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Social Media in Emergency Management (#SMEM): 5 Things to Consider

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Emergency communications are rapidly evolving due in large part to advancements in technology, mobile device penetration and social media. To fulfill their obligation to protect their people and property, organizations must incorporate all viable tools into emergency planning to both communicate more effectively and gather the situational intelligence needed to make better decisions. So where does social media fit in and how do you effectively incorporate social media into your emergency communications plan?

Here are five points organizations might wish to consider as they decide whether and how to use social media in emergencies:

1. Social media already plays a role in emergency communications
In a recent survey of over 400 emergency communications planners, over half (58%) said they do not yet have plans to use social media in an emergency. That’s despite the fact that when people’s lives are disrupted, as in an emergency, many will be talking about it on social media as the event is occurring via text, still images and video. That is also how people often receive vital information in emergencies — witness all the events happening around the world every day where “the news” comes first, or solely, through social media. With over a billion users on Facebook and over a half billion on Twitter, there is no reason to think that your next emergency will be an exception. Whether or not social media is part of your advanced emergency planning, it almost certainly will be part of the communications occurring during your emergencies from now on.

2. Social media is not a technology
Many organizations approach social media as if they were evaluating a new accounting system or tablet computer. To truly understand social media’s value, however, they might wish to take a different view. Yes, social media does rely on various pieces of technology — web browsers, the Internet, mobile phones, etc. — but social media itself is really a mode of human interaction made possible by technology. As such, it has its own standards of behavior, its own centers of influence; its own measures of success, and so on. How well you communicate depends less on your technical infrastructure and more on your staff’s interpersonal skills at using that infrastructure for interactive communication. That’s especially true in a crisis.

3. Social media complements, not replaces, other channels
Like other emergency communications channels — landlines, mobile, email, etc. — social networking has its strengths and limitations. Some people prefer to communicate on one channel, while other people prefer to communicate on another. Using multiple channels both increases the chances of reaching everyone; it also increases the chances that you’ll actually influence the behavior from more of the people you do reach. Don’t forget to plan for the fact that the adoption of social media varies by generation. Depending on who you are trying to reach will determine which (if any) social media channels you use.

4. Social media offers valuable situational intelligence
One advantage that social media has over the others is that it is more of a two-way channel. Understanda¬bly, social media is highly effective at reaching people who stay tuned in, or periodically check in, to their social media accounts throughout the day. But social media’s value may even be greater as an inbound communications channel, where organizations can use it to learn more about what is happening during an event in real time. They can monitor and engage in online exchanges between social media users they might not normally be in contact with. That may be because alternative channels are blocked. Sometimes, for example, organizations ask people not to contact them during an incident (unless they have a “genuine emergency”) so as to keep communications lines uncluttered. Or there might be places where the organization has no way, via traditional means, of getting information. In such cases, the only option may be social media — either that or depriving emergency responders of potentially critical information.

5. Social media is not just for emergency notifications
Like any other emergency tool, if you wait until an event actually occurs to use it, you probably won’t be very effective when you do use it. Practice makes perfect, of course, and so you should build your social media skills before emergencies happen. But practice isn’t the only reason to start using social media before emergencies happen. Social media is, by definition, social — which means that success has a lot to do with relationships built up over time between people and between groups using the channel. Having a robust network of online “friends” and “fans” (experts call this “social equity”) makes an organization’s online voice much stronger, and much more likely to be heard than if the only time people hear from you is during a crisis.

How do you think that social media should be used as part of emergency communications?