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Social media and mobile convergence: new paradigms for incident communication

Steve Dance provides a detailed report into practical ways that social media can be used for incident communication and gives guidance on the key points to consider when adopting social media into a wider incident management strategy.

The social media explosion

Social media usage has exploded across the globe. The software phenomenon, which started in the early 2000s now connects billions people across the world. For many it is now their preferred means of communication, offering spontaneity and the ability to share information and experiences using a wide variety of media. Social media has provided a vast community of individuals with the capability to chat and exchange information with friends, family and associates. Outside of personal relationships, businesses have seen the potential of using social media to stay close to their customers and many high profile personalities use the tools to stay in touch with their fan base.

Social networks are so vast and efficient that events can be monitored as they unfold with publishing speeds that eclipse even the most sophisticated commercial news networks. Emerging news relating to deposed governments, civil disturbances and natural catastrophes has often hit social media networks before being reported by the established news agencies.

But more than just informing and collaborating with a specific ‘community of interest,’ an important humanitarian message is emerging: social media can save lives, keeping communities in touch during disasters, as well as managing corporate reputations during a crisis. Over the past few years, social media has increasingly figured in the communications channels used in major incidents and natural catastrophes. Consequently, response agencies across the globe are quickly learning some important lessons, including:

1. If you build it, they will come: If you set up systems to engage the public through social media, it will be used.

2. If you don’t build it, they will improvise their own. People will turn to social media tools to both provide and find information, setting up their own information channels independent of the ‘official’ ones. For so many, social media platforms are their ‘normal’ method of communication and so they turn to these systems to communicate and share information during a crisis. Aid officials in the Philippines credited social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter with significantly reducing the number of deaths caused by Typhoon Megi. Thousands of people were persuaded to move to safer places or take precautionary measures before the typhoon struck. A spokesman for the Philippines National Red Cross, said. “Now that we are using the Internet, the services are free of charge, and we send messages at no cost to us. It’s also more reliable and faster because nearly everyone is on social networking sites.”

3. There is a growing expectation that disaster updates will be provided via social media sources: during the Boston bombing in April of this year the follower numbers of both the Boston Police Department (@Boston_Police) and their Public Information Officer (@CherylFiandaca) spiked exponentially, registering follower increases of 500 percent and 2291 percent respectively. This increase took place in a matter of minutes and emphasises just how quickly social media networks can be utilised during an intense public situation. The equally important message is that many individuals expect to receive updates from incident responders via social networks and if responders have Facebook or Twitter accounts, the public will turn to them in times of emergency. This, of course, applies to businesses as well as public service organizations: if an organization is using social networking to build a community around its brand, there will be an expectation from that same community that they will receive updates and support via the same channel.

4. How people receive information is changing. Response agencies need to know and understand how their own community stays informed. Social media channels extend communication capabilities beyond traditional media and mass notification channels.

5. Specialised technical skills can be accessed in times of need. Social media has provided new opportunities for people with technical skills to support response organizations. When a disaster strikes, social media ‘buzz’ is often picked up by people with specific skills who subsequently come forward to offer their expertise to assist those affected by the incident.

However, the social media explosion would not have been as widespread as it is without some other subtle forces at work. These forces are mobile communications and the smartphone. Without these technologies all social media communications would be tied to PCs and laptops. Whilst these ‘traditional’ computing devices have, in many ways, created the connected society that we live in today, the spontaneity and portability of the smartphone has taken information sharing capabilities to new limits. The liberating effect of a hand-held, ‘wire free’ device that supports Internet connectivity, multi-media communications and collaborative applications has transformed the way in which individuals share information with each other. These factors, a ubiquitous, highly portable device and the availability of application platforms that provide the capability to share information immediately are creating a paradigm shift in the way people connect and communicate in both their day-to-day lives and during crisis situations. This trend is expected to continue as by 2016 almost a third of the world’s 7.3 billion population is expected to own a smartphone.

