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Why a Social Media Strategy Is Key to Emergency Management

Regardless of government agency, from department of transportation to public works, having a plan in place for reaching constituents in a crisis situation is essential to effective communication and mitigation.

Social media communications during a crisis situation can come from any number of agencies, not just police, fire or emergency management as you might expect. In some instances, these communications originate from the city or county manager’s office, department of transportation, public works or water services — it all depends on the manner of crisis and the size of the agency’s social media presence. It’s crucial for all types of agencies and major departments to incorporate social media into crisis planning exercises.

When your agency gets together to plan response to high-risk emergency scenarios, make sure your social media coordinator has a seat at the table. At the same time, social media professionals should remember to reach out to their local emergency manager in exercises that involve planning social media messaging for crisis situations. 

Crisis Strategy Planning Exercises

There are many ways to incorporate social media in your crisis planning exercises. One basic activity is to organize all of your social media contributors and other stakeholders in a room to plan messages and tactics for specific emergencies.  

Start by brainstorming the top five to 10 high-risk crisis scenarios that have the potential to impact your agency. This could be a flood, tornado, active shooter situation, mass casualty incident, school bus crash, polar vortex — you name it. 

For each of these crises, begin to craft some of the generic social media messages that should be shared during these emergency situations. Type up what the potential crisis scenario might be, then draft several social messages that you’d most likely need to share if the situation were to unfold. 

Your messages could include anything from preparedness information (what citizens can do before this crisis hits) to the first message you’ll want to share immediately after you get the word. There will be a lot of details you don’t know yet, but use blanks for the specifics. The goal is to have some content ready, no matter the situation. Timing is critical. 

When I teach social media crisis planning, we don’t stop here. It’s just as important for the agency to talk about strategies for handling all the other things that happen during a crisis that may impact social media. Some questions to ponder during your planning exercises: 

  • There’s a disruptive rumor spreading on social media while you’re managing the crisis. How can your team address it?
  • You have zero new information about the crisis, and it’s going on 20 minutes since your last tweet. What is acceptable filler?
  • At the start of the emergency, you forgot to unschedule a lighthearted or humorous Facebook post. It’s getting backlash for inappropriate timing. How do you handle it?
  • People start tweeting that they’re trapped and need help. What’s your social media protocol?

Not in My Backyard

What if the emergency isn’t actually in your jurisdiction, but you want to be ready to support other agencies with your messages on social media? Establish your strategy for supporting the lead agency if the crisis does not fall within your area, and “stay in your lane” while continuing to share their communications and contribute in a helpful way.

Remember, planning shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of those involved in crafting the social media plan. I highly recommend developing a crisis communications strategy and protocols in tandem with local and regional emergency management and public safety officials. Don’t forget to ensure that your procedures align with broader plans. 

Kristy Dalton is known as "GovGirl" in the government technology industry. She has been called on as an industry influencer and has a passion for social media, technology and digital strategy. Kristy is the founder & CEO of Government Social Media.