8 Best Practices for Emergency Communications on Social Media

Jennifer Elliott from CivicReady offers local governments best practices for emergency communications on social media.

If a natural disaster, an active shooter or a nuclear terror attack were threatening your community, you would stop at nothing to reach as many citizens as possible with your communication strategy, wouldn’t you? Social media is not just for teens and 'tweens'. Social media is a critical channel for delivering real-time urgent news and emergency notifications, not only because citizens spend a considerable amount of time utilizing social media each day, but because citizens now expect to learn about breaking news from reputable sources on social media first.

If your emergency management plan does not currently include social media as part of outreach efforts, now is a good time to resolve that. The risks facing communities today have never been more threatening. Public safety officers owe it to their citizens and to the travelers passing through their cities to use every single communication channel to save lives. Do not wait for a local emergency to start building your social network. The following information and best practices can help prepare communities for greater emergency communications when they are needed most.

The Power and Reach of Social Media

Thanks to the overwhelming proliferation of social media, social media platforms have evolved from peer networks to effective communication channels for public and private sector entities. In the United States, 56 percent of Americans 12 years old and older have a profile on a social networking site, and the typical Internet user has an average of 5.54 social media accounts. If you think the citizens in your community may not fall in line with national trends, consider these facts from a study conducted by the Pew Research Center:

  • 68 percent of all women use social media, compared with 62 percent of all men.
  • 35 percent of all those 65 years old and older report using social media.
  • 56 percent of citizens living in the lowest income households now use social media.
  • 58 percent of rural residents, 68 percent of suburban residents and 64 percent of urban residents all use social media.
Why Social Media for Emergency Communications?

Not only is social media used by a wide variety of demographics, but it is also used for a significant portion of those citizens’ days and is starting to replace time spent with traditional media. For local governments that have primarily focused their citizen communication strategies around news distribution through traditional media outlets, we now know that social media serves as a more direct and more impactful way to communicate with citizens.

An additional reason that social media can effectively help you reach citizens in times of local emergency is that a significant portion of social media use takes place on mobile devices. According to Brandwatch, there are 2 billion monthly active Facebook users as of Q3 2017, and over one billion of them are mobile-only users.

Finally, the most important reason to utilize social media for emergency communications is that your citizens expert it. According to Insignia Communications, social media is changing the way that consumers learn about breaking news because:

  • News now usually appears on social media first.
  • Social media crosses geographic boundaries more quickly.
  • Social channels are informed by multiple individuals firsthand, often through unofficial sources, but sometimes those who are direct witnesses to events.
  • Social media is commented upon by active social media users who further share and distribute content.

Journalists watch social media to identify and report breaking news stories. According to Insignia, 77 percent of journalists say social media is important to them for learning about potential stories more quickly, and the same percentage say social media is important in reporting stories more quickly.

8 Best Practices for Emergency Communications on Social Media

Incorporating social media into your emergency communication plan will help amplify your reach and enable maximum awareness of impending threats. To ensure your messages are timely and actionable, consider these best practices for utilizing social media during a natural disaster or community emergency:

  1. If you are not using social media today, focus only on those platforms that reach the most citizens and that are best-suited for distributing news, namely Facebook and Twitter.
  2. Keep messages short and informative. Give citizens specific feedback such as the location of emergency shelters or road closure updates.
  3. Link to more detailed content, such as emergency evacuation maps or shelter lists.
  4. Include hashtags to amplify the reach of your message (e.g., #HurricaneMartha).
  5. Send updates frequently. Citizens will be looking for continual updates, so keep tweets, posts and shares of valuable news, information and instruction coming frequently.
  6. Utilize an emergency mass notification system that integrates with your social media profiles to limit the number of times you need to draft and send the same message.
  7. Choose a mass notification system that integrates with the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). IPAWS is designed to help create and distribute local emergency notifications to your community through all of the nation’s available alert and warning channels, such as TV, AM/FM radios WEA capable wireless devices and NOAA weather radios.
  8. Continue to share updates even when an event has ended. Your citizens will still be interested in learning about your community’s recovery and clean-up progress.

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