Social Media for Emergencies 101

2 weeks ago I was invited to lead a seminar for the Communication with Disaster Affected Communities Network (CDAC) in collaboration with Greg Barrow from the World Food Program (WFP). The seminar was aimed at helping humanitarian organizations to understand how to best take advantage of Social Media (SM) during emergencies, with a particular focus on the communication with communities aspect.

The Prezi I used for that training is available here, so feel free to download, it, re-use it, or even update it is you feel there is something missing.

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To be honest this is the first time I delivered a seminar like this one, as I normally teach Social Media strategies for Local Media, not for humanitarian organizations. The interesting thing about this seminar is that I realized how little we know about this subject and how much of what it being produced out there in this regard is very much a tentative to figure it out. For this reason, also my presentation can be described as the best of my tentative to understand what is that we can do with Social Media, and how.

To Begin: before you even decide to have a Social Media Strategy

Social Media as we intend it today refers to interactions among people in which they create, share, and/or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.” As social media is base on the use (and availability) of Internet or mobile technology, the first step to be done before deciding if social media is the right tool in emergency, is to figure out if the telecommunication landscape will allow people within the emergency affected area, to actually use it. It looks like an obvious statement, but believe me, it’s not!

The second thing to look at is the actual user habits and cultural and social customs when it some sot SM in a specific area. What I mean with that is that, for example, if we look at the use of Twitter and Facebook during the storm Sandy, it is pretty clear that the information provided by the users during that even, was adding no value at all to emergency responders. The reason for that, was that while a lot of social media content was produced during the storm, people that really needed support were using 911 or other emergency related tools to communicate with authorities. The availability of targeted and ad hoc tools to report problems and information was what made Social Media mainly a second choice tool.

The third step to be done is the one related to what we call Proxies. During an emergency, and also in normal times, people ten to listen and talk to people they trust. This is true also in our offline life, we talk and listen especially to people we trust. This is why, if a humanitarian organizations is entering the SM sphere during an emergency, it should do so by first looking at who are the most trusted sources in those spaces, and use them as a vehicle for their information or at least rely on their credibility to reach more audience. Of course, this is not always possible and can also be sometimes tricky, especially if the emergency is happening in a very politicized environment (see Syria for example). Of course, looking for the most commonly used Hashtags and Pages is also advised, especially if there are some that are created by Government Institutions or agencies.

The last step is to make sure that you have the capacity to actually manage your social media presence in an emergency context. This is particularly true as sometimes we forget that social media may be free when it comes to create an account, but it is definitely not free when it comes to actually use it: technical capacity and time commitments are really important variables for an affective SM strategy.

A very good example of this. is the graph here, which really shows all the necessary steps to create and set up an effective SM strategy (designed for businesses, but really applicable to any type of organization):


So, Why Social media for emergencies?
This something that I feel a lot of people never really takes the time to think about. In today’s landscape a lot of organizations are increasingly creating a social media presence ore because they “have to” then because they actually have a goal in mind. This is also due to the hype that certain people are creating around SM, hype that it very rarely supported by any real data (or it is supported by data that is being manipulated to prove a certain point). So, in my experience those are different goals that can be achieved by an effective SM strategy:

1. Provide lives saving information to the affected population

If the humanitarian organizations’ audience is online, and it is using social media, then this is where they should be too. Life saving information, like where to find food and water, shelters, education, services, are all information the HAVE to be delivered in as many ways as possible, and social media can be on of those. In this sense, social media can also be an extremely good way for humanitarian organizations to act against rumors, misinformation and to provide psychological support  (the American Red Cross does that in a very effective way).

2. Gather information useful for the response

Here I will have to make a distinction: social media monitoring for general awareness in the first hours of an event has been used before as seemed to have been proven as very effective (UNOCHA engaged several times with VTCs to do that, like in Libya and the Philippines, and according to their statements, it looks that this piece of information, together with other information gathered from other sources, provided a very good contribution to the situational awareness).

The second case is the use of SM for immediate response actions by humanitarian organizations. This second situation is particularly tricky as there are no reliable and solid studies on the general use of SM for this kind of situations. All events reported are very anecdotal, like the Japan case of a woman being saved after she twitted her status. In addition to that, the problem with proving that there is any value in using SM for response is that, while information on SM could be “actionable” in theory, 99% is not really actionable in reality, as humanitarian organizations do not have the capacity to go and deliver food to every single family that has no food in the first 24 hours of an emergency.

The “actionable” data here could be actionable only once aggregated and cross referenced with other information, like the vulnerability of the recipient, their proximity to other people and so on. A second issue that makes the “actionability” of SM content for humanitarian organization tricky is the fact that the verification and the filtering of that data during emergencies may actually be more time consuming than the use of a hot line or an SMS system to ask people to report their situation. Now, the good news is that machine learning and computational technology are really developing in a way that will make all those processes easier and faster, but the real question still remains: is the information provided on SM any faster, accurate or important than the information that humanitarian organizations already have and can act upon?

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3. Engage communities affected

The engagement process is always a very interesting one, as a lot of organizations still believe that engagement is measured by how many people follow their account. Unfortunately that’s not the case! The engagement issue is strictly related to TRUST. Engagement in this sense is a conversation, and to have a conversation you have to talk, but also to listen. SM is not different in this sense, as it required organizations to engage in multiple conversations with their beneficiaries knowing that they cannot control that conversation. So how should humanitarian organizations engage?
A. By being relevant
B. By being timely
C. By being responsive
D. By being ready to be criticized

4. Manage expectations

This is a very important one. One of the situations I observed in a lot of emergencies in the past 3 years is that frustration and incertitude are directly proportionated to the expectations that local communities have regarding the response. Let me be clear here: I am not saying that people are expecting something that should not be expecting – most of the time they are expecting something that they HAVE THE RIGHT to expect – but most of the times the humanitarian community is not able to provide what has promised – and again, to be clear, I do know that there are more valid and less valid reasons behind this. In this sense SM is  a good tool to manage expectations and lower the level of frustration and incertitude due to the lack of aid or the lack of information about when aid will be received.

The Challenges of using SM during emergencies
1. Strategy: to be effective you need to have a strategy, and better if it is a good one. Just suddenly using Social Media during a disaster with the idea of setting up a strategy later on is not a smart approach. Since there are times of calm in between emergencies, those are the right times to set up a strategy, test assumptions (and tools) and prepare for the big one to hit.

2. Resources: as I said before, using SM effectively requires skills and people dedicated to that. In this sense an effective SM strategy is an investment in the long term, but this investment needs to be done in the first place, and it is not a small one. Several tools, paid or not, can be used to manage SM in a more efficient way, but still, the human component to it, is fundamental.

3. Verification: verifying social media content is not easy, but the good news is that there are several best practices and protocols that different organizations have created and are using these days. One of those is being designed right now, and I will be writing a case study for it. In general verification is entirely depending on the urgency of the information processed and can be outsourced, like for example using Social Media to gather intelligence about an event and to ask the crowd to verify it. In the Prezi you can find more information about it.

Using SM for emergencies is becoming increasingly important and complicated, but it is indeed an important development of the Communication with Communities (CwC) issue. Learning how to do it takes time and practice but it is not impossible. The important thing is to understand that using SM for CwC is not the same thing than using SM for advertising an organization work, and that once you engage in a conversation you cannot really withdraw from it, or try to control it or manipulate it.

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