The power of social media in a crisis

Tornado Recover 1After spending the weekend working on storm recovery with the City of Wyoming, I am reminded once again of the incredible power that social media can have in a crisis.

Emergency sirens started wailing Saturday afternoon, catching much of West Michigan off guard. I had just struggled my way through blinding rain into Costco with my husband and stepson only to be denied entrance – then allowed to enter – and then forbidden to leave. Tornado, the Costco team had said, you’re better to stay here.

We bolted for the doors, my husband driving while I turned to Twitter for the news. Early reports were all over the map – funnel clouds spotted in Hamilton, in Grand Haven, shrouded by rain and unidentifiable. Back at home, Jeff turned on the television for news while I hopped on my laptop, snagging and sharing alerts on the Facebook pages of several clients we manage.

A few calls and texts later, I was back in my car and flying to Wyoming, which was already reporting power outages, extensive tree damage and street closures – but thankfully, no injuries. Wyoming Public Safety allowed me, and then my colleague Brian, behind the barricades and into Incident Command where they gathered with other departments to begin the process of putting the City back together again.

This is the second serious storm event I have helped the City of Wyoming address. The first was in July 2014 when an EF-1 touched down, destroying much of Ideal Park and causing extensive damage to homes and businesses – but again, no injuries. Now as then, we relied extensively on social media to get the news out to both the media and to residents.

What I learned them, and was reminded of this weekend:

  • Skip the formality. In both cases, we drafted one initial press release to capture general information out as quickly as possible. We quickly abandoned that format in favor of providing regular – although shorter – updates on Facebook and Twitter. We then pushed these out to the media via email, forgoing the standard structure and format of a traditional press release. No one minded – in fact, residents and the media shared and retweeted even short bits of critical information.
  • Update regularly. In the absence of reliable information, the rumor mill is king. Using Wyoming’s Facebook and Twitter platforms, we were able to provide real-time updates as soon as a team member from Public Safety, Public Works, Inspections, Parks & Recreation, Administration, etc. called in from the field. Those updates, even the small ones, were shared by media, amplifying the City’s message even further.
  • Focus on the big picture. In any crisis, personal safety is the most important thing. We try to share the big items – stay away from downed power lines or report medical emergencies, in the case of Saturday’s storm – first, followed by the next most important things – where to find shelter if your home is damaged or how to access repair services. I’ve found that Maslow and his wonderful hierarchy of needs from my Psych 101 class is always a great place to start.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. Just because you’ve said it once on social media doesn’t mean that everyone has seen it, heard it or understood it. Repeat the important stuff – Stay away from downed power lines! Stay home if you’re not a first responder! Call this number if you need non-emergency assistance! – to ensure you are heard. And then repeat again.
  • Choose pictures carefully. There is no end to “storm porn” pictures circulating traditional and social media now. The City has made an intentional decision NOT to share those photos – they only add to the anxiety of affected residents without offering anything of value. Instead, we chose to capture and share images of our team helping with storm recovery – from Mayor Jack Poll walking through neighborhoods most affected by the storm in the hour after it happened to Inspections going door-to-door checking on the safety of homes to neighbors lending a hand to neighbors with storm cleanup.
  • Correct mistakes immediately. By their nature, crisis situations are fluid and fast-changing. Incorrect information can be passed along or correct information can be misreported. Both can result in mistakes being made, both on social media and in reports to traditional media. Social media makes it a snap to correct – but don’t stop at deleting a tweet or editing a Facebook post. Retweet and repost the right information and let people know it has been corrected.

The weekend’s social media results continue to amaze me. Over the course of two days, Wyoming shared one formal press release and at least a half-dozen less-formal updates. As of Tuesday at 5:00 p.m., we had:

  • 45 Facebook posts, which had a reach of 164,492 and 27,119 engagements
  • 32 tweets, which had a reach of 70,324 and 1,261 engagements

The comments from residents were all the proof I needed of the true power of social media. Here’s one thread on a single post:

And my personal favorite:

What can we do for you?