How Municipalities Should Integrate Social Media Into Disaster Planning

This last Thanksgiving was marred by the horrible deaths of over 170 victims at Mumbai’s terrorist attack. If you weren’t watching, social media played a part in helping –and hurting– the event. First hand accounts were published on twitter, including pictures of terrorists in action, in fact Forbes called this Mumbai: Twitter’s Moment. Cities, authorities, states, and governments should have a social media plan in place to prepare for disasters of all sorts.

[Social tools allow both true and false information to be rapidly communicated from sources in real time from anyone using a mobile device. During disasters this both enables and detracts emergency response.]

Social Tools Pervasive
Social Technographics research indicates that these social tools are readily available and are being adopted in US, as well as other cultures. Any person connected to the internet, or has a mobile device has the ability to share information as well as scan and learn from their network, take for example this lawyer who used his blackberry to transmit emails while under siege in Mumbai.

Social Tools Spread Word of Mouth, both Good and Bad We’ve multiple accounts how individuals have used blogs, video, and now Twitter to rapidly spread information during a crises, from earthquakes in China, to Fires in L.A., to Hurricanes in the South, and now terrorist attacks in India. A hundred years ago, we would never imagine how information could spread so quickly. These tools are powerful, they allow anyone to share –and hear– information transmitted from others in real time from anywhere. We learned that both true and false information was being spread from these tools, in fact for days after this Mubai event rumors were still being settled. In fact, one of the concerns in this Mumai attack is that rumors were quickly spreading, and there was no central source to verify. In some cases, conversations in Twitter (and even the retweet) can influence press, and therefore spread information to other locations impacting how emergency services could react.

These Tools Enhance Existing Human Behaviors Gossip, the need to connect, and communication are natural human reactions during a crises. Like a scene at a freeway car crash, most want to know what’s happening and in the excitement, jump in to monitor and participate. Jennifer Leggio indicates that the good and bad of humans quickly show on these tools –with mixed reactions. Amy Gahran provides us with why and how citizen journalists should react and behave.

Assume Terrorists Are Using Social Tools We learned that the Mumbai terrorists were using Blackberry’s to communicate and monitor. This 10 man crack commando team was able to cause extensive havoc for 3 days. They were trained, funded, and had intelligence. Just as we should expect they are monitoring the police airways and public tv stations, we learned they were monitoring online the “police responses on the internet”. It’s so very easy to do, as people were tagging content #mumbai and it’s easily searchable by Twitter.

[Local governments, authorities, and response teams should understand how these social tools work, learn how to integrate into disaster response, and evaluate how they will use them during an emergency]


How Municipalities Should Integrate Social Media Into Disaster Planning Therefore, municipalities should learn from this tragic event, in order to understand, help reduce risk, and take advantage of the medium before an event happens.

1 Enhance Communication Plans: First of all, just as municipalities have an existing communication plan (often a press statement from police or authorities to media) understand how to repurpose these messages and communication on social tools.

2 Experiment and Build a Base: Municipalities should experiment with the tools as we learned the Department of Homeland Security is understanding how to use these tools for disasters, so cities should also start to monitor, then experiment. Just as we saw with Motrin moms, they had no base to stand on to defend themselves in Twitter –the same falls true for any ruling body. Having a platform in advance provides benefits, as those who participate have power.

3 Educate, Train, and build Awareness Before an Event. Governing bodies often have mock emergency response trials, now, start to incorporate these tools into the planning process. You’ll have to indicate to the world what is an official channel, where people should go for news, and how each authority plans to respond using these tools. These tools can help educate citizens how to prepare for disasters, where to go for help, how to develop a family crises plan, and even basic life saving medical techniques.

4 Develop a Crisis plan: It’s far to bold to suggest that each governing body use these tools during an emergency. Perhaps they are focused on keeping information quiet in order to save lives, are unaware of what the truth is, or simply don’t have the resources. Even so, municipalities should expect information to rapidly spread amongst those witnessing the tragedy, and commented by others. Likely, like a triage plan, a similar plan for social media should be created depending on the type of disaster occurring.

5 Use These Tools To Rebuild: Even if the municipality chooses not to participate during the crises, these tools can help rebuild after the tragedy. The Red Cross has been using blogs, Facebook causes, twitter, and a variety of other tools to help spread awareness to drive donations, and to get people involved.

If you have other suggestions to help municipalities with understand and use these tools to their benefit, leave a comment below.