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In times of crisis, agencies need to speak on social media

Social media is increasingly important for agencies to disseminate information and monitor feedback during a crisis. As citizens’ expectations grow, government will need to make sure it is using social media to manage crises effectively.

“The main risk,” Country Fire Authority digital media manager Martin Anderson told The Mandarin, “is thinking you can get away with not being involved in it. At the very least government should be monitoring what’s happening on social media and be aware of what people are saying and how they can improve their service. Preferably they will be able to respond, too.”

Victoria’s emergency services are seen by many as a leader in this area, having been pushed into reforming digital engagement protocols by the devastating 2009 Black Saturday fires. In 2011 the state’s emergency services integrated social media and website emergency warning feeds, meaning website updates are automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter.

They have also introduced systematic monitoring of incoming information, giving a clearer picture of how information is being interpreted, and allowing for real-time changes in messaging — as well as providing a greater number of citizen inputs on fast-changing situations on the ground, such as bushfires.

Victoria has two social media seats in its state emergency control centre: one for inbound information, one outbound. This creates a centralised point for disseminating updates to the public and incorporating feedback into the intelligence stream.

There’s also Victoria’s Fire Ready app, the latest version of which was downloaded around half a million times in its first six weeks. It too has both inbound and outbound features.

Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster to shock the system into change, says Anderson. “Black Saturday opened up a lot of assessment of where we needed to go, and the need to try new things,” he said.

“In the past we may not have had the permission or funding for that. The same thing happened in Queensland after the floods, in New Zealand after Christchurch, and in Tasmania after the fires last year. Generally it takes a disaster to get things changed.”

Anderson highlighted the benefits of being an early mover: “There are very high community expectations now. [The Victorian emergency services] were early adopters, so we were able to make a few mistakes in a more understanding environment. But now there is the expectation that everyone will be using social media.”

It is important agencies are flexible enough to respond to changing conditions — sometimes during a crisis the Twitter feed of a small, previously obscure agency can end up setting the news agenda, so it’s important to be able to scale up or down as needs require.

“You might not always know how you will use social media in advance,” said Anderson. “It’s important to have a dynamic problem-solving culture, rather than following all the dot points of the rules, as sometimes in a crisis the rules don’t apply. We need to give employees the ability to use their professional judgement and professional skills.”

Long clearance periods inhibit the ability to communicate effectively during crises. Though this has undoubtedly developed for good reasons — legal concerns, a desire for accuracy — it can cause problems.

“The philosophy now, which has been supported by Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley, is that rather than delaying information so long that it’s no longer any use, it’s important to communicate the best information at the time,” he said.

“There is a need for speed in those situations. There’s an acceptance that sometimes we’ll get things wrong, and you need to make it clear to the community if it’s not 100% accurate. You can’t withhold that information from the community though.”

Learning from past mistakes

Craig Thomler, managing director of digital consultancy Delib Australia, which facilitates testing of social media crisis responses for government bodies, recalls the example of one government agency that took two weeks to give police information for public use during the 2010-11 Queensland floods, rendering it mostly useless.

This was a symptom of the relative newness of social media for government at the time, and he says that most agencies co-ordinated well with Queensland Police, who were charged with leading the response.

Thomler is critical, however, of the cost-cutting that has taken place more recently, arguing that “the new [Campbell Newman] government has degraded their capability in this area. Lots of the infrastructure is no longer there.”

In Victoria, Thomler says the government’s social media response to the recent Hazelwood mine fire in Victoria was “world’s best practice”, with only one agency refusing to play ball due to “maturity issues”.

One example Thomler thinks has been overlooked is the “good social media response by AMSA [Australian Maritime Safety Authority] and other involved agencies” to the MH370 disaster.

The interactivity that social media allows is particularly useful, he told The Mandarin: “We are moving towards a framework where citizens who see something happen have the mechanism to send information to the authorities, and the authorities can collate that information and respond appropriately.

“This allows governments to be far more effective in emergencies than ever before in history. In the past the government may not have even been aware of disasters. Now they’re getting reports on the ground from unofficial sources, which they can corroborate with other unofficial and official sources to get a better idea of what is happening.”

The Ushahidi platform, which allows citizens to log reports onto a map-based interface, is a particularly useful tool during crises, says Thomler. It has been used to map the developments of floods and fires in Australia.

Social media also gives agencies the ability to correct inaccurate reporting. NSW and Queensland Police have used it when media have misreported road closures — causing tension with The Courier-Mail, which has fewer than half the Facebook likes of Queensland Police.

“There are still people in government who don’t understand that when you have a fire or flood, or a plane crash, people on social media are going to be speculating and giving each other facts or pseudo facts about what’s going on,” said Thomler.

“Government doesn’t have much option anymore about whether it uses social media.”

More at The Mandarin: The virtual town hall: making digital engagement work

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.