Social Media: The New Public Broadcast System

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Social media is a must-need tool for government in times of crisis, such as life-threatening weather events.

Citizens look to social media in a crisis

In an study published in Public Relations Review, researchers surveyed more than 300 local government officials on use of social media tools for crisis communication and management. They found that more than 70 percent of those officials engaged online during a crisis and that their social media use was positively related to their ability to control a crisis. It was also  associated with positive overall evaluations of the strength of their response, according to the study.  

By examining social media during 2017’s Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which brought severe damage to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively, a report by Hootsuite called The State of Social Media in Government in 2018 found it was evident that the public rely on social media as their lifeline in a crisis.

Press releases aren’t enough, according to the report:

“ Government agencies and emergency response teams need to speak directly to the people via the most efficient channels: social media. A strong critical response plan, directed through

social media, can be a mitigating factor in containing a crisis—and can save lives.”

Taking control of the narrative

In addition, an official presence on social media during a crisis is critical in stopping rumors in their tracks in real time.

The report shared advice from the U.S. Department of State: Use analytics to monitor conversations. Don’t ignore questions. Take control of the narrative. Have a plan, and revise it regularly, with pre-approved content that can be posted quickly in a crisis to get updates out to citizens.

Building relationships before the crisis

The report also found that having an understanding of social media personalities with many followers is useful in crises. These are individuals that carry trust within the community and a partnership with them can help amplify official messages, which will minimize the spread of misinformation, according to the report.

Crisis communications in action

Look at how local governments worked to keep their residents informed at the height of Hurricane Florence, which brought record high winds, dangerous storm surges and destruction to the Carolinas:

The City of Wilmington, North Carolina stayed active on Twitter as the hurricane made landfall. It gave citizens officials updates, important emergency numbers to call, information from local emergency response agencies and retweeted news and official weather organizations that were tracking the storm minute by minute.  

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The same goes for New Hanover County, which issued advisories for residents to stay safe. The county also posted videos, showing just how severe the storm was. Its Twitter account related flash flood warnings, too.

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The City of Columbia, South Carolina posted Facebook live videos with updates from local officials, who shared storm preparation tips and streamed its press conferences.

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The City of Myrtle Beach kept social media users informed on curfews, let residents know they could expect from the storm and how they could report damage. 

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Civic Plus shared a guide on social media in a crisis that walks you through different benefits of particular social media networks. Their tips include sending updates frequently, across multiple social channels to prevent mixed messaging.

In addition to recommending creating a crisis communication plan, they call for “short and actionable messages” that have a calm and informative tone.

They note that the updates shouldn’t stop the moment a serious event is over:

“Continue to share updates even when an event has ended. Your citizens will be just as interested to learn about your community’s recovery and clean-up progress.”

Miranda Lutzow