3 Steps for Creating Effective Disaster Response Communication

It’s a fact: People are increasingly relying on social media for natural disaster updates. As early as Superstorm Sandy in 2013, citizens began turning to social media to receive critical updates from their federal, state and local governments about natural disasters.

After Hurricane Sandy, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report on emergency response preparedness found that more than 20 million Sandy-related tweets were sent despite cellphone outages during the peak of the storm. Since Sandy, the public’s reliance on social media before and during hurricanes – from learning about storm preparations to requesting urgent emergency – has continued to grow.

3 Steps for Creating Effective Disaster Response Communication

A lack of communication leaves citizens confused about critical information, such as evacuation plans, exit routes, closed roads and many other essential details necessary to create safety for citizens. In response, governments can employ the following three-step approach to create effective communication with their citizens:

  1. Develop a single source of truth by leveraging the channels that your citizens are using.
  2. Create a consistent message.
  3. Identify and mitigate misinformation to maintain calm.

Each strategy will be discussed in-depth to help your organization be adequately prepared for this hurricane season.

Step 1: Develop a single source of truth

As more social media platforms emerge, it’s critical that governments utilize the channels where citizens most frequently look for important information. These channels will vary depending on whether citizens are looking for information from local, state, or federal governments.

In recent years, many municipalities have effectively leveraged localized channels, such as Nextdoor and Facebook Pages, which have surged in popularity.

Notably, Nextdoor has led the charge in hyper-localized messaging, connecting 236,000 local neighborhoods by the end of 2018 (Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, 2019).

Witnessing the successes of Nextdoor, Facebook launched local alerts in Pages in August 2019 to deploy localized alerts. These localized channels allow governments to create targeted messages and, more importantly, they do not utilize algorithms to populate content for citizens.  Instead, these channels allow governments to post directly to their local community so that citizens will be notified about updates when they log in. For example, Tangipahoa Parish Government used local alerts during Hurricane Barry to provide the Louisiana community with real-time updates on wind speeds, rainfall projections, and river levels, and to distribute sandbags to those who needed them.

In comparison, state and federal governments have larger, broader audiences and must adjust their strategies. For these organizations, their audiences are looking for quick, consumable updates on pages that are easy to find. The two primary channels to achieve this are Twitter and Facebook. Leveraging Facebook is important for governments since nearly 70% of Americans over the age of 18 use Facebook, so governments can quickly proliferate their message to a broad audience very quickly.

Facebook should also be complemented with Twitter communications since many citizens view Twitter as the authoritative source for governmental updates. Notably, Twitter is the most commonly used social channel for world leaders, so citizens maintain the expectation that it will hold important updates about relevant events, such as the State of emergency warnings.

Regardless of which channels your organization uses, it’s necessary to repeatedly use those channels for updates. This will allow your citizens to reliably know where they can get the important information for hurricane updates and preparations.

Step 2: Create consistent messaging

As discussed above, governments will be leveraging Twitter to proliferate emergency communications. As a result, they should utilize consistent hashtags so that constituents can know what to search for as the hurricane advances. A study of one disaster response (in this case, the Boston Marathon bombing) by Jeannotte Sutton at the University of Colorado highlights the importance of utilizing consistent hashtags.

In her study, Sutton revealed that over 25% of Americans utilized social media to find information about the terrorist event; however, there was no one consistent hashtag being used to follow updates, so many Americans struggled to stay up to date on events.

The same concept applies to hurricanes. Governments must leverage consistent hashtags so that citizens can track critical updates to the storm.

Furthermore, because social media is bidirectional, citizens can repurpose the hashtag to provide eyewitness updates or emergency service requests of the storm to other citizens. Local, state and federal governments can similarly follow this thread so that they know where to quickly direct resources.

While local governments may not necessarily utilize Twitter for providing updates, they can play a crucial role by highlighting the hashtag that citizens should follow. For example, a local government using only Facebook and Nextdoor could explicitly encourage their citizens to track #HurricaneDorian on Twitter so that citizens could find critical updates about the storm outside of their municipality.

Step 3: Combat misinformation and disinformation

While social media can be used by governments to quickly communicate information, individuals can, unfortunately, also use social media to spread rumors that could put lives in jeopardy. Tragically, according to a Homeland Security Department report, “during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, a rumor spread on Twitter that officials were asking shelter seekers about their immigration status.” This contributed to Houston residents not seeking the services they needed to stay safe during the hurricane. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence.

Whether these incidents are malicious or unintended mistakes, governments can play a role in combating misinformation or disinformation. Before, during and after a hurricane, governments should employ social listening to monitor social media trends to understand how citizens are reacting to the storm and, crucially, determine whether false perceptions are starting to surface across communities.

Rumors have the ability to diminish the success of preparations by governments to promote and maintain public safety. When mis- and disinformation is identified, governments must develop strategies to explicitly highlight the rumor and clearly reiterate the facts.

Doug started as a middle school algebra teacher in Oakland, California with Teach For America. He then joined an educational technology company to help drive digital transformation in urban districts. His focus became improving implementations that were struggling to adopt adaptive learning technology. Next, he began focusing on customer experience software for federal agencies and Fortune 50 companies. He saw the power of synthesizing unsolicited feedback on modern channels, such as Twitter, to drive positive change for citizens. Doug then transitioned into a Solutions Consulting role to help build Sprinklr’s Public Sector practice.

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