Social Media – Public Lifelines During Disasters

August 26, 2011
Courtesy of the Weather Channel

Hurricane Irene's projected path

The East coast has been battered by a number of natural disasters this year, and as many people found out during our recent Virginia earthquake, the phone lines go down quickly.  How can you communicate to a wide audience easily in times of crisis? Welcome to the world of social media.  To see how quickly the recent earthquake news spread on Twitter, see this animated map of people talking to others about it in the Twitterverse.

What can we learn from all this?  Social media is helping to flatten the world by providing equal access to news.  There are a number of organizations that are doing a very effective job using social media and they are worth keeping in mind as a Web 2.0 model.

With hurricane Irene bearing down on those of us on the East coast now, most people will be watching the weather channel or their local television stations online.  Many people will also be following and engaging with their local utilities through Facebook and Twitter to get the latest on what to expect, where disruptions in service may occur and when service might be restored.  On DCWater’s Facebook page,  they are telling residents how to prepare and where to go on their main Web site for more information, providing links to stories about where bottled water can still be purchased, and providing the Twitter hashtag, #DCIrene, for those who want to discuss the latest on the storm as it affects the Washington metro area.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers also did a great job using social media during the flooding in the spring.  Dubbed “Operation Watershed,” they utilized  Facebook and Twitter to keep the public and the other Corp offices apprised of what levees would be affected and other measures that were being taken. They even used it to educate the public on what the “green stuff” floating in Lake Ponchtrain actually was (not algae – a tiny plant called duckweed).

At ASCE, we have been stepping up our efforts to utilize social media to engage with our members and hopefully,  providing a good example of using Social Media  more effectively through our outposts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube , LinkedIn and this blog.   We are even taking the next step, and at this year’s Annual Conference in Memphis, we have a session on sustainable social media with speakers from private and public organizations (such as the U.S. Army Corp) who will talk about  listening to your stakeholders’ needs and creating strategies for deeper two-way conversations. With an enhanced understanding of social media, you’ll see the return in enhancing project delivery, client loyalty, volunteerism, brand strengthening, recruitment, stakeholder interaction, community creation, project management and marketing. You’ll also understand how the Web is changing the world of communications and how the young professionals you work with might just be your organization’s secret weapon for success.

 Since you are already online, search for Hurricane Irene on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, and decide for yourself who does the best job of covering this disaster and engaging the public.  You may learn something new and the practice will help you become  more comfortable with social media as a communications tool.

In your opinion, which organization utilizes social media most effectively during a disaster and how? Which platform do you think does the best job spreading the word?

 Audrey Caldwell

Senior Manager, Corporate Communications




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  • Good post Audrey,

    Working in the engineering industry in PR, I can profess as to the benefits social media can have for specific projects. When a member of the public follows a project that is on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Flickr or any other, they are serious, and can become your best advocate. If done correctly, the project social media sites can then be utilized as another tool during crisis or emergency situations. We have done this on projects I work on. It works. It is effective. The key is that the social media has to be “social.” If it’s all about pumping out information, people will feel little connection to it. In practice, we engage, talk to the public, say “good morning” and tell them to be safe in bad weather.
    Social media is here to say. It may take on other forms eventually, but the concept of connecting directly to the source will remain.

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