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by Gerald Baron: Crisis and emergency communication strategies

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Sandy again shows the best and worst of social media
October 30, 2012
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The emergency management world is quite divided over social media, as I recently discovered at an emergency managers conference now in the Sandy-zone. Those for it and those against have plenty of ammunition for their points of view.

This morning I got a photograph from a friend who is one who likes to forward lots of (normally) good stuff. It was a photo of our brave soldiers guarding the tomb of the unknown soldier in horrid storm conditions. I had read before Sandy hit of the numerous storm photos being circulated that were not from this storm. Sure enough, my friend sent it with the message that this was Sandy. It was actually shot in September.

There are a great many phony photos and images being circulated, and some of them have fooled reporters and editors.

Far worse, is the phony tweets and blogs intentionally designed for strange and wicked reasons to scare people or cause them to take wrong action. For example, one tweeter using the name @comfortablysmug tweeted that the New York Stock Exchange was underwater and that Con Edison was shutting down all power in Manhattan. The anonymous tweeter was outed by Andrew Kaczynski of Buzzfeed and this story was posted, on alternative site because BuzzFeed was down because of the storm.

This story from Poynter talks about the false stuff coming out of social media. Interestingly, the reporter says that mainstream media got things wrong as well including CNN reporting that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded--but that info was reported nationally based on the, guess who, ComfortablySmug.

But, the Poynter story also makes clear the corrective power of social media, even in this kind of mess. They showed how Reuters ran the story of 19 Con Edison workers trapped, and how Con Edison corrected the media story using Twitter.

One of the most important elements of all this, is which channels of communication prove most resilient. I was watching CNN this morning and the reporter was complaining about now cell service. Duh. One of the first things to go in disasters is cell service just because high demand quickly overwhelms it, even if the infrastructure is still there. I thought, use Skype on her cell phone. No question that the Internet is the most resilient. 

Buzzfeed, as I mentioned above, couldn't post the story about false tweets because its site was down. However, Tumblr, a social media channel was up. I got notice of my accounting service site being down due to the storm. And Huffington Post said their site was down but "we'll keep tweeting." This is incredibly important for those trying to keep communicating during an event. One, look at geographic redundancy in your hosting plans (that's what we did at PIER and placed servers on both coasts). Second, consider the reliability and resilience of social media channels. Having a presence there that is widely used can be considered a key element of communication resilience.

No doubt, those wanting social media in emergency management to go away and leave them alone are finding plenty of fodder for their arguments. False information is rampant. Incredibly, some use it for evil purposes. But, if you need arguments to counter these, consider this:

- communication resilience--nothing stays up and running like the Internet and these social media channels
- self correcting nature of the Internet (I heard about the false picture circulating by email through social media at least one day before it showed up)
- because this is where citizens and media get info, both true and false, it is incumbent on every official communicator to monitor and respond to the false info--just like Con Edison did.

In other words, maybe social media can be a bad thing in an event like this, but what really makes it bad is when good people don't participate.

UPDATE

As I pushed the button to publish this, got a note from Dave Statter about the incredible tweeting done by FDNY's Emily Rahimi (I think she's already won awards for her work there). This story also highlights the growing problem facing response agencies related to calls for help on social media. 

 

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