Monday, June 28, 2010

Social Media in a Disaster

I love social media. Make no mistake about it. However, one of the greatest examples of the limitations of social media is the use of these networks during a disaster. There are some glaring shortcomings when using social media to get your message out to the public.

Limited Audience

The biggest challenge to using social media to push information to the public is that not everybody is on facebook, twitter, myspace, or whatever network you choose. There are some people who live long productive lives without bothering with social networks. There are a bunch more who check their networks on occasion rather than daily. The vast majority are simply on a different network. You can't reach that many people.

Access During a Disaster

Modern living is highly dependent on electricity. In the event of a destructive hurricane, earthquake, or other event that knocks out power indefinitely, it is likely that many people will be unable to receive disaster updates. After all, batteries don't last forever. Even if you have a laptop you can plug into your vehicle for power, how will you get Internet when power is out? Theoretically, if you are in a disaster area, you are the most in need of information rather than people safely outside the area, right?

Limited Sphere of Influence

Not everybody has a million friends on social media. Plenty of people are content to have a few dozen friends. Even then, it's just a few dozen friends, which may not include the Press.

How Social Media Can Help In Disasters

Social media is most useful when people rebroadcast updates to their own circles of friends prior to a disaster. Obviously, this only works when you know a disaster is coming, like a hurricane or giant meteor. This way, people are able to inform their friends and family with the latest. Let's repeat that it does not reach everybody; but, you can always use the telephone too.

Another way that social media can help with a disaster is by organizing aid to the affected area afterwards. There is limited use for social media for people at the scene. Recovery efforts require manpower and resources, neither of which travels through the Internet. However, those organizing a response are able to connect and make things happen to bring both to the affected area.

That brings me to the final thought on the use of social media. It is all good and well that you want to raise awareness. Sadly, today's populace wants to be told what to do and how to do it. We are slowly evolving to a nanny state where we look to others for direction. Awareness is not good enough. Your social media message should include instructions. Ask people to donate. Instruct people to evacuate. Let people know that you have space at your shelter. Tell people to stock up on supplies. Social media falls short in that it typically consists of "raising awareness". Put some action items in your social media campaign. Don't forget to instruct your audience to share that knowledge and instructions with their neighbors. Like political campaigns, disaster preparation and response depends highly on fieldwork. Connect and mobilize.
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