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Is the Coast Guard ready for Social Media in a Crisis Situation?

Though completely coincidental to the earthquake in Haiti, I’ve slowly been working on the thoughts and outline for this post- which now seems more relevant than ever. You’ll recall a post from a few weeks ago titled Social Media as a warning tool… which I now admit was kind of a letdown of a post in my mind. Anyhow, I’ve been further thinking of how the Coast Guard would be able to leverage the uses of the various social platforms it uses from Twitter to YouTube and all in between in the event we were to be involved with another U.S. interest catastrophe. And though the Haiti earthquake is of interest to the United States the context in which I’m referring to is something more along the lines of Katrina or 9/11- on our soil.

This past week I ran across a great presentation on having a Framework for Social Media in Crisis Management which was/is a great post (and slide show) on the importance and uses of a crisis social media package. Taking from this presentation and my own thoughts I’ve come up with how the Coast Guard could best leverage what it already has to make this happen; however, it should be stated that the CG has already done much of this without having to call it social media crisis management- example noted below.

Why does the Coast Guard (or any Gov agency) need a socially based crisis management plan? Simply put it’s a matter of information and/or rumor control. In the linked presentation it’s noted “everything happens at lightning speed.” Speed is everything- take for example the debacle the Coast Guard suffered at the hands of CNN on September 11, 2009 when they falsely reported that the CG was engaged in gunfire on the Potomac River. I happened to have been in the Command Center (CC) during the ordeal and though we knew in the CC the reports were false we had no medium- other than a time delayed press conference- to disseminate the information to the news agencies/public. In the LANT CC we have a 24hr Public Affairs watch that could have easily disseminated a quick “no shots fired” tweet or Facebook post. And though there isn’t, nor was there at the time, an instruction on having senior CC’s (or representatives) go social with such information it’s something that should be looked at. Speed, speed, speed.

In major situations we’d be hard pressed to keep anything a secret from the masses. And though ‘transparency‘ is a social media buzzword it’s one that is more than fitting in situations that we tend to encounter on a regular basis. With mass media types having cameras in the air, embedded reporters, and watching social trends it’s our (that is, the Coast Guard) responsibility to ensure we get the right information out first. Speculation in the hands of a multi-million viewed newscast is no match for any military media machine. Thus, transparency is a must in a crisis situation.

The Coast Guard is commonly known for its one way communication via Twitter and some blogs (we’ll call it a dedicated manpower issue equaling not enough time; though they are getting better); however, in times of crisis our Public Affairs specialists will need to be allowed to actively engage on the topic at hand- fielding Q’s and giving A’s on said crisis will be a priority in information management. Without this we lose our battle against those who aim to discredit us in our aid, recovery, and/or search efforts. If someone, perhaps a news agency, asks a question via @USCG and we don’t answer it- well they have a right to guess- correct? Perhaps we’d say no, but I’m fairly certain in a time of needed news they’ll say what they want if an official answer isn’t available in an immediate format. To get this done though we’ll have to ensure we, as an organization, give those with access the ability and resources to effectively answer the questions that are being asked- or at the very least let those who are asking know you’re working on an answer.

Relationship building/outreach should be priority. It’s noted in the presentation “[e]veryone is an influencer in their own circles…” I’ll twist this to mean the amateur and professional media types (i.e. bloggers). Blogger outreach is so important that it should be a dedicated function of our Public Affairs types; at least once a week our social media PA gurus in Washington should be building relations with outside bloggers who write in some form or fashion about the Coast Guard, general military, and other specialties (the CG blogger is a small niche so reaching out to other disciples is a must). These may indeed be the Coast Guard’s best resource of course correction in a battle of information.

Another quick tip for crisis management is preparation. One specific item is the preparation of a “dark site;” a dark site is one that not available to the public until it’s needed. The Coast Guard’s already done this in the past (USCG Floodwatch 2009) and I’d only imagine they’ve got other such sites waiting in the dark.

Though it’s not my place to write such policy it would be nice to know if the CG has thought of such things for the future. I noted in the above linked post (all the way up top) that we were fortunate not to have to use our social media prowess over this past hurricane season as it turned out to be a snore. I’ve been watching our social media program turn from a patchwork of a few folks who heard of Twitter on the news to a fairly robust program with twitterers and blogging fools. Official policy has been trickling out of Washington over the last two years and eventually I think we’ll see a whole section robustly updated to the Public Affairs Manual.

This is getting fun.

CoastieHead_Small30Ryan Erickson is a semi-regular contributor to GovLoop and can be found daily at ryanerickson.com on the normal topic of Coast Guard, social media, and life; this post was written as an original piece for ryanerickson.com.

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Ryan Erickson

I do indeed know Rachel… she’s been an inspiration to me getting into the social media scene. I’d also consider her an authority in the use of such tools.

Small world ‘eh?