The weather is hotting up, summer is almost here. My favourite things about an Aussie summer are cricket, ice cream and going to the beach. Summer also brings us challenges: bushfires, cyclones and summer storms are three that government communications pros face.
I’ve written 52 tips for doing social media during emergencies. They are based on my experience doing disaster management communications at Redland City Council during two incidents: ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald in January 2013 and the Straddie bushfires in January 2014.
I started writing the first draft of this blog after the Straddie bushfires but never published it. Why? I thought about all of the different kinds of disasters and emergencies that public sector communications people might face and came to the conclusion that in different circumstances in different locations, many of these tips may not apply.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting at the Queensland University of Technology Centre for Emergency and Disaster Management with colleagues from Queensland Police and Queensland Fire and Emergency Services. The discussions reinforced the idea that each incident really is completely unique.
So I’ve decided to publish my crisis communications tips with a disclaimer: these tips are from my experience alone. Each emergency or disaster situation is different. What is right for your organisation in your part of the world facing a different emergency could be completely different.
1) You can do social media disaster management communications anywhere
As long as you have access to the internet (preferably broadband), a phone and access to your work emails.
Having said that…
2) It’s better to be where the action is
You find out information quicker – and you can get approvals quicker – if you work next to the people making the decisions.
Have a crystal clear understanding of who can approve information and what the approval process is before you post anything.
4) Get information out as soon as possible
As soon as you get approval, publish: website, Twitter, Facebook.
5) Simple language
Use plain English and write to about a Grade 5 reading standard. Under stress, people need simple, clear information.
6) Trusted sources
Have a pre-approved list of trusted government agencies that you can share information from without having to ask for approval.
Our list includes the emergency services, the Bureau of Meteorology, utility providers and other government agencies.
7) Keep checking partner organisations for updates
Updates may come through email, in person or via agency websites or social media. Keep checking!
8) Keep a tab on things
At a minimum, I have the following websites open in different web browser tabs when doing crisis communications:
- Our Facebook page
- Our Twitter
- Twitter list of other key organisations
- Facebook interests list of key organisations
- Twitter search following relevant hashtags and keywords
- Our WordPress website (ready to update our rolling news blog)
- Emergency services websites
9) Make your organisation a single source of information
Make your organisation the single source of information by combining updates from all agencies together. This is a role that particularly suits local government.
10) Make your posts consistent
Set a standard and make sure others know what it is and follow it.
11) Put times and dates on Facebook posts
Put the time and date on every Facebook post during an emergency. Adding a time and date gives the information context.
For example: North Stradbroke Island bushfire update: 9.50am Thursday 2 January 2014
Why? Facebook feeds are usually sorted by ‘top stories‘ meaning that someone may see your post from 3 hours ago at the top of their news feed and they may not see your most recent post. You can change this by clicking on the drop-down next to the ‘News Feed’ menu item on your home feed.
12) Keep checking your Facebook posts
Even the old ones. People will continue to comment and ask questions. Don’t rely on the notification emails alone.
13) Tell people how to get Facebook notifications
Most people don’t understand how the Facebook algorithm works: users are not automatically shown every post by pages they like.
To prevent people from missing your updates, tell them how to get notifications every time you post. This is done by visiting your page, hovering over the like button and clicking ‘Get Notifications’.
14) Set up a Facebook interests list
Add emergency services, utility companies and community group pages to it – just like a Twitter list!
15) Facebook: Sharing a status = less interaction
My experience is that if you share the status of a partner organisation, it results in less views than writing a new post yourself.
To spread the message more effectively, but still referencing the information originator, create a new post tagging their page, making it clear the information is an update from them. Any questions about the post should be immediately directed to the source of the information.
16) Tag pages in your Facebook posts to reference information
In the example above, we tagged Queensland Fire and Emergency Services in our post as a way of both notifying them and crediting the information to them.
17) Tag pages in your Facebook posts to notify people
We often tag tourism providers and community groups in our Facebook posts to let them know of important information related to disasters and emergencies.
This ensures they get a notification and encourages them to share it with their audience – either online or offline.
18) Offline is vital
Social media has been a game-changer for comms during disasters and emergencies, but not everyone is on social.
Offline communication methods are still vital: during the Straddie bushfires a variety of tools were used including door knocking, campground evacuations, posters and public information meetings.
In remote communities, as the power goes off and smartphones run out of battery, offline becomes even more important.
19) Live tweeting
Offline and online can complement each other beautifully: we live tweeted community information meetings on Straddie.
20) Live blogging
As well as live tweeting, we also live blogged the community information meetings on our WordPress news website.
Throughout the day we updated the page as a rolling blog with photos, tweets, Bambuser videos and links to media releases.
The inspiration behind this idea was from the digital news media such as The Guardian and The Brisbane Times.
21) Throw the rule book out the window
Often there is some kind of red tape before new government social media accounts can go live such as a business case and a series of approvals.
If you see an opportunity to use a new social network or new technology that will benefit your work during an emergency, throw the rule book out the window. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Especially if you’ve researched what you’re doing, know the risks and are confident it will work. Back yourself and go for it!
22) Video it: Bambuser
Live-streamed videos can add an extra dimension to your communications. It’s fantastic getting emergency services personnel, councillors and state government representatives talking straight to camera. At the excellent AEMICX14 conference it was said that the public trust messages from frontline staff.
Get an account set up and ready now before you need it – this is exactly what I did with Bambuser. You can find out more about this process in my blog Super subs: who’s in your social media reserve team?
