Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm: Social Media during Civil Emergency

SuperstormSandy @socialmediamons
SuperstormSandy @socialmediamons

I have a friend in New York who in the midst of Superstorm Sandy updated her Facebook status to say that she was effectively cut off from electronic communication: except for Facebook, which was working just fine! It struck me as ironic, perhaps slightly quizzical, that in the age of technological wonder, the news service she had to rely on for updates about the Superstorm was the world’s largest social network. That’s taking social to a whole new level in anyone’s book!

I live in Melbourne (Victoria, Australia) and my State is currently testing a world-first location based SMS alert system for mobile phone users; to warn them of extreme weather conditions and emergencies. This initiative has been deployed as part of the lessons learnt in the aftermath of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, where 173 Victorians died and 414 were injured. In the subsequent Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian Bushfires, there was much debate over the effectiveness of such messaging: and if the timeliness of the “stay-or-go” message would prevent fatalities or put people directly in harms way.

Melbourne (and Victoria as a State) isn’t prone to Superstorms, Hurricanes, Tornado’s or Cyclones. We did get a little shake via an earthquake earlier this year, but our brand of disaster is usually Bushfires, Floods and severe weather. All of which are likely to impact on telecommunications services. So taking a note from what may be some interesting and upcoming statistics on smartphone use during Superstorm Sandy, perhaps the Government should also be looking at geotagging Facebook posts and Tweets to communicate within localities during times of disaster.

A kind of ‘reverse geotagging’ would immediately notify Facebook and Twitter users within any locality (if they are online) that disaster is, will or has struck: automatically appearing at the top of their timelines or as promoted tweets. And most people DO tweet or post about their predicament. This form of news also has the ability to be far more informative than an SMS, as more detail can be provided.

During the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, as well as during New Zealand’s Christchurch earthquake in 2010, crowdsourced, crisis mapping sites provided by the likes of Ushahidi and Google Maps proved crucial in helping local people and organisations identify communities that were crying out for relief. Matthew Yeomans, The UK Guardian

With Radio and Television being the primary sources of information for decades, the move to social media (or smartphone and mobile  telecommunications technologies) for civil emergencies has been alarmingly slow.  With electricity likely to be one of the first major pieces of infrastructure impacted during an emergency; and the fact many consumers use their mobile or smartphone as a radio, even watching pay and free-to-air television on these devices :  the emergency management sector are yet to exploit, or perhaps fully understand, these capabilities.

How companies, Government Departments and other key emergency management stakeholders can use social media to broadcast alerts

Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. —Publilius Syrus


Emergency preparedness goes a long way to communications success in the social space. You already know what your business is about: if you are selling electricity, are a Government Department, Minister’s Office or Social Commentator – you already know what will unfold during a civil emergency, so planning for social messaging is easy.

Start with your existing emergency preparedness plan and draft a series of Facebook Posts and/or Tweets for use in various emergencies. From power outages, to severe weather, you know how these events will affect your customers or the public before they occur, so getting those messages prepared and cleared by your board or executive team ahead of time is essential. These messages can then form the basis of your initial and planned response to civil emergency, giving you a solid base to develop content on the fly. Plans change, be flexible in your approach and messaging.

Think about what words you are using: you may need a set for proactive communications as opposed to situations involving fatalities. You may consider leveraging the social profiles of your board or executive- they key  is consistency across all your Brand or Organisational channels. Use personal corporate accounts (such as the CEO) for remarks with a more personal tone and strategic retweets with commentary.

Part of your emergency preparedness should also include handing over social control to staff at another, non-affected, locality. In Australia, it is unlikely (unlikely, but still possible) that the West and East coasts for example will be hit by the same emergency at the same time, so you may be able to utilise other resources in other locations. If this capability is open to you, take full advantage of it and ensure you prepare staff  and have procedures in place for quick and seamless social transitioning.


This isn’t the time to leave your social media presence to your intern. No matter how well prepared your company may be, or how well versed your intern is in executing the emergency social media management plan, you will come unstuck via posts, comments, direct messages and general community curation. You need a crisis communicator or seasoned PR pro to manage the incomings: your intern can manage the outgoings under direction.

