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.


4 Responses to Social Media can be useful in emergencies

  1. Krista says:

    Couldn’t agree more–I think social media communication during times of crisis and emergency will eventually become the norm. Point in case, after the earthquake, I went to SEPTA’s Twitter account to find out about delays rather than going to any of the news websites. Also, during the incliment weather this weekend, my husband checked his Twitter feed for any bars and restaurants still open for lunch, as we sought the one window of opportunity to get out of our house before the storm really struck.

    The only issue may with regard to at-risk populations that are also low income or elderly, if they have mobile or internet access to social media to receive these messages. True, more and more people are getting smart phones, but many still rely on traditional media (mostly broadcast) in times of emergency as well.

    • Joshua Brett says:

      Thank you Krista. You’re right that social media in times of crisis won’t work for everyone. And there is also the factor of people losing power and, if they have electrically-powered cordless phones at home, needing to save their cell phone battery power for emergency calls.

  2. Hi Joshua,

    I have a feeling in the wake of these recent events, we’ll definitely be seeing a significant increase in the integration of social media channels with existing emergency/disaster preparedness protocols.

    We’re getting into the act up here in Canada now as well.

    Good post


    Jason Boies
    Radian6 Community Team

  3. Joshua Brett says:

    Jason, thank you for reading. I hope you’re right.

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