Monday, October 19, 2009

Five Ways Social Media is Changing Emergency Management

I just read a great post on 5 Ways Social Media is Changing our Daily Lives by Soren Gordhamer. I encourage you to read the post but here are the five changes he identifies:
1) How we get our news
2) How we start and do business
3) How we meet and stay in touch with people
4) What we reveal
5) What we can influence

While Gordhamer applies his analysis to our daily business and social lives, these same points have profound implications for emergency management. It is clear that with the internet in general and the wide-spread adoption of social media, the world of emergency management and public information management will never be the same. Looking at these points from an emergency management and communication perspective, it becomes clear just how much our world has changed.

1) How we get our news.
US Airways Flight 1549 made it clear that social media, internet talk and particularly Twitter, are used by the media as their first indication of events to cover—Twitter became the new global police scanner and news coverage has never been the same. 23 million people are signed on to receive Twitter feeds from government entities according to So while it is true that the media is relying more and more on social media to get their content to grab audiences, those audiences are more and more going direct to the internet. How did those desperate to know who the shooting victims were in the Virginia Tech get their information? If they were part of the Facebook community, they got the names of all 32 shooting victims—without error—well before the authorities announced it according to Jeannette Sutton of the University of Colorado.

Emergency management leaders and Public Information Officers need to understand that these changes are irreversible and profound. With 350 million people walking around with sophisticated electronic news gathering equipment in their pockets tied directly to major news outlets, it is virtually impossible to be the original source of what is going on. At the same time, those people communicating about their knowledge and reactions to the event can create instant news networks bigger than almost any national broadcaster—and do it in minutes. How the public gets its news is changed forever and the old ways of providing public information via a press release a couple of times a day and a press conference are rapidly disappearing.

2) How we start and do business.
Emergency managers may not be concerned about starting a business, but this points to profound changes in how emergency management business is done. Mobility and virtual operations is the key. Something like 60% of web access these days is through smart phones. The incredible capability of new generation smart phones, led by Apple’s iPhone, means that the power of the computer and full access to the internet with all its tools will ride in your pocket. I have visited numerous EOCs across the country the last few years and marvel at the millions poured into many of these. In part because while in the LA area for example they have spent millions making them earthquake proof, how will the staff get there when the infrastructure is destroyed? The power of the internet with increasingly sophisticated applications means we can work collaboratively to get the necessary work done. At PIER we’ve been credited with creating the concept of the Virtual JIC and operating virtually as a team is now being built into the most advanced regional communication plans. In a pandemic it will be essential. However, too little emergency management operational planning yet focuses on virtual operations—it will come and come faster than many think.

3) How we meet and stay in touch with people.
While this is about our personal and social lives, does it apply to emergency management? We can learn from each other much more easily, we can build and maintain networks of those who can help us when we need it most, with virtual operations (see above point) we can make use of the experience and talent when it is most needed. Even more importantly, during an event we can maintain close contact with those people who matter most for our future. It’s what I encourage every PIO and emergency manager to think about in advance. Who are those people whose opinion of you or your organization matters most for its future? Key customers? Major donors? Or Senators sitting on the Appropriations Committee? The mayor or county executive? The local EPA contact? It doesn’t take too much to identify those who if you get seriously sideways with will cause you endless problems. Internet technology provides unprecedented opportunity to communicate interactively with these key people. Those who miss that opportunity and rely on the media to tell their story to these people for them will most likely deeply regret it.

4) What we reveal.
Transparency is part about the values of our culture today—particularly the social media set, but also about technology. There are few secrets in this age of everybody connecting to everybody. It means emergency managers and PIOs have to take a whole new view of public information. You don’t control it, no matter how much wishful thinking you apply. Any body and everybody will be talking about your event and communicating what they know. If there is bad news, it will likely come out. The questions are not if, but when, and not about releasing but participating. Those viewed to be hiding or sitting on relevant information are instantly branded as anti-social. Transparency, starting with a clear understanding of what the public has a right to know, starts at the policy level and needs to be carried out through the whole organization.

5) What we can influence.
The internet and social media technology provide emergency managers and PIOs with unprecedented opportunities to interact quickly and directly with millions. The ability to circumvent the traditional media channels and to participate in the widespread discussion about the event is simply astounding and new. But few are prepared to embrace this opportunity, sticking instead to an outmoded understanding of how the public gets its information. For those, I point them to the opposite and downside of this issue of who can influence what. Are there individuals out there who want your response to fail? Are their political opponents of your elected leaders who would gladly seize on any opportunity to make you and your leaders look bad? If so, they too have unprecedented opportunity to wield influence. With the right content, almost anyone can create an audience of hundreds of thousands or even millions in mere minutes. (Example Dave Carroll who wrote the United Breaks Guitar song with 5 million views.)So even if you opt not to take advantage to be a major influencer, you still have to be prepared to counter those who are not as squeamish about this as you. You have no choice in that—unless you want to the world to go by without you.

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