Mobile Technology's Role in a Crisis
By Stephanie Blanchard, Digital Editor
Two IEDs went off near the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, April 15, but neither could crush the American spirit nor stop the waves of volunteers. As dazed crowds fled from smoke and screams, emergency personnel and first responders ran towards chaos, in a race to retrieve survivors. Spectators and marathon participants alike also assisted those in need, from carrying the wounded to creating makeshift tourniquets for the many who had lost limbs.
Within minutes of the terrorist attack which caused three deaths, most of the 187 casualties had been taken to medical tents and teams who were standing by for the annual sporting event. Because of the abundance of selfless actions, dozens of lives were saved. The heroics and determination to help others despite danger — a symbol of what the United States stands for— served as inspiration for millions around the country.
In the same week as the Boston bombings, a man was arrested for sending Ricin-laced letters to a Senator and the President, and a fertilizer plant in West, TX exploded killing at least 14 and injuring hundreds. Due to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, YouTube and other sites, tens of millions stayed up to date on each event, with real-time accounts of everything going on, all at once.
Today’s news cycle is now 24-seconds not 24 hours, thanks to social media. Hyper-local information immediately can be shared with the entire world and is no longer relegated to one topic at a time. Data is everywhere.
For West, TX, images and videos of the plant explosion immediately went viral as many used social media to issue alerts regarding missing family members, express their condolences, and coordinate donation efforts.
With phone lines jammed in numerous Boston neighborhoods, providers like Verizon and AT&T asked for people to text and use data rather than calling, and many posted to Facebook to let loved ones know they were all right. Even the Boston Police put Twitter to use, wisely, with updates about specific police activity that affected residents.
The department actually employed Twitter from the get-go. “I need somebody up there to get on social media and let people know what we’re doing here,” said an unidentified police commander over the dispatch, shortly after the explosions.
Without a prompt at first, the public took it upon itself to comb through cell phone pics of the Boston Marathon, discussing possible suspects (some mistakenly so) on social pages, in an effort to find those responsible for the bombings. What happened was an example of crowdsourcing, for good and bad.
After the FBI finally released several low-resolution photos of two brothers, the pics were widely distributed through all the social sites, where many continued to pursue and compare info on their own. Following this, a Facebook user realized he had taken a smartphone photo of one of the wanted men. David Green, CEO of Play Harder, a sportswear company, was then able to provide a high resolution image to investigators: an eerie shot of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in his backwards white cap, calmly walking as a crowd runs from detonation.
Pinned down in a backyard boat, the 19-year old Tsarnaev was taken into custody on Friday, April 19; his brother killed the night before. Every moment associated with tracking down the Boston bombers over the course of four days was tracked online.
Social sites do not just produce billions of posts that go nowhere and mean nothing but can paint an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. Collectively, the real-time user generated content, when analyzed, can help organizations to create effective crises maps.
After Hurricane Sandy, for example, more than 20 million tweets were sent within a five-day period. An emergency response map for such a large scale event (which simultaneously affected numerous states on the East Coast) can be vital to rescue and relief efforts.
In the case of Boston, law enforcement called for the public to send in any relevant pics or videos taken from their mobile devices and reports put the amount of data received at 10 terabytes — the same as 15,000 CDs.
According to a 2009 survey by the American Public Health Association and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., 43% of organizations used social media to communicate information about emergencies. This amount has likely increased in the last three years.
When it comes to crises management for companies, communication is an integral part of contingency planning and in 2013, social media is the go-to outlet.
Three things businesses should consider:
Have a communication plan in place. That means having a command-control center, a designated spokesperson and a crisis communications team with each member playing a vital role, from social media management to government/police liaison.
Establish a system for gathering and verifying information. Social media is available in seconds on a global scale, but can also be unreliable and dangerous if bad information snowballs out of control. What sources are reliable? Which sites are off-limits?
Inform employees. It doesn’t help if no one knows about the communication channel.
Action in Emergencies
When a crisis occurs, a company should first determine the whereabouts and safety of all employees. Then provide regular status updates, even if there is nothing new to report.
Social media managers should tweet and retweet only appropriate information. Seems like it is stating the obvious, but it’s not. Rehashing rumors and circulating altered photographs is ill-advised for both security reasons and public perception of the enterprise. Not addressing chatter can also lead down bad roads. Instead, engage and shape a factual conversation.
In addition, disable automated messages. Sending out scheduled social media promotions during the height of a national tragedy or disaster will be seen as inappropriate.
Finally, even if your business is not directly impacted by any one event, communication protocol should still go into effect. What happens in one area of the country affects the whole, and in the age of mobile, is instantly known.