Social Media Is Not Just for PIOs

All emergency managers should be users.

Social media use has become institutionalized in many different ways within business and government. Unfortunately, I think in government in particular the use of social media tools has been confined to a select group of people and the full benefits of social media cannot be operationalized by many emergency managers.

See my May 2021 International Association of Emergency Mangers (IAEM) “Disaster Zone” column on this topic below:

Social Media is Not Just for the PIOs

Early in the advent of social media there were many people and organizations who gave social media use a “wide path” not wanting to get entangled in its snares. This was informal, then later as social media became more ubiquitous, formal policies were developed within organizations about who could use this new communications tool. This typically has been the communication professionals. In government they are either Public Information Officers (PIOs) or Public Affairs Officers (PAOs).

I’m reminded of how we train our very little children about the cooktops and ovens in our kitchens. The normal command is, “Hot! Don’t touch!” The heat rolling out of an oven is one indication of something different, but when everything is so new—sometimes we just want to know what “hot” means. Thus it is with social media. The general consensus by everyone outside of the public communications business is, “Hot-don’t touch!”

The question I have for emergency managers and others in government is, “Who should be using social media, in all its forms?” Should social media use be only confined to the PIO/PAO class of individuals, or is there a broader applicability that is possible?

I’ll speak to only one specific situation that I believe calls for a broader use of social media by multiple parties—that being in an activated Emergency Operations Center (EOC). It would be typical for the public information function using social media to do two things. One being to use social media channels to push out updates in between and sometimes in lieu of news releases. In our rapidly moving disasters of today, sometimes the news release is only a recap of what did happen and it doesn’t contain “current breaking” information.

I prefer using Twitter to provide that breaking information directly to citizens and you will have media in all its forms monitoring your social media feeds so it is double coverage. This is not to say that Facebook and Instagram should not be used, but many times you will be stretched thin in the public information department and thus will need to prioritize your communications.

The other key role for PIO’s in an activated EOC is monitoring social media channels themselves for rumor control purposes. In the past, before social media, this function was confined to only watching and listening to television and radio media. This was done to make sure they got the facts right and letting them know when they did not have the situation being totally accurate in the way facts were being relayed to the public.

Today this function of rumor control needs to be expanded to also cover social media channels where active disinformation is also being spread—not because someone has their facts wrong, but they are actively trying to confuse the situation and create distrust in the responding agencies and authorities. It is unfortunate, but it is a fact that we need to actively deal with to monitor and counter this disinformation with good, accurate facts—as we know them.

I also think that another section in the EOC should be actively monitoring social media. Depending on how your EOC is organized, it could be in Plans, but more specifically it would be in the Situation Unit. The one that is tracking the event and its impacts. Again, in the past this information always came only from the responders in the field calling in situation reports and summaries of the current activities of the responders and the damages being inflicted by the disaster. Today you can get this information from hundreds, if not thousands, of reports being made on social media. The one thing to watch is that the report is coming from direct observes and not from re-tweets from those amplifying the information—but, not seeing the action with their own eyes.

Many people don’t trust social media posts, but if you can geo-locate them on a map to being in the area directly impacted by the disaster they become more believable, especially when you get more direct observer tweets confirming what is happening—again, not from retweets.

Using the eyes and ears of citizen observers and responders can help immeasurably in assessing the impacts of a disaster in real time. The Situation Unit is not interacting on social media and only monitoring what is being said, so it is a low risk issue for those who are afraid of non-communications personnel interacting on social media.

The bottom line is this—open up social media use in the EOC to those outside of the public information function in order to have a more effective disaster response and recovery.


by Eric E. Holdeman, senior fellow, Emergency Management magazine. He blogs at His podcast is Disaster Zone.
Eric Holdeman is a nationally known emergency manager. He has worked in emergency management at the federal, state and local government levels. Today he serves as the Director, Center for Regional Disaster Resilience (CRDR), which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER). The focus for his work there is engaging the public and private sectors to work collaboratively on issues of common interest, regionally and cross jurisdictionally.
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