EMERGENCY COMMS: ‘Whatever you do, put social media in your emergency plan.’

Fire, storm, pestilence or just a burst water main, in an emergency local government can swing into action.

In the UK it’s known as emergency planning and in the US emergency management. Whichever part of the world you are in it’s the part of the public sector that has plans for every eventuality.

For a comms person, it’s often only when there’s a problem you’ll speak to the emergency planners. Don’t let that happe  n. Make a pact with yourself.  Go and speak to them as soon as you can and sort out what to do with social media. Here is why.

At localgovcamp in Birmingham this year Ben Proctor, who runs the Like A Word consultancy, ran an excellent session on emergency planning and the social web. It’s something he writes about well too. His blog is well worth a look.

Catherine Howe, who does things with Public I, made the closing but clear point: “Whatever you do put social media in your emergency plan.”

Of course, I reflected smugly, my council has. There’s 3,000 people following the our corporate Twitter stream. What could go wrong?

Overnight there had been a minor incident that I’d missed on my Blackberry which had ran flat. Thankfully, it wasn’t more serious. But it showed very clearly where we’re blindsided.

If only comms people have the keys to the Facebook and Twitter things can easily fall down. What’s the answer? Go to where the audience is. Give them access to the corporate account. They’re generally very sensible people and know what to say. If the situation develops you can always step in.

So, what sort of role does social media play in an emergency?

In a true disaster the web falls down before SMS. But people are instinctively running to it.

A tornado in Joplin – In in the Mid West US town when a milewide tornado struck, the community rallied by building their own space on the web. At first this was to search for missing people and then as the disaster turned to recovery it charted that phase too. The moral? People have the tools like this or this community Facebook page to build things for themselves. They’re not waiting for the council to do it. They just will.

The EDL in Birmingham – When the far right English Defence League first rallied they used Twitter to spread misinformation. The police monitored by were powerless.  Third time they came they had an officer monitoring Twitter, Mark Payne checking each claim and then re-butting within minutes point by point.

Facebook in Queensland – When floods struck 3,000 comments a day were posted on the Queensland Police site. It took a 24-hour effort to monitor, explain and rebuff wild rumour.

The report into the Queendsland event singled out social media as part of a range of channels to take action with. Ben Proctor has blogged on it here. A key finding is to talk, prepare and practice. That’s as just as much relevant to comms people as anyone.

An interim report into the Queensland flood made a series of comments and recommendations. On social media it stated:

“As it may be possible for the public to post information directly to an official social media site there are concerns that a member of the public may post false information. For example, inaccurate information was posted on the Western Downs Regional Facebook page. However, where there are enough staff to monitor content social media can be a useful tool to respond to rumours in the community.”

Seven things comms people need to know

1. Share the keys – Give emergency planning an awareness of what social media is, encourage them to monitor and respond and give them the keys to the corporate feeds.

2. You can’t control the message – As if the main message of our times is needed to be repeated.

3. There’s a shorter turn around time to respond – Speed may be of the essence.

4. It’s not just about social media – It’s one channel of several. Important and growing but don’t think that everyone will be on Facebook.

5. It’s good for combating rumours – As a comms person that can save yourself time.

6. Journalists will follow and like – You can save time and effort by creating channels of communications.

7. If the balloon goes up it’ll take resources – Social media is free is a bit of a myth. The platform is free. The time spent to manage it, listen and update isn’t. The lessons of Queensland are that it can take up resources. But you do get valuable return on investment for doing so. Regular monitoring when there is a crisis is absolutely critical. Don’t link to a press release and forget about it.

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Join the Conversation


  1. Hi Dan

    It will not surprise you to know that I agree with you. Thanks for pointing people my way.

    I do think it’s largely good news. Used well social media can get messages out and can target information effectively, it can improve situational awareness and it can improve community resilience. And you are right, it needs to be in the plan, and in the exercises right now.

    Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue has a page advising households to plan their escape route in case of fire. They introduce this by saying:

    “It can be difficult to think clearly in an emergency.”

    They should know.

    1. Great post, Dan. It’s odd, in a sense, that this isn’t a first principle for social media in local government, because I think the benefits are among the easiest to establish.

      I’m guessing it’s also going to be helpful if comms pros have a really good idea of what their colleagues are doing in other agencies. Council, fire, police, etc. work hard to have a combined approach to dealing with emergencies, so would it not be helpful to have a co-ordinated approach to social media? I’m wondering whether it’s something that might get incorporated into the local resilience forum media plan, which sets out how to keep the media informed in times of crisis.

      1. That’s a good point, Andrew. You’ve sorted your own backyard. What about the police? Or fire? Or ambulance?

      2. I think that’s right. And every LRF co-ordinator I’ve spoken to is giving some thought to this (even if it’s only “eek!”). I guess the challenge (though by no means insurmountable) is managing the multiple presences. So in a media plan you can, realistically, ask journalists to contact the lead agency’s press office and then co-ordinate messages through there. That might not be so feasible on facebook where people may want to know what the Council is doing even if the Police are leading on media comms. Not impossible, just more complex and fluid.

    2. Good point, Ben. An established way of doing things in a crisis established in calm tranquility makes it so much easier when it does get hairy. No problem in pointing people at your work. It’s yardstick stuff.

  2. We are now contemplating using twitter and Facebook as our failover comms for business continuity if there were to be a failure of our own website.

    1. Do it, Simon. Things like Facebook and Twitter can be accessed by staff remotely and can be accessed by thousands of residents.

  3. Spot on advice as always, Mr Slee – you’re fast becoming a household name in our authority (when people can read your posts; #pleaseunblockblogs!)

    Since moving 50% of my focus to freelance work, I’ve made sure things like this are covered by building up a bible. A lot of this is a simple network WordPress blog which I’m building a procedural guide on, but another part is a “keychain”, a simple XLS file on a protected drive which contains all the master admin passwords to our various web services.

    So far it’s myself and the comms team who have access to our social channels (as we have started deeming them, in an attempt to get people to pay attention – they seem more receptive to the concept of “channels” over “networks”) but I think I will be proposing to widen this net further!

    Good stuff!

    1. Cheers, Andrew. Good plan to get comms people on the list to access things in a crisis. But who do the press office talk to? It’s emergency planners. So, why not have the ability to styreamline things and let emergency planners update the website or post on Twitter and Facebook. What happens if you don’t if there’s a major fire and cfor whatever reason you couldn’t alert comms people. Yes, most places have a rota but nothing is perfect and I’ve never met an emergency planner who is not sane, sensible and able to work out what to say.

  4. Hello Dan,

    How ironic that social events have turned the way they have. Just reflecting on your article as I prepare to incorporate it and circulate our weekly roundup.

    All the more reason emergency services should be tapping into social media since evidently at the moment it is being exploited by the mobs to coordinate their movements.

    Suppose the question would be if emergency services coordinated intelligence by understanding social media better could they attempt to contain the level of unrest we’re experiencing better? FUD is a powerful tool for propaganda –

    Or will it perhaps be simply used to coordinate evidence after the event? After the horse has bolted.

    Without wishing to appear I’m blowing hot air toward your rear, these posts are fantastic so keep them coming!


    PSFBuzz aka GPMBuzz aka Gary Marston resident of NE Cheshire.

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