Blog post

Hurricane Sandy Confirms the Tactical Nature of Social Media

By Andrea Di Maio | October 31, 2012 | 3 Comments

social networks in government

Like many natural and man-made disasters before it, Hurricane Sandy has shown once again the power of social media to keep people informed, to coordinate rescue efforts and ultimately save lives.

There are countless stories already about how Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have helped people in need, reassured their relatives that they were safe, engaged neighbors and perfect strangers in mutual help. Some signs started with Hurricane Katrina in the US five years ago, then they became stronger with the bushfires in Victoria Australia three years ago, and even more so with floods in Queensland almost two years ago.

The scale of Sandy and the greater penetration of social media has made the social networking aspect of this major event almost predominant.

However, for how great and deep the social media impact can be, this is yet another proof that social media is nothing else than a tool that many people as well as governments decide to rely upon when something out of the ordinary happens, and normal processes (such as 911 calls and public safety intervention) do not suffice to deal with the scale and severity of the event.

As I wrote a while ago, in other places where the role of social media in managing the emergency was celebrated and even led to awards and recognition, when the water levels dropped and life returned to normal, authorities were left with unanswered questions about how to incorporate all this exciting and important stuff into their strategies and their normal course of business.

The simple answer is that they can’t and they shouldn’t. Social media can serve an important purpose when something extraordinary happens. When we all stop chatting about sport results,  or favorite actors, or how to bake, and feel compelled to collect and relay information that can help other people, then it is time for authorities to join the chatter, search for patterns, use this additional and powerful channel.

But when things are back to normal, and we go back to chatting about sports and cakes, making social media an institutional tool for public safety is a tougher call.

Of course social media is an important channel for mass notification, and is an important tool for listening to what people are saying and to uncover patterns. But when it comes to how authorities can really make a difference, it is up to how each commander, officer or firefighter to decide whether and how to use these tools to help people and save lives.

Tactics, more than strategies, make the difference.

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  • Alex Howard says:

    As is the case in every major event in the U.S., social media was now part of the fabric of communications. Twitter was a window into what was happening in real-time. Facebook gave families and friends a way to stay in touch about safety or power.

    While Hurricane Sandy cemented the utility of the networks, neither they nor their role are new. With all due respect, the idea that people aren’t conveying “useful information” every day there — that it’s just ” chatting about sport results, or favorite actors, or how to bake” — is like some weird flashback to a 2007 blog post or ignorant cable new s anchor.

    Public sector, first responders and emergency management officials have recognized the utility of social media reports as a means for situational awareness before, during and after natural or man-made disasters for years.

    Officials at local, state and federal levels have confirmed to me again and again that it’s critical to build trusted networks *before* disaster strikes so that when crises occur, the quality of intelligence is improved and existing relationships with influence can amplify their messages.

    Media and civil society play a crucial role as infomediaries and critical filters for vetting information. Official government accounts play a critical role for putting trusted information into the networks to share, something we saw in real-time up and down the East Coast this week.

    To be frank, your advice that authorities can’t incorporate social media into their normal course of business is precisely the opposite of the experience on the ground of organizations like the Los Angeles Fire Department or FEMA.

    If public safety officials come across this blog post, I hope they’ll listen to citizens every day and look to scale the best practices of their peers online, not start during a crisis.

  • Thank you for the ancient anchor analogy, but I honestly believe you are missing the point.
    What happens during a crisis is that potentially everyone becomes an officer of a first responder. Not members of trusted networks somewhat accredited by an authority and helping it for outreach, but literally everybody. This happens in ways, at times and in places that are quite difficult to anticipate, and the only way to act upon this mass of information is for people on the ground to decide whether and how.
    Intermediaries have existed for a long time, well before the advent of social media: neighborhood watches, voluntary groups, and so forth. And of course the media. They have always been the connective tissue between authorities and people during emergencies.
    But social media allows disintermediation: there is way more information out there from people than infomediaries can plan for and coordinate. The new, positively disruptive aspect of social media is that such information is available to everyone to decide how to use it.
    As I said in the post, there are areas where social media can be just the extension of existing strategies: many government organizations do have an intermediary strategy, which gets extended to incoporate new “established” players in the social sphere. My contention is that predefined trusted networks may not be enough to deal with the severity of the event: so, how do you plan for processing information that comes from other sources? How trusted is a blogger or a FB community versus a stream of tweets from unknown individuals flagging that a road is blocked and an ambulance won’t be able to drive through?
    I appreciate that authroties would love to be able to strategize and fit social media into their existing processes, and your position suggests that they can. But this is indeed a flashback to when people believed they could tame social media behaviors to their own purposes. Reality is more complex and requires people like individual firefighters and first respondents to be in touch with people who use social media to ask for and provide help, besides any institutional channel that the authorities have established with trusted networks. Incidentally, trusted by whom? Not necessarily by all those who can provide and are in need of help.

  • John Forrest says:

    Thanks for the post Alex. I certainly agree and have experience of the benefits of social media as a broadband two-way communication channel during extreme events.

    Social media during ‘ordinary times’ also contains useful strategic information, you just need to tune the signal to noise ratio to listen to your customers, markets, competitors, brand image etc..
    Most importantly, I firmly believe that strategic management is all about adaptation and situation awareness is part of the capability.

    I have responded to your post in more detail here: – suffice to say that your comments apply equally well to all strategic management forums whether it’s using Twitter or town hall meetings.