A Modest Proposal on How to Integrate Social Media Outreach Into Emergency Response

As part of our ongoing series on the role of public information within the Incident Command Structure, it’s become increasingly apparent that social media is a big driver of the need for change or updating (read: not the only driver, though). To that end, I’d like to address this idea of social media in emergency response.

First, there are LOTS of amazingly talented and intelligent people out there screaming from the rooftops that social media needs to be included as part of emergency preparedness and response. If you haven’t yet heard one of these folks, there’s a great list of them here. And the astute amongst you will see Craig Fugate, FEMA Administrator, about halfway down that list. If you’re not sure about the need for social media as a component of response, check out these folks Twitter feeds; reach out to them. Passionate doesn’t begin to describe how they feel.

I start these posts with the mindset that you, the reader, understand the utility of social media during an emergency response, and understand that social media will be a large part of the public’s reaction to the emergency.

Originally, this post looked at the problems associated with both outgoing social media messages and incoming social media messages, but not having reached resolution after several hundred words has lead me to separate the two. Therefore, today is a post on outgoing, with an upcoming post on incoming.

If you think of social media as another communication tool, outgoing messages should be controlled by the PIO. Written in the the JIC, approved by the IC and released as the official word of the response. Just like a press release. Well, not really. How many versions does a press release go through? How many versions should a Facebook post go through?

And this is where it gets tricky. Communications out of the JIC comprise the official voice of the response and anything less than perfect is, frankly, unacceptable. But then you think about the worst case scenario from my last post—twelve hours to get a release approved and, by the time it’s actually released, the information contained within is out of date.

That’s obviously the worst case scenario, and should never have happened, but think about the timeframe we’re working with. The media can be sated for an hour while you get a release together and approved. Do you think that Joe@Philly, on the internet, can be sated for an hour? Or will he take that hour and post hundreds of inflammatory, incorrect, libelous messages on every social media network that he can register for?

I’m guessing that probably the latter of the two is more likely.

So, how should we reconcile the two? Speed versus… Well, accuracy is the wrong term, because quick statements are not necessarily wrong. Speed versus approval. Speed versus coordination.

When it’s written like that I know where I stand. Our CERC motto is be first, be credible, be right. Nothing in there about proper approvals or coordinated messaging. It’s in the response’s best interest, though, to make sure that your Assistant PIOs aren’t going off half-cocked and releasing unapproved messages. That worry, though, still doesn’t preclude a response from releasing messages quickly, or using social media. If you’ve got someone releasing unapproved messages by phone, by Twitter, by personal contact, you take them off the response; a leak is a leak.

The problem is that messages take too long to approve. Factual information is collected, vetted, passed to the PIOs, incorporated into messages, the messages are approved and then released. I argue that we should aim to take one of these steps out of the process. I suggest the approval step.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, what did he say? Yep, I said it. I think that ICs should no longer approve messages before they’re distributed.

Instead, the IC should approve two other things: the PIO (or spokesperson) and the facts. These are the facts of the situation as we know and can confirm them, and I trust you to craft appropriate messages based upon those facts. Done. At that point, there is no need to have the IC read every little tweet and Facebook post and press release. They can then focus on managing the response (which is what they’re good at and why they’ve been put in charge), instead of micromanaging what the PIO is good at and why she’s been put in charge of public information.

I agree, it’s a pretty radical idea that diverts strongly from the established practices within ICS, but I think it manages to preserve the overall spirit of the system while allowing public information to flow in a manner appropriate to today’s media environment.


3 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal on How to Integrate Social Media Outreach Into Emergency Response

  1. As a 28-year communications professional, I agree, but this should apply beyond social media. A trusted spokesperson + approved facts should be sufficient and is the best way to ensure consistent, timely organizational communications that rise above the egos that all too often get involved in internal review processes. Exception: if you’re quoting someone, they should have the right to review their quote. Consideration: sometimes legal review is needed, but every organizational communicator should have partnership with the organization’s legal counsel so they can quickly and directly work together.

  2. Well said, Ms. Baker.Unfortunately, I didn’t explicitly say that; I should have, though. There’s a line in the second to last paragraph that looks to absolve the IC of approving every tweet, Facebook post and press release. I couched this discussion as a way to better integrate social media into response, but like you said, a trusted spokesperson and approved fact should be enough to get good messages out.Thanks so much for reading and your comment!

  3. Right on Jim! Read my blog post from EmergencyMgmt magazine. Link is on my blog. Great minds think alike! Now, how do we structure it in ICS? I submit that ICS Command Positions may need to be expanded, along with digital media “cells” imbedded in other sections/areas like Planning and Intell.

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