Four Easy Ways to Use Social Media in Emergency Communications

The use of social media as a corporate tool is a new concept for municipalities. In its 2012 Annual Social Media Survey, Redbrick Communications found that 44% of Ontario municipalities were using social media, with 84% of those being on Facebook. In 2019, Redbrick polled 31 municipalities and reported that 97% were using Facebook with 26 of those municipalities having an average of four pages. Smaller municipalities were late in jumping on the social media bandwagon, usually because of a lack of personnel and understanding of how social medial works.

In Eastern Ontario, most municipal elected officials and employees will mention the Ice Storm of 1998 when asked about an example of emergency management. That was way before social media became a communication tool. As a municipal communicator, I looked up with envy to those cities that had the resources to include social media in their communications strategies. One of those initiatives I followed was Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi during the 2013 floods. His regular tweets informed residents as well as the media and stimulated civic engagement. He became a social media star and a popular hero.

At that time, I was far from knowing that five years later, I would be the one using social media to inform journalists and reassure residents as Emergency Information Officer during the 2017 and 2019 floods in Clarence-Rockland. When the water started rising in April 2017, our Facebook page had approximately 1000 followers. Three weeks later, we had doubled our followers with some postings reaching up to 5,000 followers. A success for a small rural municipality in Eastern Ontario. When the floods hit us again in 2019, we communicated with the population and the media the same way as it had worked great the first time.

Post Often and as Soon as You Have Updates

Sounds simplistic I know. Residents had started to comment our flood reaction days before the municipality declared a State of Emergency and I needed to give the proper information and to take back control of the narrative. I published the first messages on Facebook and Twitter early in the morning and would continue nonstop often until past 9:00 pm. Posts ranged from emergency meeting updates, to OPP, Fire Department, Paramedics, Red Cross and Health Unit announcements. Media looked forward to those announcements and as they shared them, they helped us reach more residents.

Show What You Are Doing

The first images of the 2017 and 2019 floods were, obviously, of the rising water and the residents and volunteers building sandbag walls. Since the Emergency Operating Centre was located 15 kilometres outside of the flood zone, residents did not see the beehive of activity this place truly was. As such, residents would often declare that the City was not doing enough to help residents. When other municipalities called in the Canadian Armed Forces for help, people on Facebook criticized us for not doing the same, without knowing we were actually waiting to see if the army could come and help us. When three soldiers arrived for a preliminary meeting, I posted this picture of the briefing. This photo gave a glimpse of inside the Emergency Operations Centre and showed the employees at work. Most important, it showed that help had arrived. This photo reached 17,285 Facebook users and local media published it as well.

Credit : Julie Chartrand – City of Clarence-Rockland

Engage Citizens by Making Them Part of the Relief Effort

During an emergency, it is normal human behaviour to want to help. Not everybody could physically fill sandbags and build sandbag walls. We would receive many calls offering donations of clothes and appliances. While very generous, the timing of these offers was poor as the residents were still fighting to save their houses and had not evacuated. When I would receive an offer for help, I would make them part of my social media emergency communications team.  One contact did my media monitoring and sent me twice-daily reports. Another scanned community Facebook pages and contacted me with the questions the residents were asking on those pages. I was then able to address the residents’ concerns very quickly. To the rest, I told them to like my page and share all of my posts to reach as many people as possible. This strategy worked so well that as soon as I would write an update, it would be shared dozens of times in a matter of minutes.

Live Stream Your Press Conferences

At the beginning of every natural disaster is the usual press conference, usually attended by traditional media and some residents. Municipal staff, first responders and government agency take their turn and give updates on the situation.    Usually missing from those press conferences are the victims of the natural disasters. In Clarence-Rockland’s case, they were too busy trying to save their homes. I accepted the offer of a local high school where in exchange for volunteer hours students would broadcast the press conference live on Facebook. We also promoted this initiative to the population as well as tell the flood victims before the meeting. The video was viewed by 8,800 Facebook users and reached more than 40,000 user. For a small rural municipality of 25,000 residents, I would say that’s not too bad.

I am always looking to improve my emergency communications skills. If you know of other events where the social media communications was a success, please share them with me.

Credit : Julie Chartrand – City of Clarence-Rockland

Twitter : @clarencerocklan had 2 floods in 3 years. Read how social media played a key role in the emergency comms effort  #flood2017 #flood2019 #emergencymanagement

Facebook : The City of Clarence-Rockland had two floods in three years. Facebook was a valuable tool in their emergency communications. Read how it was done.

5 thoughts on “Four Easy Ways to Use Social Media in Emergency Communications

  1. This was a great read. My favourite example of emergency comms on social media is what Ottawa Hydro did during the power outage. They truly were the “source” of all information and they were on it! When they used a curtsying princess gif – I started following them. Joyful and informative.

    • I really enjoy public entities that use humour in their Tweets. Sometimes, a well placed joke adds a lot of value to the conversation.

  2. These are all great suggestions Julie. Having worked on “both sides of the mike” so to speak, I can attest that more and more organizations are using social media more effectively during crises. Whether it is sharing information about locating services, updating information, or even providing reassuring words from leadership. One of the greatest threats during a crisis is a lack of information. If there is an absence of information, rumours, or even dangerous falsehoods can start to circulate and be taken as fact. “A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes”

    • You are so right. We had our shares of rumours to address, some that created panics within our population. It just creates an additional layer of work in our communications.

  3. Pingback: Don't fall in those 3 emergency communications social media traps – Algonquin College Social Media Certificate Program

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