12 Days of SMEM: San Diego County Power Outage

And the hits just keep on coming. Today we head all the way to the
West Coast, to beautiful, nothing-ever-happens-there, San Diego,

But something did happen. Do you remember what you were doing on the
afternoon of September 8, 2011? If you were in parts of Arizona,
California or Mexico, you were walking around in the
what the heck was going on.

And if you were concerned about any type of public health aspect of
losing power (and really, there are only scores of reasons not to
lose power to avert public health problems), you had a friend in San
Diego County, California: Tom Christensen and the folks at the San
Diego County Health and Human Services Agency.

As PIO for SDCHHSA Tom coordinates messaging for the Agency, and on
that afternoon (and ultimately through the night), Tom got on Twitter
and blasted out as many updates as he could. I truly believe this is
one of the very best examples of how Twitter was used in a public
health emergency. And as such, Tom, and the rest of the San Diego
County Health and Human Services Agency folks, deserve a robust round
of applause, so without further ado:

The County of San Diego began its social media effort to highlight
County programs and services in March, 2009. The Health and Human
Services Agency (HHSA) followed and launched its social media efforts
in August, 2009. The County currently utilizes these accounts, as well
as a ReadySanDiego account
assigned to our Office of Emergency Services, during any emergency

We use all three accounts heavily in emergency situations. We will
often utilize features like Splitweet or HootSuite to send out the
same message on all three accounts.

We have fully embraced the use of social media, and our County of San
Diego Twitter is one of the top ten most followed local government
entity Twitter accounts in the nation with around 6,800 followers.

Twitter is becoming more of an immediate news source every day. It
seems the first place anyone hears of any major news event happening
is through Twitter. As a government entity, we use Twitter to reach
targeted audiences (in the case of HHSA, many of our followers are
local media members, other public health departments and health care
organizations); to reach the general public; and sometimes to by-pass
the traditional media with unfiltered messages.

We have had two emergency situations in the past two years with two
very different circumstances. The first was during the H1N1 pandemic
in 2009 and most recently, we had a power outage on Sept. 8, 2010,
that affected up to 7 million people in Southern California, western
Arizona and northern Mexico.

We did not begin using social media at HHSA until we were well into
the H1N1 crisis. We had been doing some messaging on the main County
account, but our first HHSA tweet reported three local deaths related
to H1N1 (these were the 14th-16th H1N1-related deaths in our County).
Since the pandemic was months old at that point, we mainly used social
media to remind people to get their H1N1 flu shot and to report
significant events such as deaths and mass vaccination clinics.

The power outage provides a better example of the power of social
media. This emergency unfolded quickly, and because it was a power
outage most of the mainstream media was unable to operate normally. TV
stations weren’t able to broadcast and the only radio station on the
air was the area’s designated emergency station that had a backup

Social media supplemented our public outreach of news conferences and
press releases during H1N1. During the power outage, traditional media
outreach wasn’t an option and people turned to Twitter in droves
seeking information and direction.

The three Twitter accounts
ReadySanDiego and
SDCountyHHSA) gained more than
2,400 followers during the power outage incident. The County Twitter
account sent out 123 messages during the nine hours most of the region
was without power and those tweets were retweeted dozens of times.
This provided solid evidence showcasing the power of social media and
how quickly you can spread your message.

It also allowed us to interact directly with the public. Without TV
coverage, Twitter became the main source of information and was more
immediate than Facebook or the County website. We received many tweets
from the public asking for specific information related to the power
outage and we were able to directly answer questions via Twitter.

One of the most practical uses of Twitter that evening was when we
announced we were going to have a press conference with County
officials and representatives from the power utility. People began
tweeting us back asking how they could get the information with no
television coverage. The answer? We “live tweeted” the press
conference. We sent out all the information from the press conference
in 140 character messages as it was happening.

Both during and after the power outage, we received dozens of tweets
from the public acknowledging us for providing them with constant
information. If anyone had doubts about the power of social media,
they were erased during the power outage.

Once you have established yourself as a reliable source of
information, people will continue to turn to you in a crisis. Social
media allows you to get your message out directly to the public and
allows them to help you spread that message even further. In an
emergency situation, it makes a great partner with traditional media
to get your message quickly to as many people as possible.