Tips On Using “Twitter” in EM & Public Safety
Many PIO’s struggle to keep pace with the rapid growth of social media, much less to embrace these tools and harness their power for their own purposes.
Others rightfully bring up security and IT issues, the lack of vetting associated with Twitter posts, etc. All legitimate concerns, but Social Media has fundamentally changed the way that people respond in a crisis. Simply ignoring it won’t make it go away.
We’d like to help clear the air, and get you on the path to making better use of Twitter, while also addressing these concerns. Let’s start with a real world example of what Twitter is, and how it can affect crisis communications.
In the recent active-shooter tragedy in Sampson, Alabama, traditional media coverage of the event did not begin until almost an hour after the gunman was dead by his own hand. In contrast “tweets” as Twitter messages are called began to appear within minutes of the first shooting.
As you might expect, early tweets were sketchy and lacking in details. Things like “Just heard shots. Police sirens too. Somethings up” are a good example. Later, they grew more detailed, including locations, names of victims, police pursuit updates, and even the name of the gunman himself. All this information and more was available to those tracking the incident via Twitter posts.
As some emergency managers fear, a lot of the information were simply rumors, and postings contained erroneous information. Many cite this as a reason not to use Twitter or other social media for official functions. We recommend the exact opposite. Yes, like most breaking news sources, the information is often in error, but the beauty is that it’s also largely self-correcting in ways that traditional media is not.
Using the Sampson, AL example again, initial tweets cited a deputy sheriff among the victims. Within minutes, another person posted a new message that clarified the situation. It was the deputy’s family who had been attacked, but not the law enforcement officer himself. The self-correcting nature of Twitter is actually one of it’s strengths.
Emergency Managers and Public Information Officers who perform media monitoring duties are accustomed to having to vet information, especially during a crisis. Visual reports from even trained storm spotters are often inaccurate; descriptions of suspects from eyewitnesses often vary from people standing only a few feet apart. There’s nothing new under the sun with Social Media; it still comes down to having to properly vet information, or classifying it according to how the report was received.
In a crisis situation where EM’s are often desperate for “ground truth” Twitter information can be shared with others involved in Incident Command by simply classifying it as “Public Report-Twitter Posting”. Over time, we’ll all learn how to weigh such reports.
During any crisis, rumors will circulate within the community. Some of these will be repeated by the media, and must quickly be corrected by PIO’s. Social Media is really just a faster version of the traditional media that we’re all used to.
If a PIO incorporates tracking events via Twitter Search, you can quickly and easily correct them with official and correct information.
Next of Kin notifications must also be placed higher on priority list during unfolding situations. While traditional media may respect your requests not to release the names of victims, there are no rules barring such postings via Social Media. The timeline for getting this critical information to family members just continues to shrink with the explosion of mobile communications devices.
As we explain in Twitter training sessions, Twitter has several uses in emergency management & Public Safety:
1. Low Cost Communications: Many departments lack the budgets for things like two-way radios, pagers, or Nextel subscriptions. This especially applies to those who work with volunteers. Twitter is the perfect no-cost solution for organizing your team. Need CERT members to help out with traffic control after a major accident? Send a simple “Tweet” to them: “Need CERT Team Members for traffic control. Assemble at rally point 1″ and your volunteers are on the way.
It is important to note that Twitter has recently experienced growing pains as the popularity of the service increases. The “Failed Whale” syndrome refers to the graphic image displayed on the web site when Twitter functions are temporarily unavailable due to demands on it’s network. We expect this problem to be short lived however.
Our recommendation is to not rely on Twitter for any mission critical communications at present. It is a perfect communications tool for volunteers, and work groups.
2. Intelligence Gathering. Emergency Managers can often gain direct intelligence on crisis events such as severe weather as they happen. For example, you can organize your volunteer Skywarn Storm Spotters and have them post reports via Twitter. You can also monitor hashtags and other search tools for posting from regular citizens or local media (many of whom are now on Twitter)
3. Public Outreach. You can post a “Follow Us on Twitter” logo on your EM web site, or pass it out along with other literature. Add it to your business cards. Then whenever there is a crisis, the public can quickly receive timely updates from you directly.
The public is often critical of public safety officials for not doing more to keep them informed. Twitter offers a low cost, practical way to address those concerns.
4. COOP Communications: Many of our clients have found Twitter to be the perfect tool for maintaining Continuity of Operations. For example, a Director of Public Safety will be leaving the state for several hours for a meeting in Chicago. Using a single Twitter posting from his cell phone, he can notify his team, assign a subordinate to assume his duties, and provide emergency contact information for his destination. When he returns that evening, he can stand down his replacement.
Certainly these same functions could be done using e-mail, or a web based application. But the ability of Twitter to do this easily using mobile devices and SMS messaging really extends this ability. Also SMS messaging has proven to be more reliable during regional disasters such as hurricanes, so it makes a great COOP backup communications tool for your team.
More Real World Examples
Let me share some examples from Lloyd Colston, the Director of Emergency Management for Altus, OK:
Examples of social media and emergency management, I would offer @OKEM on February 10 tornado outbreak. Hail and wind reports were offered up by Citizens. National Weather Service offices received those reports.
Media Monitoring (a PIO function) is easy too because now media is Tweeting. At one point, on February 10, the media was RETweeting @OKEM.
Hashtags, ex. #OKice is a simple way to search the kazillion Tweets for just what you need. The example is the standard in Oklahoma to discuss Winter Weather events, such as the two feet of snow that fell in the State this weekend. Others are #OKflood, #OKstorms, while Tulsa seems to have adopted #Tulsa. Using http://search.twitter.com, put your favorite search terms in the box and enter. The words below the search window are the most popular searches on Twitter at the time.
Search terms may also include your zip code to see who’s tweeting what from an area.
Part of what I take as resistance to Twitter comes from the “I don’t have time for this” crowd. There are so many tools available for Twitter that it should not be hard.
Googling “Twitter tools” will bring a number of excellent timesaving tools. For example, TweetGrid lets one send email from the plaform. In other words, there’s a tweet my weather service needs? I can email it to them. OutTwit is a tool for Outlook that does the same thing.
TweetScan and TweetBeep send emails hourly or once per day of your keyword list. Takes about an hour to set up. Good tool for monitoring what’s important to you.
As for outreach to Citizens, during the February 10 event, a Citizen asked for the location of the shelters in the community. The tweet back referred to the local emergency manager. Citizen tweets back that the local emergency manager (phone number included) had been helpful and offered thanks for the service.
Twitter, in its most rudimentary form, is a worldwide party line. As someone who grew up on party lines, I find it odd that someone would actually enjoy it but …
Twitter offers a number of opportunities to get information to help us do our job cheaper and better while reaching out to the Citizens we serve.
In the case of the latter, I can’t MAKE them get their ham radio license but they are already using SMS on their phone and tying those to their social media sites. Twitter is just one example. Facebook, Blogger, Flickr, and YouTube are just more examples of resources that offer an SMS or mobile email to resource. An example, http://kc5fm.blogspot.com has a most recent post of the winter storm including a picture sent from a cell phone on the other side of the State forwarded to Flickr.
We couldn’t agree with Lloyd more. Social Media is here to stay, and public information officers must add this to their tool kit quickly. At the same time, legal departments and IT professionals will raise serious issues related to it’s use. These too must be addressed before proceeding with the use of Social Media, especially for warnings or notifications. If you’re interested in discussing your agencies needs, please contact High Noon Film for a free telephone consultation.