Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


State News August: The New Disaster Dialogue

the new disaster dialogue

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Social Networking Challenges

But using social networking in emergency management poses special challenges, according to Leysia Palen, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. State emergency management agencies must decide how to manage the growing number of communication options, she said.
“Social media isn’t a guaranteed benefit for any organization,” she said. “Using social media amounts to more of a seismic change (in the way they communicate).”
An earlier and significant shift occurred with the advent of 24-hour news channels, which transformed disasters from isolated, local experiences to events on a world stage. Now, social media is taking it to the next step, providing as-it-happens reports from those on the scene and answer questions from interested friends and relatives trying to find answers.
That need to know now is one of the stumbling blocks for states, according to Palen. Constant The New Disaster Dialoguemonitoring and input requires staff, which is particularly challenging in the current economic environment. For its part, Florida emergency management relies on the cross-training of personnel to handle the traditional as well as social media.
There are also real concerns about the importance of maintaining “official” news sources, especially in a disaster scenario. Before a state emergency management agency releases critical alerts, it must check with many levels of state and local government. Darnell isn’t sure how this strict protocol can incorporate social media without losing the spontaneity inherent in the latter.
“The very thing that makes (the emergency management community) effective is the structure that social media, such as Twitter, eliminates,” he said.
If official word isn’t available, those impacted by a disaster will seek answers wherever they can get them. “When official sources aren’t enough, people will take measures into their own hands,” said Palen. “Who knows if that source will be accurate?”
Related to this is what can happen when one false message—either deliberate or accidental—is sent over a social network. In a disaster, people can get hurt and lives can be lost if bad information is circulated. It can also ripple through traditional outlets and require valuable time in damage control.
Another issue is that the law governing public information is out of sync with the regulation of social media. “How does social media communication fit into the larger open government policy?” asks Almaguer.
Communication methods are changing faster than the policy and statutes overseeing it. Almaguer believes government agencies must understand this and be ready to justify their information decisions after the fact.
A fickle public can also pose a problem. During the lead-up to the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, tens of thousands flocked to the D.C. agency’s portals, including its official Web site and Twitter feed, Darnell said. After the parades and parties, the number of followers dropped dramatically. The agency will continue to use Twitter, but Darnell believes the key for state emergency management is determining how to stay on the public’s radar when there isn’t a disaster.
Renee Preslar from Arkansas Emergency Management agrees.
“If you stay relevant and consistent in your messages, you can keep interest and form relationships,” said Preslar, the agency’s deputy public information officer. “If you are only visible when the tornado hits, your audience isn’t going to be as engaged or responsive as they should be.”


Social Media is Here to Stay

Regardless of the challenges, social media is here to stay, experts say. “This is a phenomenon that we can’t just put back in the box,” said Darnell.
Harvard Business Publishing in June reported that more than half of Twitter users tweet only once every 74 days, raising questions about the site’s long-term appeal. But Twitter grew by 752 percent in 2008, representing an increase of unique users to 4.43 million in December, according to, which studies Web site usage. In contrast, Facebook claims that of its 200 million users, 100 million log in at least once a day.
Even worries about a generational divide over these technologies are diminishing. Facebook’s fastest growing demographic is age 35 and older. According to, an independent blogger that tracks Facebook statistics, within the 35 and older segment, the group growing the most is women 55 and older.
“We don’t often stop to think about it, but how did we adapt to news media or using 9-1-1?” Palen said. “In 10 years, the 20-somethings will be 30, and then 40. The shift has to start somewhere.”
Almaguer believes the technology changes emergency management is witnessing are normal and constant. “Back in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit, (the Florida Division of Emergency Management) was cutting edge, using early computers … and that wasn’t that long ago,” he said.
Adopting Web 2.0—the term used to apply to the new generation of Web development and design—doesn’t mean abandoning the traditional for the trendy. It’s about leveraging current information platforms, and being visible to as many groups of people as possible.
“We have to go where the masses are,” says Almaguer.
It’s a lesson the Federal Emergency Management Agency is learning as well. FEMA is establishing a presence on various social media sites. That activity is likely to kick into a higher gear because the new FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, was an avid fan of social media in his previous position as the Florida director.
The only certainty for social media users and skeptics alike is that disaster communication will continue to evolve.
“(Social media) will become so normal, and will no longer pique the interest of researchers, making the task of understanding and harnessing the technology all that more important now,” Palen said.
—Alexa Noruk is a legislative policy analyst and Beverly Bell is senior policy analyst
for the National Emergency Management Association.
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