On 23 August 2011, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck Mineral, Virginia, and rattled a large area up and down the U.S. East Coast – an area unaccustomed to such seismic events. In the moments that followed, information and shocked reactions spread at an unprecedented rate. But the first reports were not on television or other traditional media. Rather, news of the quake was being reported through literally hundreds of social media websites, mobile applications on cellphones, and other electronic devices of those who had experienced the shocks personally.
In a conference room full of emergency planners in Eureka, California, the first news came to the group not from their own offices and headquarters, but from East Coast acquaintances posting messages to the Twitter and Facebook pages of the conference attendees. In fact, by the time the first official reports were released, responders across the nation were already well aware of the situation and were working on plans for the next steps that should be taken. The power of social media and its value as a viable communications tool in emergency response situations was once again made clear.
The past year witnessed many other events around the world that have further underscored the increased and still growing importance of social media. From communicating immediate information on such major disasters as the Joplin, Missouri, tornados and Japan’s earthquake/tsunami, to the coordination of political movements in Libya and the United States (the various “Occupy” demonstrations), a higher percentage of the population is now accessing social media and relying on it for accurate and up-to-the-minute information.
The ARC Survey: Some Compelling Findings
In the summer of 2011, the American Red Cross (ARC) conducted a survey to determine how the U.S. public might use social media to its best advantage, particularly in times of crisis. Among the key findings in that survey were the following:
- The Internet is the third most popular way for people to gather emergency information – already, 18% of the population specifically uses Facebook for that purpose;
- About 24% of the general population and almost one third (31%) of the online population say that they would use social media to let their loved ones know that they are safe;
- A huge 80% of the general population, and 69% of the online populations surveyed, said they believe that, to improve their ability to act promptly in times of crisis, national emergency response organizations should routinely monitor social media;
- Among those who said they would post a request for help through social media, 39% of those polled online – and 35% of those polled via telephone – said they would expect help to arrive in less than one hour.
Because of the public’s growing reliance on social media channels as an information source, it has become increasingly clear that emergency managers have not only a unique opportunity but also an almost moral obligation to exploit the many new tools now available to reach the American people “where they are” – online, in other words.
Quick Tips & Analytic Tools – At 5,500 Tweets Per Second
A major effort to do just that is currently underway in California, where the California Emergency Management Agency has teamed with the California Seismic Safety Commission and the California Earthquake Authority to create “Totally Unprepared” – an earthquake readiness campaign driven by the sharing of information through social media. Using popular social media websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and others, the Totally Unprepared campaign is able to deliver valuable preparedness information in a format that meshes with the needs of the online community. Through short video clips, tweets, and quick tips, users receive regular doses of information teaching them how to prepare for, react to, and respond to an earthquake.
The campaign also is attempting to grab the attention of viewers by using an interactive “fun” approach that works in stark contrast to the more standard approaches that might otherwise overwhelm and/or frighten those who need to be reached. Totally Unprepared was developed following a study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, which showed that less than half of the state’s residents had taken the steps needed to prepare for an earthquake. It was clear, the study also showed, that most Californians are in fact aware of the huge risks posed by earthquakes, but the previous preparedness messages had not inspired enough of them to take the actions needed to cope with those risks.
Although there are no official numbers yet available to prove whether or not a higher percentage of Californians are now preparing for earthquakes (and/or other disasters) as a result of the Totally Unprepared campaign, it seems clear that the thrust of that message is, in fact, being both seen and heard. By using the analytic tools that are built into many social media sites, it is now possible to track how many individuals are receiving, viewing, and sharing the preparedness messages. Moreover, with hundreds of video views, new “friends,” and followers being tracked each day, it seems abundantly clear that “the official word” is getting out, and spreading at an impressive pace.
Twitter reported – to cite but one example – over 40,000 earthquake-related tweets were sent within the first minute of the Virginia earthquake – a rate of nearly 5,500 tweets per second. It is highly unlikely that government and/or any other organizations and agencies, public or private, would receive anything close to that type of response through a news release or press conference.
Controlling the Pace, Squelching the Rumors, Fulfilling an Obligation
In an emergency, information being distributed through more traditional means quickly becomes irrelevant and may quite possibly be smothered by the crush of online messages being sent at a frenzied pace. Rumors and false information can quickly dilute the facts. Without a reliable social media presence providing accurate information to temper/correct the masses of false or misleading information also being disseminated, an organization’s reputation as an information resource can suffer among an online community seeking answers “right now.”
A credible organization providing regular updates via social media sites can effectively control “the story” in real time, address rumors both quickly and accurately, anticipate the needs and concerns of the public, and provide accurate information throughout an incident. Social media communications can also become a valuable resource for the print and broadcast media covering an incident, thus providing an opportunity to further publicize the message.
Although there is still at least some reluctance within many emergency organizations to dive into social media environment, the value to be gained is growing more and more apparent to those agencies that are taking that additional step forward. Another factor to be considered is that, in an uncertain economic climate, it has become increasingly important to seek new opportunities to reach the public at little to no cost. Social media websites offer just such an opportunity because of their unprecedented ability to connect and communicate with a huge percentage of the population who are actively seeking the information provided by emergency management agencies.
Today, when an earthquake strikes in California, most of that state’s population understands that the best way to avoid injury is to “drop, cover, and hold on” until the shaking stops. During the Virginia quake, however, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Americans up and down the East Coast ran from their buildings, placing themselves at much greater risk – while also grabbing for their phones to tweet relatives, friends, and neighbors about what had just happened. The quake created confusion, uncertainty, and an immediate large-scale need for information.
In the first minute following the quake, in fact, an estimated 40,000 people were on Twitter talking about what had happened – proving again what an extraordinary opportunity is now available for emergency management agencies to reach a broad audience. In an industry where information sharing is so critical, the opportunity to establish and maintain a social media presence is not one that these agencies can afford to miss. In that context, it is or should be obvious, social media networking is not simply another tool to help extend the reach of an organization but, rather, the means needed to carry out an ongoing obligation to the public that the organization is serving.
For additional information on: The key findings of the 2011 American Red Cross survey
The Totally Unprepared Campaign
The study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles
The Drop, Cover, and Hold On Campaign
The California Emergency Management Agency
UPDATE ADDED IN APRIL 2022: Earthquake Warning California
Jordan Scott is a Public Information Officer and the Director of Social Media for the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA). In addition to his work building Cal EMA’s social media presence, he also develops and maintains content for the agency’s website and works with his team to coordinate public and media outreach efforts. Jordan joined Cal EMA in 2009 following thirteen years working with the California Environmental Protection Agency and some time in local radio conducting promotional outreach. In 2002, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications Studies and Digital Media from California State University, Sacramento.