Social Media can be useful in emergencies

If any of you live in the Middle Atlantic states like I do, you experienced two natural disasters last week that are pretty much unheard of in this part of the country. On Tuesday, we got the 5.9 magnitude earthquake centered in Central Virginia that was felt as far away as Chicago. This weekend, we got Hurricane Irene, which ravaged the entire east coast from North Carolina to New England.

Perhaps it was somewhat apropos that the newest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has an article on how Social Media can be integrated into emergency-preparedness efforts. Dr. Raina Merchant, Dr. Nicole Lurie and Stacy Elmer write:

“Since these new media are so pervasive in communication (more than 40 million Americans, for instance, use social media Web sites multiple times a day), it makes sense to explicitly consider the best way of leveraging these communication channels before, during, and after disasters. “

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other government leaders relayed information to their constituents via their Twitter feeds. Businesses posted information about early closings on their Social Media feeds. People shared photos and videos of the two disasters – many admittedly just for fun, but others to genuinely inform. And in the chaos that emergencies such as Hurricane Irene bring, clear communication is vital.

The important thing the Christies and Bloombergs of the world need to remember, however, is that they need to listen to what their constituents are saying on Social Media during these emergencies as well. Don’t just use it as another means of shouting your talking points. If electricity is down or someone is in a bad cell phone reception area, Social Media may be their only way to communicate. One of my graduate school instructors, Leigh Fazzina, used Twitter to get rescued when she was injured in a bicycle crash in a wooded area with no cell phone reception. And Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker regularly monitors Twitter to identify potential and actual problems in his city and either address them himself or direct people to the agencies who can address them.

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