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Oct 4 2010

Lessons on the Use of Social Media

By Sara Shows

Topics: Social Media

Emergency managers and public safety practitioners across the globe are beginning to recognize the benefits of using social media to connect with citizens (and each other) to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. The American Red Cross hosted the Emergency Social Data Summit in August 2010 to bring together government agencies, emergency management professionals, disaster response organizations, technology companies and concerned citizens to address how to leverage social media during emergencies.

The cluttered social media technology landscape combined with the complex emergency management ecosystem makes it challenging for people to know how to leverage these social tools before, during and after times of crisis. And there is no one-size-fits-all solution because every disaster is local, and every locality has a unique landscape with their own capabilities, needs, vulnerabilities and risks.

Unfortunately, a lot of issues still remain – and many of them need to be worked out at the local level – as every disaster is local. More education and training on social technologies should be pursued in order to understand the capabilities and functionalities of each technology and to work through implementation issues at a grassroots level so that the solution works for a particular community and within context of their local and regional emergency operational frameworks and incident management system.

In September 2010, the first ever hands-on training program developed by public safety practitioners and specifically geared towards the needs of local practitioners was held in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Social Media 4 Responders event featured instructors and panelists from a broad cross section of disciplines and provided practitioners with step-by-step training on how to use different social media technologies. Participants were able to work through challenges with peers and colleagues and exchange different perspectives and problem solve in a collaborative fashion.

A key point that the trainers stressed during the event was that social media is not about technology; it is about people. People use social media to meet, connect and stay in touch with one another and more and more (and whether we like it not) social media is becoming a key facet of our culture and the way we communicate and interact with one another – professionally, personally and during times of emergencies and disasters.

Not only is social media relatively inexpensive, but it is also enables virtually anyone to publish and access critical information at any time – before, during and after emergencies. It can take many different forms and can serve many different purposes including: blogging and microblogging to publish and share critical information as needed; social and professional networking to connect and find people/resources; location-based services for real-time situational awareness; collaboration, authority building and information aggregation through wikis; and sharing of rich multimedia including photography, video, and audio for advanced contextual information about a situation.

Other takeaways from the event included:

  • More cross-discipline collaboration at the local level needs to happen to maximize the impact of and minimize confusion from the use of social media;
  • A cross-disciplinary communication strategy for your community should be developed (before a social media strategy is pursued); and
  • Social media education and training need to be planned for and required because there is no worse time to implement a social media strategy than during a crisis.

The reality is that the use of social media by the emergency management and public safety community is no longer just interesting or a nice-to-have, because the use of social media by the citizens is part of the very fabric of how they communicate. In order to effectively harness its power, the community needs to better understand the issues involved and become more adept at understanding how to use these tools effectively. Towards that end, I’m interested in hearing from people about what other issues are being looked at as well as the identification of best practices.

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