Social Media is Changing Disaster Response; find out what it means for Your Business

Once upon a time when disaster struck, the first thing most people would do was turn on their radio or television set to get a better sense of the situation.

Although mass media was and, to some extent, still is invaluable for understanding the big picture of a disaster, there are limited places reporters and cameras can be at one time. What’s top of mind for most people impacted by a disaster is what’s happening in specific areas and whether or not their friends and family are safe.

That is, no doubt, a big part of the reason that people quickly embraced social media as a go-to resource during disasters. After all social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, provide an easy and fast way to check in with friends and better understand what’s happening in their or your immediate vicinity. Not to mention that cell phone service can be more reliable than other utilities during disasters.

Given how heavily people rely on social media platforms during disasters today, it’s important for business owners and decision makers to understand how social media is impacting disaster response along with key ways your business can use social media in the event of a disaster in your area. Let’s take a closer look.

How People are Using Social Media During Disasters
The University of San Francisco produced a great infographic that summarizes the power of social media during disasters. It turns out that survivors rely heavily on social media. For example as of 2012:1

  • 76% let friends know they are okay
  • 37% purchase supplies and find shelter
  • 18% use Facebook to access emergency information

In recent years, those numbers have likely increased significantly, and they only scratch the surface of the value of social media. Just consider that pictures of specific areas are helpful to emergency responders and family members or friends alike, and when phone lines are jammed up with calls and other traffic, texting or social media is often still available. Moreover, social media provides a way to raise awareness of the situation in an area with aid agencies, and even raise funds for recovery.2

Social media companies have also taken note of the importance of their services during a disaster. In 2014, for instance, Facebook launched a new tool called Safety Check that enables users to easily let their friends and family know they are okay after a disaster hits.3 Twitter even created an algorithm to help pinpoint major flood events in specific areas based on tweets and pictures people post.4 And those are just two examples of recent innovations.

How Businesses are Using Social Media During Disasters
Beyond the advances happening with respect to disaster response on the social media platforms themselves, businesses and emergency response organizations have widely embraced social media as a tool for helping to manage disasters. In addition to using it to share important information about what’s happening during a disaster, emergency response organizations and businesses are increasingly using social media to:5

  • Distribute specific emergency notices
  • Listen to victims and learn about what they need help with
  • Figure out what’s happening in specific areas based on hashtags and postings
  • Estimate damages, based on pictures and other information being shared.

For example, during Hurricane Katrina, New York City used Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube and other social media channels to share information with and gather data from residents. The city not only used the platforms to answer questions and share alerts, it was able to better understand what was happening in specific areas.6 And during Hurricane Sandy, in 2013, a New Jersey utility company used Twitter to help residents locate shelter areas with power.7

Today, social media accounts are widely employed by local, state and national governments and agencies responsible for disaster response and management, and the tools and uses of social media in disasters continue to evolve with the technology.

3 Keys to Effectively Using Social Media for Your Business During a Disaster
Although there are many ways you could use social media in your business, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It is, however, important to plan ahead on a few things to ensure that things go smoothly. Specifically, it’s a good idea to:

1. Determine the Best Platforms
Consider the types of information you may need to convey to employees and customers and make sure you have accounts on the most appropriate platforms for conveying that information. For most organizations, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Instagram should suffice, but other platforms may be useful as well.

2. Select a Social Media Point Person
One of the big challenges during a disaster is ensuring that information is accurate and shared in an appropriate way. That’s why it’s best to assign a social media “spokesperson” for your organization who understands what type of information should be conveyed and on which platforms.

3. Notify Employees about Specific Channels
Make sure your employees know which platforms you will be sharing information on during a disaster and encourage them to set up accounts. It’s also a good idea to provide them lists of key local, state or national social media accounts that may be helpful to them during a disaster.

Awareness is Everything
In a disaster situation, reliable information means less stress and greater safety. That’s why social media is so invaluable during disasters, and it’s such a good idea for your business to have a clear plan for using it.

1 Social Media, The New Face of Disaster Response, University of San Francisco, 2012.
2 How Facebook is Transforming Disaster Response; Wired; November, 2016.
3 Twitter Could Shape Flood Disaster Response; Scientific American; June, 2015.
4 Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations; Congressional Research 5 Service Report; September, 2011.
6 Sandy Marked a Shift in Social Media Use in Disasters, Gov Tech, March 2013.
7 How Social Media is Changing Disaster Response, Scientific American, June 2013.

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