23) Storytelling: tell other sides of the story
We also used Bambuser as a platform for others to tell their story: we live streamed interviews with the chief executive of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation describing how the fires affected the traditional owners of North Stradbroke, as well as a council conservation officer, who explained how wildlife was coping.
24) Record it: Soundcloud
Audio clips can also add an extra dimension to your coverage. One day during the Straddie bushfires I was working on the mainland. The Queensland Fire and Emergency Services information officer Mark Halverson I’d recorded on Bambuser (above) was on North Stradbroke Island. As video wasn’t an option, I called him on one iPhone and recorded him on SoundCloud with another.
This short audio clip had over 400 listens within two hours. It was also picked up by Brisbane radio 4BC and was typed out word-for-word by QFES media officers published as a bulletin on their website.
25) Set information free
This is a great quote from Kym Charlton, former Executive Director of Communications with the Queensland Police. During the 2011 Queensland floods, they made information available online to whoever wanted it, not just the mainstream media. One by-product of this was information being translated into many different languages and reposted on the internet.
26) Share information in tweets, not just links
Use Twitter properly: share the latest updates in a series of tweets. Don’t just link to a media release and definitely don’t link to Facebook updates.
27) Provide a summary
After you finish tweeting the latest updates, you can finish off by tweeting a link to a summary on your news site or rolling news blog.
28) Copy in media to your tweets
For important updates, copy in media organisations on your tweets e.g. [Important tweet info here] cc @612Brisbane @redlandbulletin
29) Follow back new followers on Twitter
Or at the very least people who are contributing to the conversation.
30) Set up a Twitter list
Set up a Twitter list of all the emergency services, utility providers and other government agencies.
31) Embed tweets
Embed tweets in your rolling news blog, not just from emergency services but interesting photos taken by the public.
32) Follow hashtags
Follow hashtags used for the emergency, there may be several variations. Look for information that could be passed onto operational teams and requests for assistance.
33) Sign your name
Show a human side to your social media by using first names on replies. People like to know there’s someone ‘real’ behind the account and not just a faceless organisation.
34) Reply quick, reply often
Reply to questions and comments as soon as you can – even if it’s just a holding statement. People can be anxious and like to be reassured that their question has been acknowledged. Depending on your organisation and the volume of questions, this could be individual replies to people or replying on themes.
35) Correct wrong information respectfully
Quote the source of your information if possible.
36) Dispel rumours with #mythbusters
Queensland Police blazed a trail with their #mythbusters hashtag during the 2011 Queensland floods. This is now the standard for any organisation wanting to dispel rumours during emergencies.
37) Crowdsource information and photos
Where possible, crowdsource intel to help you build up a picture of what’s happening on the ground. Ask trusted members of your online community to send you information and photos from their locations: this is especially useful for information about remote places you can’t easily get to.
During the Straddie fires we had a number of people on Lamb Island provide us with information about ash falling. We passed this information to Queensland Fire and Emergency Services who sent crews to the island to ensure a fire didn’t start there too.
38) Pass on operational information as quickly as possible
When you receive some information from your online community, pass it on to your operational teams as quickly as possible for assessment and verification.
39) Take breaks
Keep fresh, take breaks. Set up a shifts at the start of the emergency and try to stick to them.
40) Keep charging your devices
Take a phone / laptop / iPad charger with you everywhere and never miss an opportunity to top up your charge.
41) Know the area
If you don’t know the area, have someone with you who does. Sometimes the wrong street name or a locality name or landmark is used by people on social media.
42) Google maps
Google maps are your best friend if you don’t know the area very well.
43) Post hero shots
During the Straddie fires we posted many photos of emergency services staff, council staff (including our own Fire Management Unit) and volunteers.
This gives the public an opportunity to give thanks to the fantastic job they are doing. Just be sure to let people know the emergency is not over yet.
44) Build an online community before you need it
We started in late 2012 by posting every storm warning issued by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology on our Facebook and Twitter. This built up a community that expected emergency information from us.
45) Preparation: think about what could happen
Set aside a few hours with your comms team. Think about every type of disaster or emergency that could affect your region.
46) Preparation: write standard messaging
From the exercise above, write standard messaging for your social media channels for every type of disaster or emergency.
47) Preparation: list resources from other agencies
What information can you link to in a disaster or emergency from other agencies?
Our list includes Queensland Health fact sheets on staying safe during smoky conditions and tips on food safety during disasters.
48) Preparation: training
Put your team through their paces: simulate an emergency exercise and see what lessons you learn from it.
49) Preparation: Have backup communications systems in place
In disasters and emergencies, it’s possible that you will lose access to your work email system and network. As part of your disaster training preparation, make sure you have a list of phone numbers and email addresses for everyone in your team along with communications plans, press release templates, standard messaging for social media, media contacts, links to useful resource on other websites and operating procedures. Saving these documents to the cloud is a good backup system so you can access them anywhere.
50) Acknowledge people
I read a great quote from Canadian #smem expert Patrice Cloutier that went something like “It’s not your disaster, it’s everyone’s disaster”.
Sometimes members of your online community want to discuss what’s happening and how it’s affecting them.
51) Social hub
Experiment with social hub software to bring in feeds from various social channels into one visual feed. Useful for both yourself and the public.
52) Track your links
Use bit.ly to track how many people click on links you publish via social media – useful for not only links on your site but on other sites.