Your lead social communicator in an emergency situation needs to:

  • Be intimately knowledgeable about the Public Relations and Strategic Communications policies, procedures and key people within your organisation.
  • Be spatially aware of what is happening on a broader ‘outside your organisation’ emergency response level. Who is coordinating, where the media liaison points are and what the Government/Industry are doing and saying.
  • Be anally retentive about accuracy and consistency in messaging: this isn’t the time to get the facts and figures wrong. Peoples lives could depend on your Tweets or Facebook posts. If you are posting it, or letting others post on your wall you are legally responsible for the veracity of that content.
  • Be timely in both communicating to the executive/board as well as the public.
  • Be resilient: these situations are often protracted over long periods of time.
  • Be aware and sensitive to the fact that any staff who remain on deck for the duration will have family, friends, pets and loved ones to worry about. Holistic management skills and the ability to identify staff experiencing emergency induced trauma or stress is essential, as are the skills required to manage these conditions. Remain self-aware to emergency induced stress and trauma: and get support early where ever possible.

Short sharp messages

Tell your audience what they need to know in the shortest, most situationally sensitive way you can. Be truthful, but don’t cause undue fear, anxiety or panic. If you are working with, or as part of a media centre with emergency services, taking the time to cross reference and clear your content before going live will ensure all messaging is consistent.

Don’t reinvent the wheel: now is the time to retweet and share posts – choose information authorities such as the Weather Bureau or Police social feeds to strategically share with your audience. By sharing content from sources of authority you are ensuring the right information is distributed.


The real-time nature of the civil emergency has to be reflected in real time social messaging. Leverage the portability of the social media stream: ask your fans and followers to send in images or videos they have taken, and use  predefined #hashtag identifiers on Twitter.  Keep your retweets timely; don’t retweet information that is not at the top of the originators twitter feed (yes, you will need to manually check this) as is the case in emergencies, information changes and you don’t want to be promulgating out of date advice or information.

Set up #hashtag monitoring and follow where the conversation is headed.


The possibility that you and your team may be evacuated is real. Social media gives you the opportunity to work on the fly- so use it! Communicate your situation AND the fact that you will still be online via smartphone or tablet (for as long as mobile broadband is available). You may need to decide at this point if you can manage all your social streams, or perhaps will revert only to one. Communicate your choices and decisions, tell your audience where to find you.

Concurrently, providing updates to your audience on a regular basis during the crisis about what to expect if you suddenly go silent is essential. Having (and actively promoting) a quick guide, web page or fact sheet online, where all your critical customer contact information is, can be very helpful to your customers, particularly in service based industries like banking and critical infrastructure. Having messages ready to go when that evacuation does occur will also give you some breathing space; if you’ve got your ‘social out of office’ on, people will respect that and wait for your ‘We’re back online’ announcement. If you can’t hand over control of the social reigns to your counterparts in another non-affected locality, this social-out-of-office becomes even more important.


There will come a time after the emergency has subsided and efforts are directed to recovery; where you will need to retreat with your team and take stock of you social presence and your team’s health. Depending on the situation, you may wish to utilise your company or organisation’s employee assistance program to guide you through the de-briefing process. Getting expert help early, particularly where the civil emergency was localised, and fatalities occurred, is essential.

Taking stock of your social presence is also important: as you need to transition your audience into recovery or business-as-usual mode. Sensitivity is key. Moving back to business-as-usual does not mean picking up your marketing campaign and carrying on: it means slowly transitioning back to a neutral space, before then slowly transitioning back to your marketing campaign (if it is still at all relevant). By jumping back into sales or corporate mode too quickly, your social presence will be seen as insensitive and your audience will call you on it: don’t let your social recovery process after civil emergency become a PR nightmare.

As with all civil emergencies, the length of community recovery (real and social) will differ. Don’t rush back into business-as-usual mode: be open and flexible to being an outstanding corporate social and digital citizen: remain connected with the needs of your audience, rather than pushing them back into the social space, as it existed, before the emergency occurred. By showing compassion and sensitivity, using your corporate brand power for positive social influence, you will retain an audience who already knew your product, business or organisation was great: and you will have attracted a new audience built on honesty, trust and social capability.