Like other emergencies in the past few years, the March 22 mudslide in Oso, Wash., showed the power of social media during times of crisis. When Bronlea Mishler got the call that there had been a mudslide that Saturday afternoon, her first thought was about how to get the information to the media and public as quickly as possible. As deputy director of communications for Snohomish County, which includes Oso, Mishler sent out a tweet about the situation, before heading to the EOC.

With that first announcement on Twitter, she not only showed that the social platform would be used to post up-to-date information, but Mishler also started the #530slide hashtag. She then followed up with another tweet, requesting that people use the hashtag for information related to the mudslide emergency. “That was probably the best decision I made in the first hour because everybody picked up on it pretty much right away because it was short and sweet,” Mishler said. “We still track it, seeing what people say with #530slide to make sure that good, credible information is getting out there.”

That hashtag became a trending topic in the United States on Twitter. It also was receiving 15 times more tweets than the #OSOslide hashtag, according to Pierce County IT Director Linda Gerull.

While Snohomish County didn’t have a set strategy for using social media during an emergency, Mishler said it’s been being used as a tool to engage the community and provide information to the public. During the response to the mudslide, the county followed what it has noticed in the media: Start with information on social media platforms and follow up with a story. That approach worked well, Mishler said, and allowed for information to be made public quickly.

“Being able to push our message out the same way — lead on Twitter and social media and follow with a press release or more information on the website — was a really effective way to get information out to the public,” she said.

In addition to press releases, new pages were added the county’s website and kept up-to-date with information related to the emergency. The county’s Facebook page also was used to post updates and photos and refer people to more detailed information.

By watching #530slide, Mishler could see what questions people were asking on Twitter as well as what stories and information were being published by the media and other sources. Misinformation and rumor management were handled by replying to tweets with the correct information as well as asking people to follow @snocounty. “Some information was close but not wrong and others was opinion sharing,” she said. “But if it’s really misinformation or wrong, that’s when we want to step in and say, ‘Thanks for following the story. We’re so glad you’re engaged. Here’s the correct information and here’s where you can go to keep updated with the confirmed information from Snohomish County.’”

Posts on social media were used to aid situational awareness to an extent, according to Mishler, but it was hard to determine if the person was credible and if he or she was posting information that had been directly observed. People who tweeted pictures helped provide an idea of the situation in the field, but “it’s one part of our operational picture; we didn’t reply on it too heavily,” she said.

After the response is over, the county and other responding agencies will discuss lessons learned and develop an after-action report. In regard to public information, Mishler said they will look into the use of social media and what was effective (or not) and how its use can be refinedin the future. Based on experiences to date, she shared two ideas that would be helpful in the future: having a PIO live tweeting from the field to share verified information and having someone looking at the insights on social media platforms to see what demographic is being reached with the messages, so the information can be tailored to those who are viewing it.

However, it’s hard to know exactly what will be needed when the next emergency strikes. “No emergency is created equal,” Mishler said. “Maybe during the next emergency we have, social media is not going to be our primary means of communication because it won’t be as effective for that situation. In this case it was, but that’s something we’ll look at going forward.”

(Social media also helped to show the behind-the-scenes work in the EOC.)

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.