Social Media During Emergencies–An Unrealistic Expiation?

by admin on August 29, 2011 · 11 comments


I am a huge proponent of social media for government, nonprofits and associations. But the use of some aspects of social media during emergencies scares me.

It’s not the concept; it’s the execution.

As someone who has directed the media response to dozens of emergency-related events, I know how difficult execution can be. Accessing dozens of sources of conflicting information and rumors and getting the facts correct is a monumental task that can involve up to 30 people working a 10-12 hour shift. It’s a logistical nightmare.

Add social media monitoring and response and things could get quickly get out of hand.

Using social media to “inform” the public is not the issue. Having Facebook and Twitter pages at the ready to use during emergencies is fine. Posting audio and video messages on a pre-constructed website is wonderful.

The data below is from the American Red Cross and all of should be grateful they are examining the issue of social media during emergencies.

But there are two findings that are disturbing:

  • Four of five (80 percent) of the general and 69 percent of the online populations surveyed believe that national emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media sites in order to respond promptly.
  • For those who would post a request for help through social media, 39 percent of those polled online and 35 of those polled via telephone said they would expect help to arrive in less than one hour.

Is there anyone out there who believes that first responders really have the capacity to monitor social media during an emergency? It’s challenging enough just to monitor local and national news to make sure that the facts reported are correct.

What social media sites are we going to monitor? Facebook? Twitter? StumbleUpon? What about the dozens of other social media sites? Who is going to sift through tens of thousands of messages and judge “factual” information from the silliness that permeates much of the web?

By-the-way, just in case you haven’t noticed, budget cuts are making all aspects of government more challenging, emergency management included.

But does anyone really expect a post on Facebook to produce a response within an hour? What planet do these people live on?

Again, all of us embrace social media.  But are we at the point where a sizeable number of people misconstrue the “power” of social media? We live in a world of crime shows where the authorities are armed with the latest and greatest in technology and most of us understand that this world is based on pure fantasy. But there are others who believe that this portrayal is factual. That’s scary.

So lets continue to use social media in proactive emergency management. Let’s get factual information to the public in every conceivable way.

But let’s not over-estimate the power of social media and lets remember that government is more challenged than ever with the increasing cuts to budget.

Let’s not set unrealistic explications for government and the people we serve. All that does is hurt response during emergencies.

Best, Len.

More Americans Using Social Media and Technology in Emergencies

WASHINGTON, Wednesday, August 24, 2011 — Americans are relying more and more on social media, mobile technology and online news outlets to learn about ongoing disasters, seek help and share information about their well-being after emergencies, according to two new surveys conducted by the American Red Cross.

The surveys, one by telephone of the general population and a second online survey, continue to show that the vast majority of Americans believe response organizations should be both monitoring social media during disasters and acting quickly to help.

“Social media is becoming an integral part of disaster response,” said Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross. “During the record-breaking 2011 spring storm season, people across America alerted the Red Cross to their needs via Facebook.  We also used Twitter to connect to thousands of people seeking comfort, and safety information to help get them through the darkest hours of storms.”


Key findings include:

  • Followed by television and local radio, the internet is the third most popular way for people to gather emergency information with 18 percent of both the general and the online population specifically using Facebook for that purpose
  • Nearly a fourth (24 percent) of the general population and a third (31 percent) of the online population would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe;
  • Four of five (80 percent) of the general and 69 percent of the online populations surveyed believe that national emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media sites in order to respond promptly.
  • For those who would post a request for help through social media, 39 percent of those polled online and 35 of those polled via telephone said they would expect help to arrive in less than one hour.


The surveys, which polled 1,011 telephone respondents and 1,046 online respondents, found that those from the online survey population use a variety of technologies to both learn more about disasters and share information about their well-being, including Facebook, Twitter, text alerts, online news sites and smart phone applications, suggesting that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to using these tools during disasters.

In contrast, people participating in the telephone survey tended to be more reliant on traditional media and non-social websites like those belonging to local news outlets, government agencies or utility companies. The Red Cross survey also found that women and households with children are more likely to use social media channels to inform others of their safety.

The survey findings show that the increasing use of social media and mobile technologies to get disaster information and to seek help should cause response agencies to adjust their procedures to use social media more to engage with people in times of disaster and to include information from social networks in their response efforts.

“Calling 9-1-1 is always the best first action to take when a person needs emergency assistance, but this survey shows there is an opportunity for emergency responders to meaningfully engage their communities on the social web,” said Trevor Riggen, senior director of disaster services for the American Red Cross. “Traditional media such as television and radio are still important ways to reach people with emergency information but the social web offers a chance for emergency responders to understand in real time what their communities care about and need – and to become part of the fabric of the community.”

