Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Social Media and Disaster Management

Social Media and Disaster Management

By Dennis D. McDonald

A recent flap about “social media press releases” reminded me of a topic I’ve been batting around for a while — the use of social media to assist public communication about recovery activities during emergency and crisis situations.

I’m not taking about PR crises, I’m talking about natural disasters or terrorist attacks. After Katrina all kinds of online sources and blogs came into play, and I’ve heard mixed reviews about how important citizen perceptions of source authority are in communicating effectively.

Consider a situation where a disaster occurs and neighborhoods have to be evacuated and people temporarily housed while cleanup, repair, or decontamination occurs. How do you convince people that the authorities are doing the right thing and that a return to normalcy is being aggressively pursued on your behalf?

Traditional “top down” communications from The Authorities such as is distributed through emergency broadcast channels may be insufficient to generate “trust and confidence” among those who are displaced. You also know the surviving disaster victims will be communicating with a wide variety of people and media. (Some will be blogging, too.)

A reasonable question is how “social media” and “social networking” can be used to help communicate effectively as a way to help manage a crisis while making sure people are informed about what is really going on.

When you mention “crisis management” in a PR context, people automatically think about problems like those discussed on Crisisblogger. In a real disaster situation, things could be much worse — and there will also be problems with infrastructure (e.g., no electricity). In which case, how would you use tools like Twitter to let people know what you’re doing? What if an EMP wipes out electronics?

True, if something really nasty happens, being able to update your blog will be the least of your worries. But if a lot of people are displaced from their homes for an extended period of time, we should be thinking about ways to keep citizens “in the loop” about ongoing recovery activities, and it would be crazy not to use all the tools we have at our disposal, including social media and social networking.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Dennis D. McDonald

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