The other major attribute of social networking that allows spontaneous and instant communication is the concept of the ‘follower’ model. Twitter is, perhaps, the most well-known for this approach with each Twitter user having a group of followers. Each Tweet is immediately pushed (with audible alerts if required) to an audience of followers. Most social media platforms operate this model to a greater or lesser degree – where an individual can post information and others choose to subscribe to – and comment on – the content which has been created. The real power of this social media model is that the person who wishes to share information does not need to know specific details of those they want to share the information with (compare this to email or sms messaging where email addresses or telephone numbers are required to share information with a group of individuals). The follow paradigm allows very large groups sharing a common interest to receive information from sources that they have identified as relevant to them - the provider of the information does not need specific contact details of members of the audience that they want to share information with. All that needs to happen is that an individual who wants to receive information from another individual can choose to follow them – no further introduction or additional details are required. This concept makes social media such a powerful force for communication in an emergency, particularly when a large community is affected by a particular incident. In a major incident members of the affected community will turn to sources of information that are accessible, relevant and, above all, current. The emergency responder just needs to ensure that they are putting the information in a place where it can be accessed. The ubiquitous smart-phone with social media capabilities provides all of the required capabilities for receiving, forwarding and responding to supplied information and once a source of information has been established, the existence of that source can be quickly shared with a rapidly growing audience.

Adoption of social media is growing with each generation: more and more people are using it and tend to rely on it as their main means of receiving information. As further generations adopt social media as their preferred means of exchanging information, a very large part of society will expect to receive information via these channels. It will be vital that emergency responders understand how this might affect incident communication strategies in the future. It provides a powerful extension to the tools that can be used to communicate with the public during a crisis. It is virtually free and can be used to absorb pressure that might occur on other communications capabilities (such as telephones and email systems).

Who uses social media & how do they use it

Emergency responders
Those responsible for emergency and incident management are obvious users of social media tools. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and web-based mapping applications all provide a powerful way to keep a community informed as the impacts of an incident are understood and details of actions to be taken and facilities available are established. Emergency responders around the world are adopting social media in this way, as shown in the case studies section.

Businesses can use social networks to engage with their customers during a crisis. In this context, the usage is more specialised and can depend on the nature of the business and the incident it dealing with. Nevertheless, business use of social networking to support customer communication during a major operational disruption has been shown to positively influence customer perception of the preparedness and effectiveness of an organizations capability to handle an incident.

There is also a downside – both with using and not using social media. A business can suffer significant damage to its reputation if social media channels are not used effectively during a crisis:

  • Reputation damage can occur when the public are making adverse comments about an organization or its handling of a situation and the organization is not aware that the comments are being made. Failure to monitor sentiment towards an organization can quickly turn into a social media firestorm, where the organization is not only seen as failing to handle a situation – it also appears to be unaware of what’s going on;
  • Where organizations use social media to engage with customers, but then fail to communicate with customers when an incident occurs (or even worse, seem to be unaware that an incident has occurred), they run the risk of disaffecting the whole of their follower base: failure to communicate when bad things happen creates the impression of cynicism and of ‘the left hand not knowing what the right is doing’.

Communities’ use of social networking provides some of the greatest - and most surprising - examples of the power of social networking during a crisis. In the introductory pages of this paper we mentioned one of the key facilitators of social media adoption were smartphones. Armed with a smartphone and social media tools, communities can quickly start helping themselves during a crisis. They may inform others of resources that are available, areas to be avoided, locations where help may be needed etc. Local experts may appear on the scene to assist with technical issues. All of this helps with the capability of the community to both help itself during an emergency and to provide feedback and situational intelligence to emergency responders (providing the official emergency response organization has the capability to receive it). This really is a win-win for all involved, the community can respond using local expertise that is on-hand and the emergency responders are in a position to harness the resources of the community to more quickly understand the scope and impact of a crisis.

So, regardless of whether social media networks are being used by emergency response organizations, businesses or by the directly affected community, social media clearly has a major role to play during a major incident. Although some agencies have dedicated Facebook pages for pre-incident information sharing (i.e. how individuals and organizations should prepare for an incident and resources that are available during an incident), the most powerful application of social networking occurs during the life of an incident. Spontaneous information sharing, the capabilities to broadcast to rapidly growing community of followers helps official emergency response organizations and virtual response groups to dynamically respond to the needs of the affected community.

What social media platforms are used?

