5 Key Lessons to Use Social Media for Emergency Management #SMEM

March 26, 2014

Continuity Insights Webinar Brian Gray

At the International Crisis & Risk Communication Conference on 5 March 2013, I delivered a presentation on the use of social media for crisis communications, based on the following argument:

Changing technology, public expectations and the ways in which we interact are setting traditional patterns of communication on a trajectory toward obsolescence. Effectively responding to a complex event requires a continually evolving situational awareness, which is dependent upon the receipt and dissemination of timely and accurate information. In this regard, the ubiquitous availability of smart phones, and the rise of social media, poses challenges and opportunities that can only be managed by taking action in advance.*

The Too Late part came from the need to take action before an event to take advantage of social media to enhance crisis communications.

The release of the Continuity Insights survey Crisis Communications 2014: Social Media & Notification Systems is an opportunity to revisit this topic.

Crisis Leadership Tasks

In an earlier post I argued that we need to replace the traditional, passive notion of crisis management as something that follows something clear and present that has occurred, with a dynamic approach where we actively scan for risks about which we have to do something. In summary,

  • Sense Making: constantly scanning the environment to identify risks that could impact operations
  • Decision Making: matching the emerging risk with appropriate prevention or preparedness action
  • Meaning Making: communicating and gaining support for the action taken
  • Terminating: transition from the crisis state to business-as-usual
  • Learning: formal after action review process to identify and internalize lessons learned
Emergency Management Tasks

Crisis Leadership Tasks

Key lessons to use social media for emergency management

  1. Define your goals: the more complex the goal, the harder it will be to do. To wit, trying to predict an event by mining social networks will clearly be more challenging than providing employees with a platform to share what is going on in their neighbourhoods during a storm
  2. Establish your brand in advance: to the uninitiated, social networks can seem like a free-for-all. Instead, they are silently governed by spontaneous social organization, one of the norms of which is that people prefer to engage with those that they find credible. This credibility scaffolds social network relationships and must be earned. In a crisis, people turn to those that they trust, which means that sites must build a following before an event.
  3. Find your influencers: to maximize impact, your messages need to be amplified. To do this you need to find the key influencers within your network so that you can tailor content for them to share. Kim Stephens of the idisaster 2.0 blog has a great line, “Follow the spokes and you will find the hubs.”
  4. Provide your influencers with content to share: as noted in the last bullet, providing the key influencers within your network with content to share, maximizes the virality potential of your communications. All social media content is not created equal. Warby Parker applies these five criteria to create social media content that drives engagement: unique, authentic, unexpected, does good and has a compelling narrative. Remember, social media engagement is most effective when it is authentic, transparent and disrupts the conversation.
  5. Adopt a Pull system: people want to be engaged, not communicated at; they also expect to be a source of information during a crisis. Social networks provide the means to do both. In practice, this means that the historical approach of the organization being the primary source of information – the Push system – should give way to a Pull system, under which staff are encouraged to not only amplify crisis information they get from credible sources, but to share first person, eye-witness accounts of what is going on in their neighbourhoods. Not only does this contribute to organizational situational awareness, but contributes to the psycho-social well-being of employees.
From within your network, both inside and outside the organization

From within your network, both inside and outside the organization


The key lessons for effective use of social media for crisis communications are:

  • Identify your goals
  • Build your brand in advance
  • Find your influencers
  • Provide the influencers and trusted agents with unique, authentic content to share
  • Pull, don’t push

In addition to these key lessons, make sure you talk like a human being and engage your audience as equals.

Push Pull System Crisis Communications

Adopt a ‘Push’ system for crisis communications

* One of the many lessons I learned through this experience, is the need to Google presentation titles.  After publishing the presentation title, Now is Too Late: Utlizing Social Media for Situational Awareness, we learned that it was a variation on the a book title on a similar subject, Now is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News, by Gerald R. Baron.  While Mr. Baron graciously cleared the use of the title, we should have checked before publishing it.

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2 Responses to “5 Key Lessons to Use Social Media for Emergency Management #SMEM”

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