DENVER — Social media has been the basis for a lot of negative things — trolls, misinformation, the list goes on. But when it all hits the fan and catastrophe looms, social media can be the difference between a complete nightmare scenario and a well-managed crisis.
For agencies used to handling these crises — the likes of emergency services and public safety organizations — a relatively young tool has been gaining traction and changing the dynamics of how they are able to respond. It’s called a Virtual Operations Support Team, and can be used to handle all sorts of situations.
Experts discussed the simple but revolutionary concept during a session at the Government Social Media Conference in Denver on April 24.
The idea is fairly simple: Deploy a trusted team of social media-savvy individuals to monitor public social media feeds for anything that could help a responding agency better manage a situation, said Cheryl Bledsoe, executive director of the Virtual Emergency Management Association.
“It is a group of trusted agents that are completing web-based missions for a public safety or emergency management agency,” she said. “This team of people reports to a liaison within your organization and they gather information from what they are seeing online.”
Bledsoe, who also works within Clackamas County, Ore., Communications, said the idea took shape around 2011, when emergency managers started looking for a way to offer support through actionable intelligence gathering during critical events.
“Now, to emergency managers that was kind of a novel thing, because in the emergency management community, we often push information out and say, ‘Here is my message and what I am going to share with you,’” she said. “But we often don’t listen back to what the community is saying about our messages, about our content, about anything we are sharing in our overall space.”
While organizations like the Red Cross and FEMA have similar programs that use “digital reservists” to connect that public to the resources and information, Bledsoe said, their interactions are more focused on public outreach than gathering actionable intelligence for responders.
“What makes the VOST unique is that the VOS team actually connects into the emergency response. The emergency response then gathers the information and is able to make actionable decisions with the information the VOS team has collected,” Bledsoe said.
The immediate assumption that Bledsoe hears a lot is that the process relies on hacking on the part of law enforcement. This is not the case. Teams are primarily focused on platforms like Twitter that allow a user to share information openly.
“Now, one of the first questions I always get is, ‘Are they hacking or doing anything Big Brother, or doing anything crazy?’ And really, the answer to that is, no. We are looking simply at open-source information that people are publicly sharing online and gathering that information really as a filter point for folks inside an emergency operations center,” she said.
Mary Jo Flynn, an emergency operations coordinator with California’s Sacramento County Office of Emergency Service, explained that the role these teams play is an essential part of responding to an emergency situation.
Through the delivery of a “listening report” the teams are able to provide a glimpse into the public’s feelings toward a response effort, emergency response needs and the development of a progressive strategy.
“One of the biggest values of a VOS team is essentially collecting all of that information and putting it together in the form of a story, and that’s what a social listening report is,” Flynn said. “What is happening? What is the feeling direction of our community? What are some of the comments that are critical to this particular incident? And then what is our strategy and plan for responding to some of these comments as we move forward into the next operational period?”
As we have come to expect of social media and the Internet in 2018, not all information is useful to an emergency effort. Bledsoe estimates that between .5 and 1 percent of posts are actually valuable to a team.
“They can do all sorts of things. My favorite assignment is assigning them to rumor management. I don’t call it rumor control because I don’t believe in controlling rumors once they are out there, they are hard to reign back in. That’s control to me. Management is your approach to getting the truth corrected,” Flynn said.
The pair said teams are often formed organically and in advance so that when an issue arises, resources are in place to begin looking at information streams right away.
Once a team is established, Flynn recommends coordinating and training to ensure that members know the protocols for activation, their individual roles and the rules of engagement.
“If they are a virtual team, you are going to have to set up opportunities,” she said. “Get people together and talk about how you are going to get that operation activated.”
Team members should have a variety of skill sets and be familiar with the major social channels, the pair explained.
“They have to be people that are willing to do some really tedious work over long periods of time that may or may not feel like a lot of fun or super sexy environment,” Bledsoe said.
The benefits of establishing a virtual operations support team are numerous, but Bledsoe said members can ultimately identify real threats to public safety in the process of taking the overall temperature of an incident.
During response that followed a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oct. 2015, a VOS team was able to identify a handful of other threats being made in the surrounding area. Members were able to get this threat information to law enforcement for further investigation.
Flynn has had similar experiences as recently as 2017, a year she called a “hideous year for disasters.” In addition to widespread regional flooding, Flynn leveraged the assistance of VOS teams to aide her agencies during the Oroville Dam crisis.
“There was a lot of social media activity and the virtual operations support team community came to my aide during that crisis,” Flynn said.