Twitter is used for both sending and receiving information. Although Tweets are limited to 140 characters Tweets can be used to send short messages or, because a Tweet can contain a web link, to send a notification that new information has become available elsewhere – and where to find it. The follower model lends it to incident communication because those who have a Twitter account can choose to receive Tweets from specific sources (such as an emergency responders Twitter account). This approach means that those with an interest can subscribe to feeds rather than the originator having to know contact details for everyone who wishes to receive their updates. This spontaneity makes Twitter a very powerful tool for broadcasting information.

The hashtags feature of Twitter adds another dimension to understanding activity and trends among Tweets. Hashtags, which are created by placing the “#” symbol before a word in an individual Tweet allow Tweets to be categorised. Clicking on a hashtagged word in any message shows all other Tweets marked with that keyword. This extends the follower model even more, as by tracking hashtags the follower does even need to follow a specific Twitter account, they can follow tweets that contain a specific hashtag. Following hashtags can assist in many different types of situation:

  • A member of an affected community can follow the first responders Twitter account and monitor for the use of specific hashtags in any other Tweets;
  • A first responder can follow hashtags within Tweets to gather situational intelligence from within the community.

Facebook is based on a similar model to Twitter in that a Facebook account can be followed. Facebook allows for much richer content than Twitter, allowing users to create content based on text, video and photographs. Facebook supports the follow model with its Interest List feature. This feature allows any user to build their own lists of Facebook pages that they are interested in and have new posts to pages appear in their Facebook Newsfeed. This allows Facebook accounts to be followed in a similar way to a Twitter account – without having to be accepted as a friend of the particular Facebook account.

Google/Yahoo Groups
Google, Yahoo and many other major Internet Service Providers offer free discussion group services that allow individuals with common interests to share and discuss topics of interest. Again once registered a member of a group does not need to know the contact details of other members of the group. All they have to do a place a post on the group and all members are alerted via email that a new post has been made.

Groups have a downside in that all members can post to it, although some discussion group services will offer a moderator capability.

Mapping applications: building the big picture
Sending out updates and monitoring for hashtags are all important ways to communicate with an affected community as well as receiving on-going intelligence from it. However, in the midst of a major incident, there is always the risk of ‘information overload’ or that important information may be ‘muffled’ by general chatter. Social networking updates are a series of ‘sound-bites’ from different sources and need to be knitted together so that overall picture emerges. Being able to see and communicate this ‘Big Picture’ so that it is possible to stand back and appreciate a situation in its entirety can be crucial to the successful management of an emergency or major incident. This is where mapping tools come into the fore. There are various free mapping tools that can be used to build an overall picture of an incident as its impacts become apparent.

Consider this as a potential scenario for incorporating mapping technology into an incident management strategy:

At an incident command centre, an operator is monitoring traffic over the company’s own Twitter account and is monitoring specific hashtags that have been dedicated to the incident. The results of the Tweets (and, perhaps, incoming e-mail text message) are entered onto a mapping application showing situation reports as points on a web-based map. Any relevant pictures, videos or text tags are added to the location points to provide additional background information. At regular intervals the operator Tweets to the follower community that more information has been added to the incident map.

Mapping tools provide incident management teams with the capability to draw together many different incident sound-bites into a coherent whole.

Google Maps
Google Maps is a mapping service that provides the capability to view and update maps in a standard web browser or mobile phone. Custom maps can be created showing routes, affected areas, and resources. To share the information contained on a particular map all that is required is sharing of a link to the map with other individuals.

The Google Maps application is a highly feature rich application that allows users to add place-marks, regions and notes. Notes can be augmented with pictures and video. All of these features combine to provide a comprehensive view of an affected area, supplemented by a wide range of media to augment the information available.

Google’s map application also allows the map owner to establish a group of collaborators. Collaborators are individuals who have the capability to update the map in addition to the map owner. This feature can be useful when the map has been created, say, in an incident command centre but there are several field operatives spread over a wide area who may have useful updates and intelligence to give.

The Crowdmaps application is based on the Ushahidi platform. Ushahidi, Inc. is a non-profit software company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping.

Ushahidi (Swahili for ‘testimony’ or ‘witness’) was originally created in the aftermath of Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election and provided a capability to collect eyewitness reports of violence. Reports were sent in by a wide variety of devices and placed them on a Google Maps page

The organization uses the concept of crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability, serving as an initial model for what has been coined as 'activist mapping' - the combination of social activism, citizen journalism and geospatial information. Ushahidi offers products that enable local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the Internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events.

