Social Media and Hurricane Sandy: Q&A with Jay Dempsey and Vivi Abrams Siegel

Nov 7, 2013, 3:11 PM

Hurricane Sandy made landfall last year during the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) annual meeting in San Francisco. Several sessions at the annual meeting this year in Boston, one year after the storm, focused on the response during the hurricane that killed dozens, injured hundreds and destroyed thousands of homes.

In a key session Monday, communications specialists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on a study of new media preparedness and response messaging implemented before and after the disaster. As Hurricane Sandy approached landfall, the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) assisted state and local public health partners by developing and sharing storm-related messaging across several social media channels, including an SMS text subscription service to directly reach people affected by the storm.

CDC determined what topics would need coverage each day, ranging from preparing for the storm's arrival to post-storm safety and clean-up. Once messages were posted, they were retweeted across several CDC Twitter feeds and on social media channels of local health departments. The recent CDC study found that leveraging social media turned out to be very important for driving a steady increase in traffic to CDC emergency response web pages. For example, a message about safe clean-up of mold produced 14,881 visits. The number of NCEH Twitter followers also increased—there were 4,226 twitter followers at the beginning of October before the storm, and that grew to 5,215 followers—a 23 percent increase—once the storm hit.

>>NewPublicHealth was on the ground throughout the APHA conference speaking to public health leaders and presenters, hearing from attendees on the ground and providing updates from sessions, with a focus on how we can build a culture of health. Find the complete coverage here.

Ahead of the APHA meeting, NewPublicHealth spoke with Jay Dempsey, a health communications specialist in the National Center for Environmental Health who presented the data at the APHA meeting and Vivi Abrams Siegel, a health communications specialist in the CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response about the findings and the growing importance of social media before, during and immediately after disasters.

NewPublicHealth: What’s most important about the recent study on social media and disaster preparedness and response?

Jay Dempsey: The case study is an overview of the lessons that we learned from using social media to disseminate emergency and preparedness messaging ahead of and during and immediately following Hurricane Sandy. Some of the things that we knew going in during the response to Hurricane Sandy was that a growing number of people are using social media to get information just before and during a disaster or an emergency. So knowing that, we leveraged our social media channels and the first thing we saw was a pretty substantial increase in web traffic. We’re able to track the number of page visits that come exclusively from social media and make a determination of approximately how much social media drove traffic to those particular pages.

NPH: Was your study pegged to see whether people acted on the information they learned through social media?

Dempsey: That is actually one of the limitations of this case study. We’re able to confirm that there was an increase in web traffic so we can demonstrate that there is value in using social media during emergency situations, but right now we’re not able to identify a mechanism that lets us determine how those people acted on the information.

NPH: What do you know for next time that you didn’t know before?

Dempsey: I’m actually pleased to report that I think we had a pretty good sense of what to do heading into this situation. We already had pre-developed content for social media ahead of a situation like the hurricane. So we knew what kind of messages people would need to get one to three days prior to the storm making landfall, what people would need to know during the actual storm itself and then what people would need to know immediately following and then in the two to three days of recovery following the storm. So we had messages ready to go for those designated periods of time.

Vivi Siegel: Phase-based messaging is a technique that CDC has used for a while, especially in the National Center for Environmental Health, which put it in place during Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Sandy was the first large example of using the concept with social media and I think it worked really well, and we’ve actually had a lot of interests from other agencies to help them implement the strategy. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has started a social media and emergency work group that is pulling together federal agencies that use social media during emergencies. A key thing the working group is looking at is how other agencies can use phase-based messaging on social media, as well as how can we develop and prepare phase-based messaging for other types of disasters.

NPH: What work is being done at the CDC to help you stay up to date with the various technology opportunities?

Dempsey: We maintain a council of communication professionals that have a specialization in social media across CDC and we meet on a monthly basis to discuss issues just like that. So we’re looking at things such as the changes that are taking place across social media channels. Are there new ones that we should focus on? Have numbers decreased on any certain channels so that we might not need to put as much effort into them?

NPH: At some point do you need to move people away from relying on older media, or is the reality of the situation that you need to meet them wherever they are?

Siegel: The most important thing that we try to keep in mind, especially during an emergency, is who our audience is—who are the people most affected and how can we best deliver information to them? Sometimes the best avenue is social media, sometimes it might be traditional media, sometimes it may be knocking door to door. For every emergency it’s different and we really try to keep the audience in mind when we’re thinking about what the best channel is to use.

That said, we’re really excited about being able to add social media tools to our toolbox of how best to reach people. It’s been really incredible to see the response. We started the @CDC emergency Twitter channel during H1N1 in 2009 and immediately got almost a million followers. Now we’re at 1.5 million and it’s one of the top three followed government Twitter channels.

So we know that people are out there listening and they’re retweeting our messages and that’s an exciting thing to see. Because it means that messages are not just coming from CDC down, but say it’s flu season and we really want to get the message out that people need to wash their hands, CDC can tweet that and then others—such as teenagers—retweet that or post it on their Facebook page, and that adds a personal element to a CDC message.

CDC also just became involved with Twitter alerts, a new concept that Twitter is rolling out and right now it’s just for government and nonprofit agencies that work in emergency response. CDC Twitter followers who sign up for Twitter alerts can actually receive certain tweets that we designate as alerts as SMS text messages on their phones.

NPH: What would be the determining factor for getting that SMS?

Siegel: We would make the determination whether a certain message is important enough that we don’t want anyone to have to wait or work to find this at all. It would be messages we wanted to push right away.

NPH: What else have you learned about social media during a disaster?

Siegel: We also see social media as a very valuable tool to gather information during an emergency. It gives us the ability to monitor and analyze the public conversation around an event as it’s happening, and we specifically look for themes—we look for rumors and misinformation—so that if there is something going on through social media we can quickly counter it. And it also helps us understand what the public’s hearing and saying about the event and what information gaps and needs there are that we need to address.

NPH: What’s a recent example of misinformation that you saw going out over social media that you were able to clamp down on?

Siegel: After the Fukushima reactor explosion in Japan, there was a lot of concern, especially on the west coast, that people would be getting doses of radiation and that they should take potassium iodide or KI. So one of the rumors was that you need to take this, and we knew that if you don’t need it and you take it, it can be very dangerous to people’s health. And so that’s something that we saw and we were able to direct people through social media to fact sheets on potassium iodide and when is, and is not, the appropriate time to take it. And it never got to the point thankfully where people needed to use it in the United States. So we were thankful that we were able to quickly address that and we saw the rumor go away.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.