Small Agency Among Leaders in Social Media Usage
“I understand that some emergency managers are skeptical of social media” confided Michael Amberson, Public Information Officer for the Gadsden/Etowah County, Alabama EMA, “but you have to look for ways to break through all the clutter of hundreds of TV channels, and millions of web pages. You have to find a way to get people’s attention”.
Amberson seems accustomed to having all the right answers about the use of social media in emergency management. It’s clear that he’s done his homework, starting with the initial pitch of the idea to his agency director, Deborah Gaither . “I first presented the idea of using Twitter and creating a blog in April of 2009. Deborah already knew a lot about the technology and was very supportive of the idea, but she did have some concerns too”.
Paramount was making sure that the service would be of value to the community, and fill a legitimate need. Amberson pointed out areas where a highly mobile form of communication could prove useful to the agency. “Our primary threat here is severe weather, and in those situations, it’s important to get accurate information and warnings to people wherever they may be. Since Twitter works through mobile devices like cell phones, it’s a perfect application for that.”
Since the initial launch of the service in April, the agency has seen it’s Twitter followers grow to well over 100, including about 10-15 users in the media. “We incorporated our new Twitter address into some billboards around the county, including the new digital billboards near the Interstates. We rotate four messages on those billboards that are about preparedness, and one of those encourages people to follow us on Twitter” said Amberson.
That billboard (pictured above) contributed to a big jump in the number of followers, as well as increased web traffic on their blog. Amberson uses social media for a variety of messaging, with an emphasis on quality of information, not quantity. “Whenever people receive a message from the EMA, I want them to feel like it’s worth reading. That if we’re posting, it must be important”, offered the PIO, “so my focus is on providing meaningful information that is useful to our users”.
Some examples of typical “Tweets” from the small town EMA:
- Reports of major traffic accidents and road closures, especially those that affect interstates. Amberson is always careful to suggest detours for commuters who may receive the messages while stuck in traffic.
- Reports of thunderstorm and tornado watches and warnings.
- Weekly updates on Swine Flu H1N1, with detailed information about the local effects of the outbreak.
But the Gadsden/Etowah County Emergency Management Agency isn’t just using Twitter and BlogSpot as one way broadcasting outlets, but also using their network of followers to provide them with critical “intel” during actual incidents.
Recently a bomb threat was called into the Gadsden Court House, and one of the first responders was also a member of the EMA’s Twitter network.
“She is the PIO for the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department”, explained Amberson, “I was able to relay her postings about the incident to our network, almost in real time. This allowed the media to track the story as it unfolded, and keep everyone in the community better informed. Even the Birmingham TV stations were following the story using our Twitter updates”.
Amberson feels that Twitter isn’t a substitute for mass media, but rather part of the larger process. He cited their updates on H1N1 as an example where the EMA can post updates on the spread of the flu or vaccinations in the Fall, but mass media can then flesh those brief postings out in more detail. They can follow up with the Alabama Department of Public Health, or the local school board and provide additional details in their stories.
“In an emergency, you can’t wait for the media. You need to get information out to the pubic as quickly as possible. It’s not a substitute for the media, it’s just another way to reach people”, said Amberson.
Amberson says that it’s critical to insure that all information that the EMA posts has been vetted, and is accurate. “You can get bad information from Twitter, though we’ve found the general public to be a pretty reliable source. The key is for you, as the user, to filter out the information that you’re receiving and decide what you can confirm before relaying it out to the public. Ultimately, you’re the one pushing the button”.
“In our office, only two of us publish information to the network or the blog, myself and our director. If I’m unsure about a given post, or if it’s sensitive, I always run it by Director Gaither before publishing it” offered the Public Information Officer, “that way we can insure that any information we’re sending out is correct”.
Many agencies cite Twitter has being the source of too many rumors and incorrect information to be of any use to them during an emergency, but Amberson disagrees, “Twitter is like standing in the middle of a crowd of people. Not only can you hear what is being said, but you can see who is saying it. So if someone is posting rumors or putting out bad information, you can contact them directly on Twitter and ask them what their source is. You can actually help to correct the problem and slow down the rumor factory”.
After six months of using social media as part of their communication plans, we were curious about the results.; “It’s been well worth the small investment of time it took to set it up and get it going” replied the young PIO, “One thing that surprised me was the number of mature adults who have subscribed to the service. Initially, I pitched this as being a good way to reach teens and young adults, but about half of our followers are in their 30’s and 40’s”.
At 31, Amberson is the youngest person in the agency, but has found that the entire staff has really embraced the service after seeing how useful it could be. Many have created their own personal accounts, and are now using Twitter for a variety of personal and professional reasons.
Cost has also been a major selling point. “We literally haven’t spent a dime” said Amberson, “like most small agencies we have to watch the budget closely, and cost was a major factor. We considered other types of notification systems, but all of them cost too much”.
Current, the Gadsden/Etowah County EMA is using Twitter (www.twitter.com) for mobile notifications and “micro-blog posts”, and using BlogSpot (www.blogspot.com) for more detailed postings.The agency is evaluating FaceBook, and may add it to their public information efforts later this year.
“Just yesterday, we posted a new FAQ regarding the Swine Flu H1N1 outbreak guidance for schools. We sent out a Twitter post to let people know about it, and included a link to the blog where they could getmore information” Amberson elaborated.
Attracting new followers is also a priority for Amberson. Instead of just waiting for citizens to see the billboards or hear about the social media effort from friends, Amberson actively searches Twitter for posts using keywords like “Gadsden”, “Etowah County”, or other locations in the county. He then reads through a few of that users postings to determine if they’re within his geographical area, and if they seem like they might be a good candidate for gaining information from, especially as it pertains to severe weather.
If a person “Twits’ about the weather frequently, then he usually will “follow” them and often that person will return the favor by following the EMA. Amberson employs a similar approach to seeking out media contacts for the Twitter network. This insures that the network grows, but remains focused on a specific geographical area.
He is also fond of the TweetDeck software application (www.tweetdeck.com) which allows the EMA to easily manage their Twitter postings. “You can upload pictures easily, and since we often need to include links to web sites for more information,TweetDeck makes it easy because they already incorporate the TinyURL application. It just makes it simple to do our postings right from the computer”, the PIO explained.
He uses his cell phone to post to Twitter as well, but does so infrequently. Using the web interface at Twitter.com or TweetDeck is just much easier and takes less time out of his schedule. After a six month trial period, he’s finding the experience to be very rewarding; “It’s just so worth it…the key is to let people know that they have a role in this. Most people don’t think about emergency management , and I can understand that. I just try to post simple, useful information. I try to put myself in their shoes, and think about what I’d like to know about an incident”.
Better examples of a small agency using social media to their advantage would be hard to find.