Social media in civil emergencies: two contrasting approaches

A shorter version of this article was printed in The Guardian in autumn 2013 

In early January 2013 bushfires blazed in southeast Tasmania and razed over 100 structures mostly in the community of Dunalley.  The response by emergency services extended well beyond the rapid deployment of fire fighting services to counter the blaze.  Central to its strategy was the successful application of social media tools, particularly Facebook and twitter, in ways that embraced a more open, collaborative approach that treated the public as an intelligence asset and resource.

This was no overnight damascene conversion resulting from the   civil emergency, but a slow iterative process of community education and preparation well before the event itself.

In a recent presentation, also viewable on YouTube, Martin Anderson, the Australian CFA digital Media Manager identifies three fundamental changes to mindset  that are critical to any effective use of social media in emergency management.

  1. From: “We hold the info the community needs and we expect them to come to us.”  To: “We realize we need to go to the community.”
  2. From: “We will decide what the community needs.” To: “The community will tell us what they need.”
  3. From: “The public is a liability.” To: “The public is a resource.”

These were not vague aspirations but lessons learned and affirmed as a result of the Tasmanian Bush Fires.

Yet if the Australian Country Fire Authority defines the kind of best practice model that every public agency can learn from, the Boston Police Department seemed to fly in the opposite direction. The Boston bombings in April 2013 resulted in the deaths of three people and another 264 others were injured.  Within seconds of the bombs going off, Twitter erupted in a frenzy of tweets that traded both information and mis-information. The limits of “the public as a resource” seemed all too evident as social chatter fed the rumour mill.  Mainstream media only made things worse when CNN  falsely reported the arrest of a suspect.

To the credit of Boston Police Department, they quickly took charge. Media organisations were publicly chided on twitter and members of the public asked to  refrain from tweeting information from police scanners –  which they did. The latter  tweet alone was re-tweeted more than 20,000 times.

It was a carefully calibrated  command-and-control use of social media with a selective sharing of timely factual information to counter media rumour,  re-assure the public, and protect the location of investigating officers in a very fast moving environment.

All this may seem to suggest an inconclusive evidence base, one that allows plenty of wriggle room for public agencies to   devise a media strategy that best suits the prejudices and die hard departmental norms.  But a closer look at how these two very different agencies work, reveals important commonalities rather than differences.

Like the Australian Country Fire Authority, the Boston Police Department worked hard to develop strong community relations. Even before the bombings, their Twitter follower total was 40,000 – higher than most local media outlets.  They were already active on a range of social media sites and have a blog, Facebook pageTwitter feed and  YouTube and Pinterest accounts. In short, they had already positioned themselves as a trusted source of information that people could turn to in time of crisis. In both cases, relationship  building was key, with the Australian CFA placing a premium on    community education and preparation well before  crisis events.

It is this emphasis on relationship that proves most challenging to UK public sector bodies. While many have embraced social media, their deployment still leans towards a one-way broadcast approach  –  new media adapted to old norms. Local authorities who often stand at the centre of safer partnerships and contingency planning, are particularly prone to a top down controlling use of social media that inhibits genuine relationship building by frontline staff.

The required culture change is not helped by cuts to services forced upon local authorities as Whitehall hands down the axe. Corporate media strategy is thus reduced to managing  expectations and protecting brand in the face of swingeing budget cuts.

Yet New media offers new ways of doing things, in particular building genuine collaborative relationships with the wider community, even under these strained and difficult circumstances, but it requires a fundamental change in mind-set to make this happen.  Public agencies could do worse than look very hard at the value set proffered by Martin Anderson in his presentation.

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