Virginia - Using Social Media the Right Way

Compared to past generations, the public today is receiving information in more ways, and at greater speeds, than ever before. With shifts in technology and the massive uprising of social media, the need to engage the public through innovative and interesting means continues to grow. Social media platforms offer useful solutions for sharing information with community members during disaster incidents as well as for general preparedness.

Social Media & Emergency Management

There are three key benefits for the emergency management professional to use social media effectively before a disaster. First, it humanizes the local emergency management office. Second, it connects important principles to community members who may rarely think of their own personal preparedness. Third, and the ultimate goal of this connection, it can influence the actual preparedness of their community members, which vastly changes the scope of response and mitigation.

Social media platforms work well to deliver such messages because social media networks make the information easy to share, are interactive, and offer limitless boundaries for creativity. When an incident or event affects the community, many people share that message. This wealth of information is especially opportunistic for emergency management. With the uprising of zombiessharknadoes, and many end-of-the-world movies, discussions about disasters have proved to captivate the public. Yet, many people ponder the “end of the world” – or at least the next small or large disaster – without directions on how to properly plan for it.

Creating a song, video, picture, or game that makes the public want to know more about preparedness costs little more than the time invested in creating it. In addition, an agency with a personality sharing friendly suggestions is likely to be far more influential than a formal promotional advertisement with a link. Using social media to build trust fosters the loyalty of community members.

An interactive agency – with professionals who truly enjoy what they are doing and care about what they are saying – becomes the public’s subject matter expert should questions ever arise. Social media tips that come from a credible agency result in greater compliance, thus creating a cycle that can change the preparedness culture of a community over time. Although social media assets have a minimal cost, the return on the investment of time has exponential potential.

Matching the Message With the Platform

Emergency management agencies can use numerous platforms to connect with community members. With relatively user-friendly interfaces, these platforms are already in use by people seeking information. Flash mobs, songs, and other visual recordings of varying lengths are easy to share with platforms like YouTube. Other applications like Vine and Instagram record brief 6- and 15-second video clips, respectively, which force users to state their point quickly, yet with personality.

Facebook and Twitter are good platforms for hosting conversations and responding to community questions, as well as for sharing important emergency updates and news. Applications like Tumblr often host pictures and memes – for example, popular photos with satire written on them. These are just some of the many popular social media platforms available for sharing information and connecting with community members.

When designing messages and using social media platforms, emergency managers must consider the audience they would like to target with each message. This may mean letting go of the idea that seriousness is equivalent to professionalism, or that emergency management is not fun. Scare tactics are often ineffective and “boring” information is inadequate for memory retention. Bullet points, creativity, catchy sayings, and memes grab the public’s attention. These brief, easy-to-remember messages are changing the culture of preparedness.

Loyals – A Royal Preparedness Example

The “Loyals – A Royal Preparedness Duet” video was a preparedness message that a group of Virginia emergency management professionals released on 26 November 2013. The parody of the popular song “Royals” by Lorde was the result of approximately two hours of planning, recording, and uploading. Within two months, though, the video had more than 7,000 views from 36 countries on YouTube, not including the many views on agency websites that directly embedded the video.

The largest target demographic for the video included men and women, ages 35-64, who viewed the video on mobile devices and referenced it from third-party sites. By initially sharing the parody through social media – Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn – the video gained popularity through “shares” via each of these sites. Local news and national print media also reported on the video as the power of this educational method fueled others to share it with their friends.

Broader Applications

It is not enough to know social media are necessary and useful. Gathering the talents in and around an organization who already are social media savvy has much to offer when designing creative messages. Choosing proper platforms, drafting a social media policy, and obtaining any necessary authorization to disseminate public messaging also are important. Professional communities already exist on platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, to name a few, that talk and regularly share resources regarding the use of social media in emergency management. Every Friday at 12:30 EST, for example, #smemchat takes place on Twitter where professionals from across the country discuss popular topics in social media and disasters. There are countless blogs, websites, and professional social groups networked directly around creative engagement in emergency management as well.

After harnessing the power of social media, emergency managers can use that power to engage community members in ways that were not possible even a decade ago. Although changes in social media use have been uncertain in the emergency management field, the need to include social media in planning efforts is obvious. Social media trends are transitioning from informing the public during disasters to connecting directly with people to prepare the community before an incident occurs. By stepping outside current comfort zones, the emergency management field has a greater chance of directly influencing personal and community preparedness.

Tanya Ferraro

Tanya Ferraro is the training and exercise coordinator for the Fairfax County Health Department. Since 2007, she has worked in various facets of emergency management, including public information, training, volunteer management, and social media. She is co-host of the emergency management podcast EMtalk and enjoys creating preparedness-related memes and songs for colleagues and community members alike. She studied public safety, emergency management, and homeland security at Bluefield College and is a certified hospital emergency coordinator. Connect with her at



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