Social Media in Emergency Operations Blog Series: 3 Barriers to Integrating Social Media into Operations

Note: This is the second post in a series of what was initially intended to be two or three, discussing the challenges, practices and perceptions surrounding the holistic use of social media in response operations – from its more obvious application in public information to it’s potential for informing plans and decision making across the spectrum of Emergency Support Functions and incident command functions.

The first post was just an introduction to set the stage for the series, but the response to that intro from both communicators and operators in the response community clearly indicates this is an important topic. As such, I feel a certain obligation to do right by it; to take my time; to break it down into easily digestible chunks, across more than just a couple posts.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’ll feel the effort is of any real value unless it continues to generate the discussion and discourse we began seeing from the first installment. To that end, I encourage (nay, possibly implore) you to add your thoughts to the comment sections, and/or via the social media platforms on which you’ll find this series shared. We might end up with enough for a post simply summarizing everyone’s thoughts, lessons learned, concerns, ideas, frustrations and, perhaps most importantly, resolutions for best using social media in more aspects of critical incident response and recovery operations.


The function of public information activities informing operational decision-making is centuries old. The dynamic looks something like this:

  1. A community faces crisis
  2. Those charged with assisting them must provide information about how they will assist and what the community must do to help them and help themselves
  3. The community provides information to those assisting them about what they need, what concerns them most and what they can handle on themselves
  4. This information is then used by those assisting to amend and prioritize their actions and adjust the application of resources.

This dynamic existed when authorities responded to the burning of Rome in 64 A.D., the Great Plague of London in 1665, the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 and the aftermath of the August and September hurricanes that impacted the U.S. and Caribbean in 2017.

The technology and mechanisms used in this age-old dynamic have changed throughout the years, but the function it supports has not.

Equally as old as this dynamic is the challenge of vetting information to separate fact from half-truths and hearsay. Whether information is exchanged via word of mouth, smoke signals, telegraph, telephone or the interwebs; whether it’s Pheidippides passing information to the Athenians after a 26.2 mile jaunt; or, it is @JPDeathBlade tweeting images of oiled wildlife in unidentified areas after an oil spill – information must be verified.

It stands to reason (to me, anyway) that if the function is the same and the challenges are similar – regardless of the means or modality of communication – that the integration of a new (-ish) method of information exchange such as, let’s say, social media, should be relatively intuitive.

Yet here we are, still trying to answer the questions of whether it’s the right tool, why we’re not using it in planning and operational decision making and, assuming we want to use it, what that integrated use would even look like.

Where do we go from here? Where do we start or from where do we pick up where others have already started? I’m taking the latter course of action, with a nugget I came across a couple weeks ago – a white paper entitled, “From Concept to Reality: Operationalizing Social Media for Preparedness, Response and Recovery,” authored by the Social Media Working Group for Emergency Services and Disaster Management (SMWGESDM). What this group might lack in branding savvy (and brevity), they more than make up for with their insight, informed research and salient point making.

I’ll use the rest of this post exploring the question of why we’re not using social media operationally (public information operations aside).

The SMWGESDM posit several reasons and I agree with all of them. Three stood out, in particular (and I’m paraphrasing):

  1. Lack of and unclear alignment with existing processes
  2. The overwhelming volume of information
  3. Uncertainty as to source and verification of information

Reason 1: Lack of and unclear alignment with existing processes

Operators prefer codified plans, manuals, systems and processes. Not because they can’t think on their own or call an audible or two, but because they understand responding to a critical incident is not the time to freestyle or reinvent the wheel (or rewrite the book? I dunno, insert whichever cliché suits you).

On the flip side, we communicator types often have a predisposed aversion to systems and processes. At least we do until we’ve worked a few large-scale incidents, at which we’ve learned what the operators already know – when time is important and you’re in a chaotic environment, following a prescribed and proven path that minimizes the moving parts of decision making, management, etc., is awfully helpful.

Regardless of predisposition or where you sit on the incident management team organizational chart, there simply isn’t a lot of documentation in the response community prescribing a proven path for the systemic use of social media during critical incidents. This is not only true for the operational use of social media, but also I still don’t feel we’ve got our collective grapes wrapped around it on the public information side, either.

Whether an incident command sees the value of using social media or not, they are going to be hesitant to incorporate it in any meaningful way without a prescribed and tested course of implementation.

Reason 2: The overwhelming volume of information 

An NSA friend was talking about the agency’s controversial phone monitoring and data collection practices and said, “When you’re looking for and collecting everything, you essentially find nothing.” That is to say, there is such a thing as critical mass when it comes to how much information any one entity can process. The first question operational decision makers ask themselves during the initial phase of a response to a critical incident is, “What information is needed?” Their time is limited as they go about collecting that initial incident information in order to build situational awareness.

While social media can add to that awareness – and perhaps fill-in information gaps in real time – there is so much information, and no clear or simple process to sift through and validate it, that the natural inclination is to push the potential resource aside.

Reason 3: Uncertainty as to source and verification of information

A cardinal rule in incident response operations is that information needs to be verified if it is to be actionable. Social media inputs aside, verifying information as an incident command establishes and maintains situational awareness will always be challenging, regardless of the source or channel. That said, there is no shortage of checklists, job aids, guidelines and best practices for collecting and validating information from traditional sources – and many of those same practices are easily transferable to social media information gathering. But again, the lack of a formal prescription that’s been tried, tested and socialized leaves incident commands leery about using it in their plans and decision-making.

This seems like a good place to stop.

In the next post I plan to dive into the SMWGESDM’s insights on addressing the common barriers to integration discussed above.

In the meantime, think about chiming in on the subject. Remember, I’m old and didn’t buy into any of this “nonsense” when it first began, so if you want me to be the face of this discussion, I’m happy to do so – but trust me, you don’t.

Talk to me, Goose.

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