Apr 2 2014
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Preparedness Summit: Effective Use of Social Media During a Disaster

“Two or three years ago we were urging you to ask your health directors for social media tools, and now we’re talking about how it’s making a difference,” said Tom Hipper, MSPH, MA, Public Health Planner at the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at Drexel University, who helped lead a session on social media and public health response at the Preparedness Summit on Tuesday. He was joined by Jim Garrow, MPH, Operations and Logistics Manager at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

While many in the audience of a couple of hundred attendees are still in the early days of using social media, the benefit of adding social media to communications channels for routine and emergency communication is clear said the presenters.

Examples included the use of Twitter by public health officials in Edmonton, Alberta last year after flooding covered the downtown area. So many users accessed the feed that it looked like spam and Twitter shut down the feed, forcing the health department to move to the police Twitter account and then to a private constable’s account when the second feed was also shut down. Despite the switches, a survey after the flooding showed that 98 percent of responders were satisfied with the health department’s responsiveness on social media.

There is also the Verification Handbook for digital content to help verify digital images on social media. One example of an altered report was a shark moving alongside a car in New Jersey just after Hurricane Sandy hit.

Hipper had strong advice for both novice and seasoned health department social media users:

  • During disasters, retweet important information from credible agencies, such as street closings from the Office of Emergency Management
  • Use Twitter message libraries when available. Drexel is creating one that includes messaging for all sorts of public health emergencies such, as an active shooting or a ricin attack. The value of the messages includes faster response in an emergency even if some tweaking is needed, and many of the preset messages are based on feedback to messaging used previously.
  • Engage your audience before an emergency so they will turn to your social media platforms if an emergency strikes. Hipper gave the examples of Chicago, which held an immunization Twitter chat last fall and had 180,000 followers, as well as the Boston Police Department, which already had 40,000 followers before the Marathon bombing last year and saw that number rise to 300,000 as the search for the bombers unfolded.

Hipper and Garrow also advised repeating information during a disaster because people join the conversation at different points; to announce when to expect next updates and what hashtags are being use; to point to other credible agencies for information; and to ask users to send questions which can help improve the information they provide.

Tags: Emergency preparedness and response, Preparedness, Public health, Technology