Social Media in Government: Informing and Engaging the Public During Disasters and Other Events

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard took to Twitter to warn the public about bushfire alerts.

Shane Fitzsimmons, Rural Fire Service Commissioner for New South Wales, said in an article covering the bushfires that citizens should regularly check social media to stay updated on fire conditions in their area.

Around the country, fire and rescue services were tweeting up to a dozen times a day to keep their citizens informed about dangerous areas and bushfire conditions.

This rampant use of social media in government during the bushfires shows how crucial the online space has become to delivering a holistic approach to keeping the public informed and engaged during natural disasters and other events. With the right strategy and tools in place, social media in government can be used to ensure trusted sources spread accurate, useful news during a crisis.

Respond rapidly

Social media in government is so useful during natural disasters and other events because it allows you to get the word out about the situation more quickly than through traditional mediums such as print newspaper articles and TV or radio news reports. Use of social media in government allows real-time updates to the public and messages to the most affected areas using Facebook’s geo-targeting tools. The online messages can also be repeated at times throughout the day most likely to catch individuals’ attention.

If you enlist the help of a monitoring service when using social media in government, this team can also help find members of the public who are talking about the event and seeking potentially life-threatening information who are not on your radar. For instance, some individuals might write posts relevant to your government organisation without actually tweeting to your Twitter profile or commenting on your Facebook page. Without a social media listening service, you might never know these posts exist, which would lessen the impact of using social media in government.

Control the message

Rather than having the message massaged by media, using social media in government means you can directly control what is being said online. This point is extremely important during emergencies, when a lot of incorrect or embellished information is likely circulating both online and off (a recent example during the bushfires occurred in Tasmania whenincorrect information about deaths was spread on Facebook). Even if use of social media in government only involves listening and not engaging online, it can set the record straight offline and dispel rumours swiftly so that the issue doesn’t snowball.

Reaching a wider — and sometimes remote — audience

A recent Herald Sun article notes how use of social media in government agencies such as the fire services has increased since the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria. Use of social media in government is allowing more reach into rural areas or disadvantaged populations, which may not be able to afford mobile phones or cable, but might have some access to free internet to read alerts on social media. As both rural and disadvantaged populations are some of the most at risk in a weather event, the ability to alert them through use of social media in government has become a major asset. A social media monitoring team can help find these individuals if they are talking on sites that are beyond your current scope of knowledge.

Show the public what you’re doing

When Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast of the United States, use of social media in government was demonstrated through agencies such as New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority uploading pictures to Flickr of workers cleaning up the flood-damaged subway system. Whether it’s a flood or bushfire, use of social media in government in this manner lets you keep the public abreast not only of the impact of the event, but how you are handling it. This approach to using social media in government can extend beyond disasters to more ordinary events such as neighbourhood clean-ups and homeless outreach.

During times of crises, use of social media in government can serve to quickly spread the right information to the right people. Not only does social media in government serve as another communication tool — it can help save lives the next time a major event strikes the populations you serve.

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