Changing Patterns of Communication During Crisis

Changing Patterns of Communication During Crisis

By: Daniel Jeffers - Search Engine Optimization - 2014

This is the longer version of a segment of the November edition of the BDS Notes newsletter. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here.

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Hurricane Sandy was a milestone for social media communications during a disaster. Several trends came together at a higher level than anything previous.

Excepting direct communications between emergency responders and officials, disaster communications fall into these general categories:

  • Status of individuals in affected areas—to friends and family
  • News gathering and distribution
  • Information gathered by and for individuals to evaluate risk and take well-informed steps
  • Official announcements about evacuations, status, resources
  • Communication between individuals and emergency resource providers and responders

Previous Milestone: 2007 California wildfires

The 2007 wildfires are often cited as a turning point for the first three points. User created maps and feeds were more accurate, and more helpful than news services and official sources. [see Backchannels on the Front Lines: Emergent Uses of Social Media in the 2007 Southern California Wildfires]

According to the report:

Several respondents wrote that traditional news sources were slow and not helpful; did not know what they were talking about; and were useless during “the mess.”

One resident reported:

national news websites were completely worthless as they ignored everything except the comparatively minor Malibu fire which burned near some celebrity homes.

Disaster planners still feared that this new type of communication could quickly spread false information.  However, the same report points out that back channel communications, especially facilitated by the new technologies, provide far more benefits:

Disaster researchers have indicated that social interaction is crucial to successful coping with disaster fallout (Dakof & Taylor, 1990; Smyth & Pennbaker, 1999).

New Milestone: Sandy in 2012

While the 2007 wildfires saw the emergence of user-generated resource sharing, Hurricane Sandy saw social media being used effectively for all communication types on a far larger scale. According to CBS News

The social analytics firm Topsy reported nearly 3.5 million tweets with the hashtag #sandy in the last 24 hours. Instagram's chief executive officer Kevin Systrom told the Associated Press that about 10 pictures per second were being uploaded to Instagram with the hashtag #sandy.

Reporting Status

Residents were advised to use social media to update friends and relatives instead of using cell phones or landlines. Twitter and Facebook updates proved to be the best way to communicate while conserving dwindling batteries.

News Coverage

Traditional news outlets relied heavily on Twitter and Facebook for news. Many used video from YouTube and user-contributed photos extensively.

Community communications

David Carr, writing in the New York Times, describes how Twitter discussions became an online, local community working together to deal with the disaster.

This very large event would not be televised. We built a fire and sat around a hand-cranked radio, but I was diverted over and over by the little campfire of Twitter posts on my smartphone.

It was hard to resist. Twitter not only keeps you in the data stream, but because you can contribute and re-tweet, you feel as if you are adding something even though Mother Nature clearly has the upper hand. The activity of it, the sharing aspect, the feeling that everyone is in the boat and rowing, is far different from consuming mass media.

Official Announcements

Officials not only used social media to broadcast traditional emergency messaging, they found new ways to communicate and connect with the community.

According to the CBS report:

New York City mayor Micheal Bloomberg's office sent out a tweet Tuesday, telling citizens that if water coming out of faucets is safe to drink.

Another report, on PR Weekdescribed how people tuned into important channels:

Before Sandy approached the East Coast, Con Edison had about 1,000 Twitter followers; now the utility company has more than 22,000. New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city's subways, buses, tunnels, and bridges, nearly tripled its audience on Twitter from 26,000 to more than 75,000 in the days after the storm.

And, in a more innovative approach, how officials used social media to show residents why restoration of services was taking so long:

“we sent our [track-certified] photographer and video guy down into the tube to come back with images showing the extent of the damage, how many crews were working on it, and the ‘pump trains' still pumping water out,” he says. “Through every available channel, we explained where we were with the situation, what we're doing, what we've seen – and then said, ‘Here is proof that we're working as hard as we can.'

Emergency Response

Finally, officials used social media to receive and respond to individual emergency situations. According to the CBS report:

The Fire Department of New York tweeted incidents of major fires through the night via Twitter. According to Yahoo News, the FDNY even had a dedicated person monitoring its Twitter account to respond to people tweeting emergencies. Emily Rahimi, the FDNY's social media manager, responded to over 100 tweets overnight.

"I was just tweeting to people who were not able to get through to 911," Rahimi told Yahoo News.

Ongoing Concern: Spreading False Information

During Sandy, most of the attention focused on one source of bad information, even though most of the reports were quickly corrected. According to USA Today [Dark Side of Social Media]:

Hurricane Sandy exposed a dangerous underbelly of social media: False information can go viral.

A post that the 109-year-old building that is home to the stock exchange was flooded with water became the subject of debate Tuesday after CNN reported it.

….  His Twitter feed included other erroneous tweets, including one that all subways would be closed for the rest of the week and that major lines were flooded and another that Con Edison was shutting off all power to New York City. Con Edison corrected the tweet, saying it may shut down service in low-lying areas.

The article, headline aside, emphasized that mistakes were corrected relatively quickly:

Debra Jasper, a co-founder of the social media consulting company Mindset Digital, says fact-checking is as quick on Twitter as the spreading of misinformation.

Indeed, posters immediately began asking the source of the information on the flooding at the stock exchange.

"People can correct misinformation in real time, too," Jasper says.

The Future

It seems clear that the social media usage patterns we saw during Hurricane Sandy will be part of disasters in the future. Any group that needs to engage in ongoing communications during a disaster would be advised to look into how all five types of communication have changed and been enhanced through the use of social media.

Unrelated tip, look into a hand-powered charger for your cell phones.