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Emergency communications in the era of social media

Social media plays growing role in crisis communications: lessons from Harvey and Irma.


According to the FCC, Harvey has disrupted at least 17 emergency call centers and 320 cellular sites, and it has caused outages for more than 148,000 Internet, TV, and phone customers. It is also reported that 9 radio stations went out of service. Emergency services, victims, local authorities and organizations turned to social media to stay connected.

Hurricane Harvey was the first major Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the United States in 12 years. Since Wilma in 2005, no hurricanes have made landfall with such destructive power.

Harvey was the wettest tropical hurricane on record in the United States to date. In the four-day period it struck, it dropped more than 40 inches of rain in many places in the eastern Texas region.

Soon after Harvey, Irma, a second major Atlantic hurricane, caused widespread and catastrophic damage throughout parts of the northeastern Caribbean and the Florida Keys. The Cape Verde type hurricane was typed as the most intense since Dean in 2005.

Emergency communications go social

In order to be prepared for an emergency -- whether it is a fire, natural disaster or any other event -- many organizations have an emergency communications plan that often times does not yet include social channels.

Yet, according to CNN, hundreds of stranded Texans sought help by posting on Facebook and Twitter. They organized rescue missions through Facebook groups. And they posted harrowing pictures to emphasize just how high the flood waters were.

The Wall Street Journal reports on incidents of users taking the unusual step of sharing their full names and addresses across public channels like Facebook and Twitter. Even going as far as tagging news outlets, journalists and other prominent individuals in their social-media posts in hopes their messages would be shared widely and eventually answered.

Countering misinformation

However well-intentioned the social posts of people in distress and citizen journalists might be, sometimes they can be factually incorrect. Miami International Airport had to deal with a video of Mexico City's airport that on social was claimed to be at Miami International.

Mashable reported the misappropriated video was even retweeted by President Donald Trump's director of social media, Dan Scavino Jr.

The newsroom as emergency hub

At PressPage (provider of social newsrooms) we also noted a steep rise in emergency traffic on newsrooms of companies in the affected areas. Most of the traffic coming from mobile devices by means of social channels.

A social newsroom can play a key role in coherent and effective emergency communications. The visitor statistics above clearly indicate the spike in traffic to a newsroom as the winds and rains from Irma came to Georgia.

Bart Verhulst, Co-founder and Chief Strategist at PressPage
For most communicators, the question is not if, but when a crisis will hit. And when it does, an organization cannot waste time trying to figure out how an antiquated press release graveyard in the corporate website is going to get that critical response out the door now.
Bart Verhulst, Co-founder and Chief Strategist at PressPage

Pre- and post emergency communications

The statistics below clearly indicate the pre-hurricane pro-active communications efforts of an organization in the aviation industry, and how it picked up post-storm disaster recovery messaging to stakeholders.

The difference between unique and total amount of visitors indicates there is a large audience that frequently returns to the website looking for the latest updates.

Platform and channel agnostic publishing

A key aspect for successful communications during a crisis situation is the ability to publish single origin news messaging that stands out and catches attention on the main social channels. Additionally, the destination link should take readers to a platform agnostic page that renders well on mobile devices, (desktop) computers, and in all major browsers.

Tom Gubbins, Sales Director North America for PressPage
Consistency of message, tone and information is crucial in times of crisis. Social Media must deliver the same message as media and public relations to ensure information distributed is correct. Your audience's safety is at stake.
Tom Gubbins, Sales Director North America for PressPage

“Can’t connect to server”

So what happens when a crisis hits? Traffic to your newsroom is great, but a sudden influx of traffic that is too large, could crash your site.

An important aspect of newsroom infrastructure during an emergency is auto scaling. Auto scaling allows better availability of your newsroom during sudden spike traffic incidents. If configured correctly, it will launch instances in new geographical Availability Zones. In other words, if one physical server park is compromised, it will automatically switch to servers in a different geographical location. Additionally, and more commonly known, auto scaling ensures that your newsroom always has the right amount of capacity to handle the current traffic demands.

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail"

When a natural disaster occurs, organizations can build lasting trust with communities by being reliable purveyors of information, to warn, reassure and sometimes rescue their audiences in affected areas.

Yet many well-intentioned organizations miss this critical opportunity through the ‘that won’t happen to us’ mindset. If you wait until a crisis hits to ask whether your newsroom auto-scales, whether your audience knows where to reach you, or who makes up your crisis communication team, it is usually already too late.

Ultimately, whether you are a large organization in a metropolitan city, or a small mom and pop store in a rural area, the key difference between an effective and ineffective response to crises, usually ends up being the preparation you put in beforehand.

Download our white paper on how to prepare your newsroom for a crisis; presenting a systematic approach to a seamless and smarter crisis management, specified per phase:

  1. Pre-crisis: How to prepare for when the unexpected happens.
  2. During: How to systematically use your newsroom and leverage social channels to get the message out.
  3. Post-crisis: the importance of SEO in the aftermath of a crisis.

With no word from Keys after Irma, worried relatives turn to social media


Hurricane Irma: Video and Images From Social Media

About PressPage

PressPage provides a SaaS PR platform with additional services for creation of advanced social newsrooms, virtual press centers and online media hubs. It enables brands to publish and distribute rich content, and provides direct insights into the results. PressPage empowers PR professionals by adding efficiency and effectiveness to their daily work routine.