Social Media in Emergency Operations Blog Series: Introduction

Full disclosure: I didn’t initially buy the social media hype as it gained more and more mainstream popularity years ago. I didn’t envision the role it might someday play in more practical matters, such as marketing, branding and stakeholder engagement. I figured it wouldn’t be much more than a novelty or a fad for its role in critical incident response.

I recall the first time a U.S. Coast Guard colleague used a tweet in lieu of a news release for a search and rescue case – about 90 percent of the small Coast Guard public affairs community lost their collective minds; the other 10 percent had their minds blown. I was somewhere in between. It was, however, at that point I realized – at least from a professional development standpoint – that I needed to set up a couple personal social media profiles. I wasn’t interested in having a Facebook account, per se, but I sensed I would need to understand these emerging platforms if I was to stay current as a professional communicator.

I was later to the game than many, and maybe earlier than most, when it came to recognizing the potential for social media in public information activities, though I wouldn’t understand its power right away.

Comms applications aside, what I feel many of us didn’t see is how relevant social media would become in operations. Within the past several years there has been a slow, informal and somewhat piecemeal move toward embracing social media as a way to inform operational decisions.

The idea that public information activities support and inform operational decision-making isn’t really a new concept, so one could argue that in some ways the adoption of social media into operations is just a logical progression. I would agree – except it’s been historically difficult to sell public information activities as an operational imperative to decision makers.

Until now.

I’m inclined to attribute this burgeoning paradigm shift to the fact that social media inherently provides something that’s been difficult to produce with traditional public information activities – hard statistics, real-time information and instant, qualitative data.

When working on the City of Boston’s joint information system procedures, I went through their after action reports for incidents dating back about 10 years. City public information officers and planners monitoring twitter during 2015 winter storms identified that neighborhood roadways originally logged as snow-free were, in fact, still snowed in. As a result, planners were able to quickly amend their snow removal operations and update their tracking documents.

Examples of social media informing and driving decision-making are almost ubiquitous now, so it’s no longer a question of whether or why social media is a viable response tool, but a question of how does the response community leverage it.

This is something Brandon and I and some of our colleagues – both in and out of government service – have discussed at length, and we’ve scratched our heads at times at the reality that there wasn’t more formal discussion among the response community. This is why I was pleasantly surprised to come across a white paper published just this month entitled, “From Concept to Reality: Operationalizing Social Media for Preparedness, Response and Recovery” – in short, it is good.

My surprise quickly shifted to a mild chagrin when I noticed this document had been published in April 2016. This document has been out there for at least two years, yet as recently as the hurricanes this past fall, responders were returning home lamenting the lack of coherent, clear and meaningful integration of social media into operations.

I know exactly what you’re thinking, because I thought it too – the reason this paper has been flying under the radar is because it has yet to be adequately elevated into the spotlight via iconic-esque, industry thought-leading publications such as The Crisis Communicator. Well, our bad – I intend to remedy that.

To that end, over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll take a scalpel to this paper – and two other papers published by the same working group – in order to cut out the meat and add some seasoning so you don’t have to (you’re welcome).

Look for the following post topics in the coming weeks (revised, May 10):

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