I’m writing this article from Beaverton Oregon, one of the tech suburbs of Portland. As I do so, my wife and our family are still trying to get updates on family members in Houston area nursing homes to make sure they’re alright in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. We’re also thinking about friends of ours in Palm Beach Florida, in the path of Hurricane Irma.
But, frankly, we’re more focused on our local disaster. The Eagle Creek Fire which has, over the course of four days, lit over 20,000 acres of the Columbia Gorge on fire, and crossed the Columbia River. The wildfire is hard to ignore with evacuation notifications for the small towns East of Portland coming in and escalating hourly, and ash falling like a dusting of snow on Beaverton, 26 miles Southwest of the flames. Being a marketer, the importance, power, and reach of social media is not lost on me, especially in times of crisis.
In Houston with Harvey, as in New Jersey with Superstorm Sandy, when phone lines failed, and 911 was unreachable, people took to social media to get help. Savvy agencies were listening during Sandy. It was the same during Harvey with agencies actively listening, and communicating with people during and after the storm. But social reach has grown since Sandy, and social media showed itself to be a true means of connection beyond government agencies as both people, and agencies, sent out calls for help that were answered by average citizens going to extraordinary lengths to help their fellow community members.
People like me spend a lot of time explaining how and why social media is an essential component of marketing and business. Today I’m telling you it’s an essential form of communication in times of crisis.
With that in mind, I’m going to give you the essential tips about how to use social media to stay in touch before, during, and after a disaster.
As the stories linked above show, when phone lines fail in a crisis, you can still reach agencies, friends, neighbors, and volunteers through social media channels like Twitter and Facebook.
The ability to communicate can be life-saving during a crisis, while it can also help bring peace of mind to worried family members or enable those who are able, to help those in need.
As with any crisis, the more prepared you are, the better. Follow these steps to ensure you and your family members are able to communicate during a crisis:
- Get a smart phone – You’re not likely to have your desktop or laptop with you if you have to evacuate or the power goes out. You’ll have your smart phone. If you have older generations that are resistant, buy them a smart phone as a gift. Use the stories linked above as your argument.
- Load key social media apps onto your smart phone – Twitter is an essential communication channel to authorities during a crisis. Facebook is a close second and is frequently the channel most used by families to stay in touch. Staying in touch can mean peace of mind, or a lot of extra hands to orchestrate help in a crisis (even from hundreds of miles away). With Hurricane Harvey, Reddit also became an essential source of information creating a Hurricane Harvey Live Megathread that many in Harvey’s path used to get critical information.
- Start communicating over social channels with family – Once the apps are installed, start using them with family members. This is especially critical for family members who may not be versed in social media, app usage, or simply may not like using it. You don’t want them trying to figure out how to tweet during the crisis. Work with them, teach them, and practice using the apps to communicate with you. Teach them:
- Follow key accounts on social – During a time of crisis, you’ll want to be connected to federal, state, and local agencies that will be responding to and managing the crisis. This includes accounts for agencies like:
- State Emergency Management departments.
- State and local agencies managing the crisis. This includes your governor’s account and local mayor’s office. Follow main accounts, and public relations accounts.
- State and local services which will be responding to the crisis including local police, sheriff, fire, other first responder organizations, and any special accounts they have created specifically for the crisis.
- Local utilities including their public relations and emergency response accounts.
- Local and national news organizations. These accounts can be a good source of information during a crisis, and can often help facilitate assistance for those in need.
- Friends and neighbors in the local area that might be able to help you, or who might need your help.
- Train family how to search for and view information from key accounts – Again, don’t assume this will come naturally to them. It won’t help if they’re connected but can’t find the information they need.
- Train family how to use Facebook Safety Check – This can give comfort to family members during a crisis, or let your friends know you need help.
- Check in, practice, make a plan for communication – If loved ones are in the path of a crisis, check in with them. Get them using social apps and channels. Confirm they’re following the right agencies. If it’s a crisis that has a known timeline, like a hurricane, make plans to check in at regular intervals.
- Buy a hand-crank emergency light with a radio, and a USB charger –This gives you a radio, flashlight, and a charging port for your smart phone and doesn’t require batteries. Make sure to buy an extra charging cord and store it with the device!
First and foremost, do what local authorities say is best for your health and safety. If you need to evacuate, evacuate. If you’re told to shelter in place, do so.
Make sure to have your hand-crank charger with you so that you can stay connected on social media to do the following:
- Mark your status with Facebook Safety Check if activated.
- Monitor those key account feeds. For crisis related information and direction.
- Post your status. So that local and remote friends and family know your situation. Post updates every few hours, or as frequently as warranted as your situation changes. The goal is to provide peace of mind to loved ones and to provide a clear picture of your situation to make it easier to get help if needed.
- Monitor local accounts of local friends and family. So that you can assist if needed, and if it’s safe to do so.
- Post pictures. Authorities use many means to get a better understanding of a crisis as it is unfolding in real time, including social media. Posting pictures of a dry street, or a flooded street, of smoke in the distance, or flames up close, along with your location can provide authorities critical information to aid in response decisions. It can also help nearby friends and family, make more informed decisions about what actions they should take.
- Communicate with agencies on channels they prefer. In the aftermath of Harvey, not all agencies wanted to be contacted by social. The Coast Guard, for example, told residents to call for help. As always, follow direction from local authorities.
When exactly is a crisis over? For those outside affected areas, it’s when the news stops focusing on it. For those in affected areas, it may be days, weeks, or months.
During this time continue to monitor key social channels for:
- Updates on federal or state assistance, relief, and clean-up operations
- Information and status updates from local utilities such as which areas have power back on
- Information you need to meet basic needs such as which grocery stores are open, or which stations have gas
- To remain connected with friends and family to get or provide assistance
My team and I wish everyone near or in the paths of these types of crisis’ good luck. More than that, we want you to prepare, and use all the tools at your disposal, including social media, to stay informed, and stay safe.