Skip to content

Getting Social in a Crisis

March 24, 2009

janis-krums-hudson-shot Things must run in cycles, I swear. This week is social media week, apparently.

I saw a great article come across the Twitter-wire today on social media in disaster situations. It’s from January’s Nature (for shame, Jimmy, two scholarly articles in one week) and describes how–through no amount of planning or organization–social media tools are increasingly being used in the aftermath of disasters. That no planning bit is important because it’s not being driven by preparedness folks or homeland security or our PIO’s. It’s being driven by regular people. This is a phenomenon that my buddy John Solomon would just  love: citizens developing the next step in disaster response.

From Virginia Tech, to the San Diego wildfires, to the Sichuan earthquake, regular people are increasingly breaking disaster-related news, are providing real-time updates on the situation, are counting the casualties and assessing the damage–before the authorities, before the media. The article is totally something that everyone in this business, well, everyone who is thinking ahead, should read. And, well, friends help each  other out.

The best example of why this is the future of crisis communications I have, which unfortunately didn’t make it into the article, is of Flight 1549, which crash landed in the Hudson River. Yes, cooler than a Twitter-posts about earthquakes before USGS has posted on their websites. More useful than user-generated Google maps of wildfires, but the actual breaking of news. The picture associated with this post is from, a service that allows people to send images over Twitter. It was the first mention, anywhere, of the Flight 1549 crash landing. It beat CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and all the rest by a good twenty minutes. A fellow named Janis Krums was on a ferry when they saw the plane land on the Hudson. That ferry was the first vessel to make it to the plane and start off-loading people. Janis snapped that picture and posted to Twitter:

There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.

I know that Mr. Krums beat the news because I was actually demo’ing Twitter when the crash happened. We all saw the message come up, get retweeted, then checked the news pages, then again, then again. It wasn’t until almost twenty minutes later that a “Breaking News” alert came up on CNN.

Now, imagine being able to give your PIO a twenty minute headstart on a breaking disaster in your area. Imagine being able to send your USAR team to a specific downed building where people are posting that folks are trapped in. Imagine that you have dozens of on-scene photographers  and videographers posting streaming, real-time images of your disaster giving you complete situational awareness.

All of this is happening right now. And according to the Nature article, emergency managers are resisting it:

The [traditional] system, with a clear, top-down chain of command, views communication with the public as a one-way street: information is supposed to flow from officials to the public via warnings sent out over TV, radio and other media.


“But then all of a sudden came the Internet revolution, and it blew apart this notion of a linear chain,” says sociologist Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. Social-networking and
photo-sharing sites, mobile phones and text messages have turned the chain into a web.

This use of social media in disaster situations isn’t something that we’ll ever be able to control (we can ignore it, for a while), and the reason why is simple. The technology is simply the tool to facilitate what experienced crisis managers already know happens:

More than 60% of the people he spoke to told him that even after they received a warning telling them to evacuate, they tried to confirm it — checking with family and friends, talking things over, watching to see what their neighbours were doing — before taking action.

As Amanda Ripley says, this type of reaction is in people’s nature. We become social animals in emergencies. And now  we have the tools to let everyone in the world know what’s going on.

Whew. I can get a little into this subject, so if all of this seems a bit breathless, please forgive me. Let me close by giving you what I consider to be the take-home message. This stuff is already happening. Regular people are dictating the initial impressions of disasters through social media–right now. We, as emergency managers and planners and communicators, can do one of two things: either accept that new reality, become active participants and, I would argue, reap the benefits; or ignore it, and start our response behind the curve, knowing less than we could  know, and by communicating in fewer ways than we could. The choice is solely ours to make, and I can assure you that regular folks would love to have us along for the ride. We just have to engage them.

This is one area that I’d love to hear from some of my readers on. Please give me your impressions or comments below.

Photo credit: Janis Krums

4 Comments leave one →
  1. nachapman permalink
    March 25, 2009 4:08 am

    Great post. The issue has many angles – from how social media instant reports put organisations on the back foot (US Airways) , to responders using sm to their advantage – LA Fire Dept., Public Services of New Hampshire, Fema and W. Midlands Police in the UK.
    Crisisblogger (, Gerald Baron, has written an equally insightful paper for PIOs on Twitter, Social Media and the Problems of NIMS Compliant
    Joint Information Center Operations ( I believe many of the points are just as relevant for organisations operating their own information centre rather than a joint one.
    My perspective is that social media only highlights an age old issue of exposing poor preparation and planning around crisis response. It is not new in that regard, though it can bring it into sharper focus.
    It’s a trend that goes back some way, driven largely by technology developments. 9/11 demonstrated the power of the web – any response organisation not using that medium effectively from then on was behind the curve; CNN meant reporters could be on the scene of an emergency and it go national very quickly, any organisation without a trained, ready-to-roll spokesperson found themselves back-footed. And at the beginning of the 20th century it was morse code that told people about the sinking of the Titanic before the Carpathia sailed into New York.

    I have four observations:
    – Emergency Information Centres should be about fast, accurate information updates that build trust. Bad things do happen to good organisations; good organisations show why they are good when they’re in a bad situation. Tell ‘em what you know, when you know it (as far as possible). That has not changed. Social media needs to be incorporated into that philosophy, but it takes careful, strategic thinking and ‘information discipline’ that Gerald talks about in his paper.
    – Response organisations should see themselves as information publishers to reach their different audiences. They have to move away from thinking of themselves as media feeders or as sole information providers. In this respect, many public organisations appear to ‘get it’ over private organisations
    – Response organisations do have access to information that others do not, simply because they are ‘inside’ the event. For example, US Airways could not share a picture of their plane floating on the Hudson, but they could explain what they were doing to assist passengers after the ditching, and re-uniting them with their loved ones. Subsequent reports highlighted how effective they were in this regard.
    – And related to the above point, organisations need to focus the information they provide on response actions to an event rather than describing the event. Confirming something that the world saw on TV 30 minutes ago is irrelevant and undermines credibility – telling the world what decisions and actions you’ve taken in the intervening 30 minutes is much more powerful.

    You pose the question – embrace or ignore the trend. I don’t think there is a choice.

  2. March 30, 2009 9:52 am

    I agree with nachapman, there isn’t really a choice as to if we embrace this type of communications technology. I think that we should inform ourselves and utilize SM so that the process of communication is improved.
    I am interested in how the new ways can be implemented to notify and inform volunteers of the occurrence of a incident. I can see how networks would be a helpful an hopefully inexpensive method for organizations that need to reach out to many volunteers. Organizations that have already thought this through, please let us know what are the shortfalls of using commercial social networking solutions in a time of crisis.
    Finally, the old Boy Scout in me would like to remind us that the best electronic system is still dependent upon electricity. What’s the back up plan when things get dark and quiet? Redundancy and auxiliary power seem to be essential to technology even at the grass roots level.

  3. May 20, 2009 7:08 am

    DutchR poses a great point about backup systems when the juice goes out. Umm, will cell phones connections via social media be the key?
    Thanks for this great, brain stimulating, post Certainly it provides another reason for public health experts to plan systems via social media to engage folks with facts so fiction does not rule when it comes to disease outbreaks.


  1. Using Social Media in a Public Health Emergency | Brian McDaniel on Strategic Communications

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s