According to college hoops fans, March is the month of madness. So it seems only fitting that we take a few moments to talk about the kind of madness government agencies sometimes experience with social media — otherwise known as a crisis situation.

Crises are almost always helped by social media

With the mass adoption and reliance on mobile devices, social media has become the most critical channel for rapid, real-time communication during a crisis. We have seen public agency usage of social media play a central role in virtually every major crisis in the last five years, from Hurricane Sandy to the Boston Marathon Bombings to the recent San Bernardino shootings.

It’s worth stating that crisis situations are not limited to shocking acts of terrorism or massive hurricanes. Various degrees of natural disasters and tragic incidents can affect any jurisdiction at any time. In fact, last year, cities in central Texas were affected by not one but two severe floods in the course of just five months. In a case study, Kristi Wyatt, director of communications for the city of San Marcos, highlighted the importance of social media during these floods.

“We did two press conferences a day, press releases and interviews," she said, "but the majority of the effort was spent on social media, because that’s the way we reached the most people."

Crises are also created by social media

We all know that social media is a two-way street. And sometimes that means an incident on social media can actually create a crisis in the real world. Take for example the social media crisis generated for the city of South Daytona, Fla., due to this “duct taped dog” posting on Facebook:

Because the Facebook post was location-tagged to South Daytona, the city’s social media presence was immediately overwhelmed by a public outcry for law enforcement to take action. The unfortunate irony is that the resident who made the post was not actually in South Daytona — the location tag was wrong. Nonetheless, South Daytona was quick to get involved and find resolution by working with law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions.

As Jeanne Willard, public information officer for the South Daytona Police Department, explained in a recent webcast hosted by Government Technology, it was crucial for South Daytona to make frequent, transparent updates on Facebook. The use of social media helped maintain the public’s trust and ultimately allowed the city to regain control of the situation and move on.

Our takeaways

Given the importance of social media in crisis situations, we will be spending a lot more time exploring the topic here on GovTech Social. To get started, here are a few high-level tips for agencies:

  • Part of what makes a crisis a crisis is that it is usually unexpected. Hence, you have to prepare now. Make sure you have identified key contacts in your organization who will be responsible for social media communications, and that those individuals have the necessary access to your social media sites. You might even consider creating a library of prepared messaging for a few types of crises your agency could experience.
  • When crisis strikes, it is critical that your agency is a vocal participant in the conversation. You will have to keep the public informed and combat misinformation at the same time. Doing so will help you maintain the public’s trust, which in turn helps you more effectively ensure public safety and resolution of the situation.
  • The role of social media does not end when the crisis ends. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Social media provides a unique, documented history of the rapid dissemination of information between your agency and the public during the most critical moments of a crisis. Analyzing and reviewing this information can help all of the stakeholders within your organization better prepare for that next, inevitable crisis.

How has social media helped your agency in a recent crisis? Let us know and we’ll be happy to share your story and the lessons learned with the GovTech Social audience!

Anil Chawla  | 
Anil Chawla is the founder and CEO of ArchiveSocial, a civic tech company that specializes in risk mitigation and open records management of government social media. The parent company of Government Technology is an investor in ArchiveSocial through e.Republic Ventures.