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Keep It Real

Creative Commons via wn.com/CRAB

Recently, I found myself in an interesting conversation on Twitter regarding the use of social media in emergency drills or exercises.

Usually in emergency drills, a script is created that contains various messages or “injects” which are intended to drive participants to act in a certain way. We use these in drills to facilitate a discussion (as in a tabletop exercise) or actual response to evaluate whether or not plans that are created will work when needed.

Following an exercise, we write up an after-action report that identifies all of the corrective actions that need to be taken to improve the plans.

Whenever we use radio or telephone messages during an emergency exercise, we train people to introduce the message with “This is a Drill” in order to prevent any confusion among participants.

This becomes really challenging on Twitter because of the 140 character length restriction. In some exercises, I have observed the following:

  • People retweeting the messages and stripping out the “This is an exercise message” portion
  • Intermixing exercise messages and real-world flooding information
  • Use of an exercise hashtag that was not clearly understood during the exercise, resulting in questions & confusion among observers

This becomes dangerous, particularly, if it intermixes with real event information because people could either interpret the real event information as artificial or believe something artificial is real, resulting in actions in the community that could cause hard feelings.

The reality is confusion is a BAD thing. And the only way to truly prevent confusion is to keep information real, but this creates a conundrum for emergency managers who usually drill using disaster scenarios. How do you put “disaster messages” into social media for an exercise context?

Now, let me say that I believe exercising is very important, but rarely do we issue press releases with fake data during exercises through our “live” channels. Similarly, we need to seriously consider whether it is ethical to put artificial data into a dynamic and real-world communication channel like Twitter.

If the objective of the exercise is to communicate & use social media, this can be done effectively without risking false data entry.

Consider some of the following examples:

  • Partnering with a public education or preparedness campaign to share helpful information with your community. This can test your ability to create messaging that is retweeted by others. Now I realize that disaster information may be more easily shared, but learning how to message correctly on social media is a key skill even in times of crisis.
  • Use social media to promote an community event. If the goal is to make a message viral, this will significant test your network and determine whether or not you are following enough local movers & shakers to create real buzz.
  • Restrict your exercise participants from being able to use voice communication and allow only text or twitter communication so that they have to use social media to talk with each other. For example, I did this last year when I prevented my staff from talking with each other, but asked them to communicate a toothpick-based design to each other.
  • Live-Tweet a meeting or conference or participate in a scheduled #SMEMChat on Twitter. Learning how to reply to people online is key, regardless of the topic sometimes.

Remember, information shared online CANNOT be controlled which presents inherent risks when the data shared is false. The potential impact to your agency’s reputation if the messaging gets confused is significant. And, if you plan to do this, it would be wise to consult with your legal beagles because the liability issues are yet to be tested in this new and emerging environment.

It takes some extra thought on how to incorporate these communication tools, but it can be done with much less risk and still result in effective learning for all involved.


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Jeff Ribeira

This is great advice, Cheryl. I think it’s clear that things like Twitter can be a real asset in emergency situations, but there definitely needs to be some type of guidelines/effective models that people should follow to keep things safe. Like you said, it’s really difficult to control information on the internet. Even if something clear and truthful is published, it’s not always taken as such, or could still be misinterpreted if not written correctly.