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Illustration by Steve McCracken

Communication in Crisis

In the days following the derecho that ravaged a path stretching from Illinois to the Maryland-Virginia coast in June 2012, local companies and national aid organizations scrambled to organize and respond to the widespread destruction, death, and power outages across the route. Some 4.2 million citizens were left without power for several days. The storm coincided with one of the deadliest heat waves the region had seen in decades. Victims scoured social media websites for information about relief organizations and aid, and learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was deploying generators to provide electricity.

Hopeful citizens began flooding the agency with requests to have generators delivered to their homes. However, there was one problem: The giant, industrial-sized generators FEMA was delivering were intended to power community centers, firehouses, and shelters—not individual houses. 

“We saw those conversations and wanted to help set expectations,” explains Shayne Adamski, senior manager of digital engagement with FEMA. “We wanted folks to know how we were being helpful, so we posted a photo of one of the generators and commented about how it would be used in an impacted area. Once folks saw that, they realized they weren’t individual generators that a person could go pick up at Home Depot and have running in their backyard.”

Adamski cites this example as a way FEMA leverages social media during a disaster. Indeed, people are increasingly turning to social media during emergency events to gather immediate information, and checking social media websites is becoming an alternative when traditional forms of communication have been less effective. Most of the messages transmitted through social media are from nontraditional media sources, such as FEMA. However, the medium has allowed traditional news agencies to leverage public experiences—every smart-device user in the world has the potential to be an information broadcaster.

Social media has completely changed the way people engage with one another and, more importantly, how businesses connect with potential clients and customers. Social media has become the one common denominator that the world’s wired citizens understand and use on a daily basis. The preferred online applications may change from country to country, but ability to reach mass numbers of people quickly has been accomplished through social media.       

The ASIS International Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council conducted a survey on how social media is being used in emergency management. The resulting study, Social Media Is Transforming Crisis Management, concludes that many security professionals around the world are using some aspect of social media for emergency notification, keeping stakeholders engaged, and making critical documents more accessible.

The study confirms that social media is establishing its place in emergency operations planning and execution. However, emergency operations professionals require additional training to learn how to best create alert messaging; 52 percent of respondents have not used social media for an emergency event and 25 percent have never used social media at all.

Security professionals realize that additional learning will be required to fully embrace and exploit social media in crisis management situations. More than 75 percent of those surveyed agreed that more knowledge is required to expand social media to a wider audience in emergency operations. 

However, many survey participants said they were reluctant to embrace social media. Several respondents expressed the need to preserve the old ways of doing things to ensure that the widest possible audience, including those people with no access to social media or newer technology, receives critical crisis management information. 

Many federal agencies, such as FEMA, have been developing comprehensive social media strategies to communicate with citizens in emergencies. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate has established working groups to provide guidance and best practices to emergency preparedness and the response community. 

However, even with the millions of people who are flocking to social media sites, the government has yet to establish an emergency management platform, and security professionals are struggling to fully embrace social media as well, according to the ASIS study. 

Below are six steps for companies to consider when using social media during a disaster. FEMA’s Adamski notes that security professionals should keep in mind that although social media is not a comprehensive solution—not everyone is on the same channels—taking advantage of multiple outlets helps get information out to a wider audience.​

Technology 

Social media is being used in one of two ways during emergencies: to disseminate information and receive feedback, and as a systematic tool to conduct emergency communications. Although security managers may be reluctant to rely on social media for emergency communication, social media use during disasters is gaining traction.

However, some hesitancy is prudent because it is taking some communities decades to navigate new technology platforms—adopting Twitter as a communications device, for example. Managers should be mindful of their responsibility for employees during an emergency and ensure that advances in technology are included in procedures and processes. During an emergency in which social media is used to provide announcements and updates, there is an opportunity to include a wider audience than that reached by a simple public address system, but this requires planning.

