I also follow the local fire departments, police departments, FEMA (national and regional), and the City of Austin HSEM: Homeland Security and Emergency Management handles on Twitter.
  • Jessica Stillman for Inc., “Digital Disaster Preparedness: 10 Apps to Download Before a Disaster Strikes” (2017).
  • April Wilson has written an insightful article for Business2Community that highlights the important role of social media in the Boston Marathon tragedy, “Going Viral With Social Media: #RunForBoston Case Study” (July 19, 2013).
  • ScienceDirect has posted several resources in, “Socializing in emergencies—A review of the use of social media in emergency situations” (2015).
  • WebMD has posted, “5 Emergencies: Do You Know What To Do?” (n.d.).
  • WikiHow, you will find simple but excellent advice on, “How to Report an Emergency.”
  • Concerning corporate activity online during emergency events, I want to share an opinion. I was on Twitter @CAROLYNAPPLETON when the Boston Marathon attack occurred back in 2013. I kept noticing Twitter posts about something being wrong, which led me to news reports and then to television. But social media companies need to monitor their platforms carefully for images that would be disturbing to viewers. During the marathon events, I got onto Tumblr for instance, and someone at the marathon was literally posting photos of victims with their limbs blown off prior to the emergency crews arriving to help them. I can definitely see how emergency responders would benefit from knowing exactly what is happening and where, but not the general public! 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 to access via anyone’s smartphone and via social media, so these kinds of photos and videos can be uploaded securely for the benefit of the overall emergency response effort.
  • Auto-posting: I would also 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 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’s legs are being blown off is truly an awful and jarring messaging combination.

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