On an average day, the Red Cross is mentioned 3,000 times in the social media space. During a disaster, those mentions grow exponentially and range from people asking for help to those looking for a way to help their neighbors to suggestions for monetary donations.

“As the numbers of people using these new technologies in disaster situations continue to increase, response agencies, including the Red Cross have a tremendous opportunity to engage the public where they are spending time,” said Harman. “Through social media, we can listen to, inform and empower people prior to emergencies, providing them with useful information about evacuation routes, shelters and safety tips before disasters strike.”

In August 2010, the Red Cross hosted an Emergency Social Data Summit at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. More than 150 people – leaders and experts in the government, social media, emergency response and the nonprofit sectors – attended the full-day summit to discuss how organizations might begin to listen to and potentially act on information that flows through the social web during disasters.

In the year since the Summit, the Red Cross has created a process to route life-threatening cries for help to local first responders. The organization has also increased its commitment to listen and engage social communities with a planned digital volunteer role, and continues to work with emergency response colleagues on processes and protocols for taking action on incoming information during disasters.

The Red Cross also offers two free mobile applications—one that provides shelter locations and the “American Red Cross SOS” app that teaches first aid and CPR. The shelter finder app can be accessed through the Apple app store and the SOS app can be accessed through the Android marketplace. The Red Cross has also integrated Facebook and Twitter into the Safe and Well site, so people can register that they are safe and update their social media status and let others know how they are doing.

For more information and to view the full survey, visit

About the American Red Cross:

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation’s blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or join our blog at




Wendy August 29, 2011 at 11:21 am

Thanks Leonard. This is Wendy from the American Red Cross. These are indeed the issues we’re hoping to bring up. While we’re all excited about social tools and embracing social communities as much as possible, there is still a gap between public expectation and the capacity of emergency managers. Thanks for your thoughtful post. I look forward to hearing from others about it.

Clif Lusk September 1, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Clif Lusk • The immediacy of two-way communications brought about by social media is indeed a vexing issue. Since PIOs, presumably, become “commo” in this regard, great coordination is needed internally in response organizations to sift through the “incoming.” This information isn’t necessarily all “SOS” related, however. Accurate situational reporting can be captured through social media as well — and can be much more timely than organizational responses. The JIC can be of invaluable service to operations, and we need examine how the interfaces can happen (no committees please, just get the bosses together on this one). What befuddles me is that people can have access to these sites during a hurricane, when they can’t get a 9-1-1 on a line, cellular or land. We have to prepare for social media being the only line of communication open to some people in some situations. We’ll all have to designate a team of individuals to constantly monitor at least the major sites (Facebook and Twitter) and have for those staffers clear, concise guidelines for prompt reply.

admin September 2, 2011 at 8:49 am

Great comments Clif. Thanks. Len.

Tina September 13, 2011 at 5:35 am

That addresses seevral of my concerns actually.

Lloyd Colston September 10, 2011 at 8:16 am

Some of the issues brought up in this article are addressed in the Advanced Crisis Communications Strategies for Public Safety Communications Supervisors (MGT-386) as well as an AWARE post at .

Now, if you want MGT-386 training, see your State training officer.
It’s a NEW course just added to the catalog.
is the list of
coordinators near you. Minimum class is 15; maximum 30. If you had
more than 15, to accommodate multiple classes, it was mentioned the
classes could be scheduled back to back, ex. first class one day,
second class next day, etc.

Yes, it’s a one-day class.

While the class is directed to 911 supervisors, it’s also appropriate
for public information officers, agency heads who may be involved in
crisis communication, and emergency managers.

What you will learn:

rumor identification and mitigation, develop effective key messages
and talking points, develop effective strategies for interacting with
reporters, identify methods for gathering and distributing information
via social media.

The instruction staff, roughly two per FEMA region, are eager to get
out with this important information out to you.

Thanks for bringing this information to the table.


admin September 11, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Thanks Lloyd. Wonderful response. Best, Len.

Lauri Moon November 14, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Do you have any examples of social media posts by an emergency management group/government that went wrong? Could you provide any links? Thanks

admin November 14, 2016 at 2:58 pm

Hi Laurie: Thanks for the question. After 35 years in government public affairs, and after handling numerous emergencies, it’s inevitable that misinformation will be released via social media in the same way that incorrect information was released through conventional means. The very nature of emergencies means that bad information will be offered and corrected. The method of release doesn’t matter. However, for examples, see “The Verification Handbook.” Best, Len.

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