Best Practices For Using Social Media In Hurricanes And Other Crisis Situations

Social media has become an important tool for sharing information in a crisis, such as Hurricane Ida last month. But like any tool, companies need to know how to use it properly. Otherwise, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms can be used to create more confusion than understanding.

New research that was just published in the journal Risk Analysis suggests that monitoring and analyzing social media “chatter” during a natural disaster could help decision makers learn how to plan for and mitigate the impacts of severe weather events in their communities.  

Jose E. Ramirez-Marquez is an associate professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and Gabriela Gongora-Svartzman is an assistant teaching professor at  Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. They analyzed more than six million Twitter messages that were posted during three major hurricanes that made landfall in 2017: Harvey (Texas), Irma (Florida) and Maria (Puerto Rico).

Actionable Information For Business Leaders

They said their research “can help business leaders acquire actionable information and analytics before, during, and after a weather-related disaster, providing them time to minimize impacts, strategize resource distribution and communications, and plan for future rebuilding efforts. We can’t prevent natural disasters, but we can plan to mitigate their effects.”

Identifying Needs And Resources

“Natural disasters leave behind thousands of lives and billions of dollars lost, but also billions of dollars needed to rebuild communities. If we can identify those communities, and their needs, then rebuilding efforts will become more focused. Additionally, suppose business leaders work with the communities before disasters to strengthen the community’s social cohesion,” they noted.

The researchers said their data show that the intensity of communication peaked for each hurricane shortly before or after it made landfall. In the case of Maria in Puerto Rico, a significant amount of online conversation continued for more than a week after the hurricane ended. This means, they concluded, “that post-disaster management strategies were being put in place, rescues were occurring, and rebuilding efforts were starting to evolve.”

Improving Risk Management

The researchers said they hope their method for tracking and visualizing social media communications during a severe storm can contribute to future risk management and disaster mitigation policies.

“Because we identify the types of actors in a social network and how this network varies daily, decision makers could use this measurement to release strategic communication before, during, and after a disaster strikes—thus providing relevant information to people in need,” said Ramirez-Marquez.

Learning From Past Weather Events

“If we had a national database of the social media communications pre-during-post disaster then we would be able to better identify the needs of a community and the limitations of current policy and response,” he said.

“It is concerning that the communities that experienced the harshest effects during Katrina will again be harshly affected during Ida. This shows a lack of learning from past events,” according to Ramirez-Marquez. 

Advice For Business Leaders

Take Action

Rachel Winer is senior vice president-digital at public affairs firm ROKK Solutions. She noted that, “During Hurricane Ida, companies that generated the most positive social media engagement were the ones who not only spoke up supporting those impacted by the matter, but the companies who did something about it and took action.

“For example, the winner (yet again) goes to Chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen. They were there, mobilized and ready to help people and socially share immediately once Ida made landfall. They already had a universal organization hashtag (#ChefsForTheWorld) in prominent place, which allowed them to easily adapt and trend for having a positive social media impact on this crisis. Other favorable social media examples during Ida included New Orleans, neighboring and national sports teams who encouraged fans to donate to those affected vs. not,” she said.

Winer recommended that, “Business leaders should be ready to speak up, take and spark action and have overarching social impact social media playbook strategies in place to swiftly turn to in times of crisis.”

Communicate Effectively

Baruch Labunski, CEO of Rank Secure noted that, “According to Statista, 82% of Americans have a social media account. That’s why it can be such an effective, efficient, and inexpensive way for businesses to communicate with customers and the public in general during a crisis.’

“Whether you’re updating customers about hours of operation, offering support or aid to your community, or just passing along information that might be useful, social media can be a huge asset for your business during any crisis,” he advised.

Labunski recommended that business leaders keep the following advice in mind.

Keep Your Tone Appropriate. A crisis isn’t the moment for a joke. Even if most of your community and customers make it through, there are people facing life and death peril. Don’t be flip.

Be Conscious Of Your Brand. A bookstore could post images or video of dropping off childrens’ books to an emergency shelter. A restaurant may post pics of sharing meals with emergency responders. It’s okay to promote your brand while you offer genuine help to people in need. Just don’t be crass.

Make Sure What You Are Posting Is Helpful And Accurate. Nothing makes disasters worse than people who perpetuate false or misleading information. Check your facts before you share things.

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