Federal agencies are embracing social media as an increasingly common way to interact with the public. Yet, a critical consideration that is often overlooked by agency officials is how social media will be incorporated in disaster and emergency preparedness plans. If your agency hasn’t fully developed a social media plan for disaster preparedness scenarios, it’s time to add it to your priority “to do” list!

Information about practically everything – both factual and wildly inaccurate – now travels around the globe literally in minutes, through new communication tools – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, to name a few. In a natural or manmade disaster, if you don’t reach out to the public with the facts quickly, someone else will get there with rumor – and as we all know, misinformation can cause havoc, create panic, and potentially increase danger to those at risk who we want to protect.

As communication tools change, government communicators have to keep up. This is important always; but in a disaster it is critical–especially with the advent of social media. How are you going to inform the public about the problem? What tool do you use to make sure they get the crucial instructions they need that could keep them safe?

We must not only inform, we must persuade, secure trust, calm, reassure – and get people to actually follow detailed procedures – or lives may be lost. The tools used to reach out in a disaster must integrate today’s communication tools. You must go where your public is to ensure they get your message. And more and more of your public is using social media online and on mobile devices.

A national survey from Arbitron and Edison Research, The Infinite Dial 2010, (April 23, 2010) provides insight into some of the changes occurring in communication tools in the U.S. According to this survey, the percentage of Americans age 12 and older who have a profile on one or more social networking websites has reached 48% of the population in 2010, double the level from two years ago.

The new study reveals that consumer use of social networking sites is not just a youth phenomenon. Personal profile pages are maintained by:

  • 78% of teens
  • 77% of 18 to 24s
  • 65% of 25 to 34s
  • 51% of 35 to 44s

The study also shows that 30% of Americans age 12 and older, who have a profile on at least one social networking website, use those sites “several times a day” compared with only 18% one year ago.

Bill Rose, senior vice president of marketing, Arbitron Inc, stated that “The use of social networking sites has expanded beyond younger consumers, with substantial numbers of Americans over the age of 35 now using social media.”

Also, for the first time, more Americans say the Internet is “most essential” to their lives when given a choice along with television, radio, and newspapers:

  • 42% chose the Internet as “most essential”
  • 37% selected television
  • 14% chose radio
  • 5% said newspapers

While television still leads among those over the age of 45, Internet dominates among younger persons age 12 to 44.

The key is to know who your audience is, and take the time to research what communication tools they use and trust. There are still certain areas where radio is king; in other areas, religious centers are going to be the most important communication tool in your arsenal.

But social media cannot be ignored – especially when speed matters. Integrating the core platforms – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – into your communications strategy for posting of press releases and online links with appropriate media, and making sure processes are in place so that these communication tools get accurate information immediately, will help ensure your public gets the right information as quickly as possible, minimizing confusion and improving understanding in a difficult situation.

Integrating social media more broadly into your communications plan also ensures you will reach a broader pool of people faster. The flow of accurate information will go more smoothly, the public will be informed appropriately and efficiently, and answers will be delivered swiftly. It can make the difference between a bad situation and a calamity; and focuses our attention on a crucial need of the most important element in any disaster preparedness plan – the safety and security of our citizens.

Sandy Evans Levine is President of Advice Unlimited, a Woman-Owned Small Business public outreach/strategic communications firm serving government organizations and IT companies, based in Olney, MD. Ms. Levine can be reached at [email protected].