 For example, if smart devices are expected to act as one of the methods to facilitate a conduit between the company and employees, the details must be established and tested in advance. If specific phone numbers, media accounts, or Web pages are used to send out announcements, it is important that the contact details are identified and the people sending out the messages understand exactly what must be done.

Adamski explains that security managers should consider their audiences when deciding what platforms to communicate with. To reach employees, for example, a public social media channel may not be the best option. “Look at what tools or channels their customers are on,” Adamski says. “Not everybody is necessarily on one social media channel. If you’re trying to get on every single social media channel, you’re stretched too thin, and your core audience may not even be on that channel.”

Collaborative techniques are required, and building partnerships between emergency management professionals and individuals involved in the response will require new alliances to be successful. It is desirable to include local and regional governmental resources, nearby companies that may share the risk of an emergency, any organizations involved in a mutual agreement of understanding to provide resources during an emergency, any contractor or vendor relationships, and all of the various internal elements within the company. All of this must take place well before an emergency so that trust is developed and agreements are established among the stakeholders. Within the company, it may be necessary to break out of the silo environment and work collaboratively to establish plans and processes designed to facilitate a stronger response to an emergency.​

Devising Strategy

Emergency operations professionals may require additional training to learn how to best create alert messages and ensure that communication lines are established with citizens before, during, and after the crisis. A good starting point for developing a social media emergency response strategy is to adhere to the traditional four phases of emergency management: prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. 

Although FEMA has a dedicated staff for crisis communication, Adamski says that businesses can often train an existing staff member to wear multiple hats and manage social media communications, even if it’s something they only work on for 10 percent of their time. 

“Maybe that staff member does a lot of training before disasters, so that person can conduct their day-to-day responsibilities, and wear the emergency hat if necessary,” Adamski explains. “You’ve got to look at the internal organization and operation and skillset and where things can be moved around, and find out what’s best for that individual organization. Sometimes you’d be surprised how you can come up with good, creative solutions.”

Adamski also stresses the importance of training multiple people to use social media during a crisis, so that there are backup personnel who can be put on shifts during ongoing emergencies.

Emergency managers will need to create social media platforms they intend to use, and then popularize those sites so the public knows to turn to them in times of crisis. “Practice on those channels and use them before an emergency, so the first time you’re using them is not during an emergency,” Adamski advises.

Managing Expectations

Adamski refers to the 2012 derecho situation as a time when managing expectations became as important as standard crisis communications. A challenge FEMA often faces is educating people on its role during a disaster, and the organization turns to social media in an emergency to explain to affected communities how it’s helping, Adamski notes.

Focusing on one unified message will help maintain the ability to manage information. While crisis managers cannot control individual citizens’ input, the messages being relayed from authoritative sources must be consistent, reliable, and trustworthy. Multiple resources are needed to combine data streams that will ultimately improve data management. Creating in-depth feedback protocols will be necessary to understand developments and concerns from residents actively being affected by the crisis.      

Ron Robbins, who manages FEMA’s National Business Emergency Operations Center (NBEOC), says that another key to maintaining a unified message is engaging with other businesses and agencies that might be affected by the same emergency. Members of the NBEOC, for example, sign agreements to share information when they are faced with situations where the private sector may have operations that could be affected.

“You have to practice what mechanism you’re going to use and who your touch points are going to be,” Robbins explains. “There’s a lot of different angles you can work at this, and it’s paramount for everybody to understand who and what is needed to communicate, and to practice that.” 

For example, when the NBEOC is activated, Robbins says FEMA starts reaching out to its partners, sharing situational awareness and information to organizations that may not have robust operations center capabilities. 

“We try to be forward-leaning about what’s happening to keep our partners aware so that they can communicate with their employees and make decisions at their levels for what they’re going to do to initiate plans on their end,” Robbins explains.​

Engaging the Community

It is becoming increasingly common for people to connect with public officials by asking questions or posting information online when an event occurs, and for expecting emergency operation agencies to be just as responsive by replying to feedback or answering a question. 