Crowdmap is the fastest, simplest installation of the Ushahidi platform and is provided as a free hosted service accessed via any standard Internet browser. Once a map is live anyone can submit a report. The reports are moderated by the map owner who will then decide whether the report should be received and then update the map as required. Reports can be submitted via sms, by Twitter (using specific hashtags designated by the map owner), email (by completing a web-form on the Crowdmaps website) or by using a smart phone app. Crowdmaps, unlike Google Maps does not support the concept of collaborators who can directly update the map.

Crowdmaps provides a useful capability to construct timelines as well as maps, based on the timing of updates to maps.

Case studies & examples

At the US Department of Health and Human Services, the power of social media natural disasters became clear in the aftermath of a tornado which hit in Joplin, Missouri during 2012.

Tornadoes had caused extensive damage to the town and scattered 1,100 hospital employees into the unknown. Unable to track down any of the workers, a hospital administrator tasked one woman — who had little more than a Facebook account — with finding as many employees as she could using social media.

A few days later, all 1,100 had been located through the Internet and the hospital was in a position support the local community with medical care and assistance.

Japanese earthquake and tsunami
In the seconds after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japanese citizens took to social networks to exchange information as well as to search for friends and family. Voice access was restricted on many mobile phones, but people were able to text and use data services.

Twitter posted a guide for users in Japan over the weekend to help people get information and communicate as broadly as possible with friends and family in the earthquake’s aftermath, offering tips and resources in Japanese and English.

The guide included earthquake-related hashtags that people were using and a link to a special section on the mobile site in Japan for users to reach updates about the crisis.

Shortly after the earthquake, Google introduced its People Finder app that allows people, in both English and Japanese, to provide and exchange information on missing people. They also started a crisis response page, with Google maps and useful links to message boards and emergency information.

Queensland Police Service
A tropical cyclone hit Queensland on Christmas day, causing severe flooding and widespread damage to property and infrastructure. In addition to issuing regular media releases to the mainstream media and uploading these releases to the QPS website, it was also part of the general process to add these media releases to the QPS Facebook page and link to these on Twitter. This disaster contributed to the first significant spike in the number of people following the QPS social media accounts, with numbers more than doubling in two weeks.

Hurricane Irene
When Hurricane Irene hit the US East Coast, it set of a wave of first-hand accounts of photographs, tweets and video by thousands of ‘citizen journalists’. Apart from letting friends and family know their situation these people ‘crowd- sourced’ a wealth of information on road closures, power cuts and safe places. Content was created on YouTube, Flickr and Twitter feeds to share information and updates on the unfolding situation.

UK Police Force
On 3rd April 2010, the English Defence League staged a protest in Dudley, West Midlands. The Unite Against Fascism group was also in Dudley on this date, taking part in a multi-cultural event. Both groups used social media as their preferred form of communication. A heavy police presence was in place because of the potential for civil disturbance. As part of their surveillance activities the police tapped into social media channels as part of their on-going intelligence gathering activities. The Superintendent at the scene describes his experiences: “Using the iPhone I was able to monitor a range of messages from all sides of the argument. I was in touch with the command cell, and able to dispel rumours instantly”.

Customer support
Codero, is an IT Services company based Phoenix, USA. Codero used Twitter as a means to keep its customers informed of progress and to deal with specific customer issues during the recovery phase of a major IT incident. The firm had to recover hundreds of servers and some customers had more problems than others in getting back up and running. Much of the customer interaction (and the logging of it) was managed via the company’s Twitter account.

A shock ice hockey result sparked a major riot in Vancouver. Shortly after the riots began, Twitter exploded with updates about the violence. People began sharing photos and videos of the rioters, including one of a group destroying two police cars. Soon, concerned citizens, encouraged by the Vancouver Police, created a Tumblr account where they could crowd-source the hunt for criminal rioters. Witnesses could submit photos of people they saw looting or vandalizing property, and others could view them and identify who they were. Similar efforts took off on YouTube and Flickr.

Thanks, in part, to social media, many of the rioters were identified and caught.