The ASIS study found that 55 percent of police departments surveyed actively use social media in performance of their duties, and it’s no longer uncommon to see law enforcement officers taking tips and answering questions on their Facebook or Twitter pages. 

Adamski says that he engages in what he calls social listening, which he compares to attending a town hall meeting: he takes a passive role and listens to conversations and concerns from the public, but can also answer questions or point someone in the right direction for accurate information.

Positive, regular interaction with the public via social media will also encourage people to trust and rely on that organization’s social media presence during a crisis. Adamski says that regardless of what people may ask on FEMA’s social media sites, it’s important that they see someone responding to their questions.

“Sometimes, we’ll have someone posting on our wall saying, ‘hey, this is what I did this weekend to get myself and my family prepared,’ and we’ll reply back to that person thanking them for sharing,” Adamski says. “It’s so they know they’re not just sharing their information to a hollow account that isn’t monitored.”​

Managing Misinformation

One of the toughest dilemmas society has is balancing the huge amounts of data available with the trustworthiness of that data. Multiple resources are needed to combine data streams that will ultimately improve data management. 

Rumor control is a regular part of crisis management on social media, Adamski notes. “If we see a rumor, we’ll coordinate with folks at a joint field office that’s open and say, ‘Hey, we saw this online, is it true, is it not, is there some validity to it? Is it a complete blatant rumor or did someone get a part of it wrong?’”

Whether bad actors are maliciously spreading invalid information or a simple misunderstanding has spiraled out of control, FEMA’s goal is to run the rumor into the ground and make sure only accurate facts are being shared, especially considering how quickly information can travel across the Internet. During bigger emergencies, FEMA may create a subpage on its official website that people on social media can refer to and share. 

During the Texas floods in May and June, FEMA created a subpage dedicated to the disaster to provide accurate, consistent information, Adamski says. It helped regional FEMA employees disseminate up-to-date information right away. For example, right after the worst of the flooding occurred, reports surfaced that people impersonating FEMA employees were trying to collect citizens’ personal information. The subpage helps people know how FEMA is interacting with the community and what steps to take next.

“We coordinate internally, we make sure we’re all on the same page, and we make sure we put the right information out there,” Adamski says. “Depending on the rumor, we may ask our partners to share the information—one message, multiple channels.” ​

Challenges

The ASIS study pinpointed three barriers that security professionals encounter when trying to develop a social media presence. These are a lack of personnel or time to work on social media, a lack of policies and guidelines, and concerns about trustworthiness of collected data. 

“Look around and find out what companies are around you that are doing great things in communities and states,” says Robbins. “There’s a lot of activity, a lot of things going on that maybe companies aren’t aware of, that could be available bandwidth for them to piggyback on and could help get at some of those challenges that they are having in an expeditious manner.” He also recommends that private sector organizations apply to become members of FEMA’s NBEOC to take advantage of organization-to-organization emergency communications that can then be passed on to the public.

Social media is having a positive impact on emergency managers, but a clear reluctance exists to accept social media protocols wholesale. This technology is dependent on professional security managers and leaders who have the technical know-how to enhance operations internally, externally, and with key stakeholders. 

Purposeful education programs are necessary if social media is going to be used wholesale in emergency management. The key to success is to ensure that those involved in presenting the information are experienced and knowledgeable. For example, the ASIS International Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council conducts an annual workshop on crisis management plan and program development. The council integrates social media techniques into the crisis communication phase of the workshop to help participants master the conceptual skills associated with this emerging technology.

The emergency operations industry should have a responsibility to create new methodologies, applications, and data strategies that will enhance overall contingency operations. Social media is making a positive difference in emergency operations, but has far to go before being completely transformed into common practice as a tool for emergency managers.

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James J. Leflar, Jr., CPP, CBCP (Certified Business Continuity Professional), MBCI (Member of the Business Continuity Institute), is a consultant for Zantech IT Services. Leflar is a former chair of the ASIS International Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council. He is also coauthor of Organizational Resilience: Managing the Risks of Disruptive Events—A Practitioner’s Guide. 

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