Social media strategy

Social media is not the only game in town when formulating an incident management strategy. But the capabilities that it provides to support two-way engagement with the affected community makes a strong case for including it as part of the overall incident management strategy. Social media does not replace existing resources and approaches – it enhances and augments them, extending the capabilities and reach of incident responders while also allowing them to acquire additional situational intelligence.

Social media is predominantly seen in terms of casual and spontaneous information sharing, putting management processes around it may seem at odds with these principles. But when a large group of people are required to work towards a common goal some ‘rules of engagement’ are always required. Roles, responsibilities and standards of operation are all required so that teamwork can be effectively managed and coordinated. Key points that should be considered when adopting social media into a wider incident management strategy should include:

  • Organization, Roles & Responsibilities. Think about who needs to do what. Who will Tweet, who will update Facebook and other sites, who will update situation maps, who will they be shared with?
  • Ensure that proper training is put in place so that staff know how to use the tools and provide regular opportunities to test.
  • Who will monitor? Remember that leveraging social media also involves listening to what is going on in the community. Consider also how the listeners will engage with the wider team, how will they share their intelligence?
  • Create dedicated social media accounts for incident communication – don’t use the day-to-day accounts for anything other than pointing to the correct accounts to follow in an emergency. Using the accounts you use on a daily basis can confuse or obscure your message. It also leaves recipients of posts to sift through messages in order to find information related to a specific incident.
  • Hashtag standards. In most disasters, hashtags tend to be defined by the community and are completely spontaneous. However, pre-identifying hashtags for use during different situations (and communicating them prior to an incident) ensures that Tweets regarding a specific incident carry common information. This can be invaluable for followers and official listeners. For example, a US city authority adopted this strategy for impending severe weather. It identified hashtags like #powerout, #debris, #hail and #wind to help filter the city’s social media information. Predefined hashtags means that the effectiveness of social media monitoring is enhanced by increasing the chances that relevant tweets from the community are captured and evaluated.

Tools for managing social media

As social network tools have grown and achieved worldwide adoption, the need for tools to search and filter social media chatter has emerged. There are now dozens of offerings available to search and monitor social media information streams for specific keywords and mentions. The PR and media departments of many organizations now use these tools to monitor the ‘buzz’ on specific topics that may affect them and their customers. In a major incident situation these tools can be an invaluable source of information of public perception of how you are handling the situation or of unforeseen impacts that might be affecting your customers.

The majority of the major players in social media offer some kind of free service that allows you to monitor social media streams. Each offers free search capabilities from their web sites and others also offer ‘widgets’ that can be incorporated as part of a web page (which means the code can be embedded into a web page to create an embedded stream of social media activity). Most specialise in one of the main social media platforms and some provide access to streams from more than one platform.

Twitter Search
The Twitter search tool, available from the Twitter home page, provides the capability to search all tweets for specific words or hash tags. Operating the search tool from the Twitter home page requires very little learning, just type in the term you are looking for and the tool returns all tweets containing the term or hash tag. The search is static so to see new results the search has to be re-performed to refresh the results.
The Twitter widget is a little slicker because it automatically refreshes itself, giving you a real-time feed of all Tweets on a specific topic.

TweetDeck allows the setting up of multiple Twitter search streams and also includes other social media streams such as Facebook. The application updates in ‘real-time’ and allows dozens of feeds to be monitored on one screen. Tweetdeck was recently acquired by Twitter.

Hootsuite is one of many tools referred to as a ‘social media management system’. It provides the capability to track and manage multiple social network channels from a single screen. Streams from multiple networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ can be monitored and updates or replies posted directly. With the potential for so many social media streams to be monitored during a major incident, social media management tools are a significant part of any incident response strategy that incorporate social media platforms.

Hootsuite can also monitor multiple streams from the same network. This can be useful for managing multiple Twitter channels, or Facebook pages. 

This has been a challenging, interesting and rewarding report to create. Whilst there are many short examples of social media usage during incidents, we felt that there was a need pull together all the threads of the technologies involved, the issues and challenges faced by incident managers using social media channels and the overall integration of social media into an organization’s incident management strategy. We hope that this report will provide some pointers to business continuity and incident managers in helping them to understand the impact of social media channels and how they might be integrated into their own incident management strategies.

The author
Steve Dance is managing partner, RiskCentric.

•Date: 27th September 2013 • UK/World •Type: Article • Topic: Crisis communications

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