A couple of weeks ago I went to the American Embassy to attend a session on “Libraries, social media and disaster management” presented by Michael Huff, Regional Librarian, U.S. Department of State. He is based in Tokyo and was there during the major earthquake and tsunami in March.
He began by stressing that his presentation was based on the American Embassy and Library experience during the Tokyo earthquake and therefore it was a limited case study. As he went through his presentation it became clear that he had researched other situations and that the information he was sharing was widely applicable in any emergency situation.
He started by describing how the Embassy used Twitter. It tweets using the persona of Ambassador Roos, the current U.S. Ambassador to Japan. The Ambassador’s office had control of the tweets. Using a persona allowed the tweets to be more personal. The goals were to highlight key initiatives that the ambassador is driving, and to highlight the positive relationship between US and Japan. Another guideline was to avoid controversial topics. Tweets were in English and Japanese. (A side note here: kanji allows much more information to be shared in 140 characters.)
The major earthquake happened on 11 March, 2011. It was followed by a tsunami which devastated coastal regions. The immediate concern was to check loved ones were okay, then to cope with destruction. Phone systems shut down to keep the lines for emergency services only. 3G and smart phone internet connectivity was still available.
The goals for the twitter account changed to – health and safety of US citizens, and information about relief efforts. Tweets were tagged #amcitjp – American citizens in Japan. This time information was only tweeted in both languages if it didn’t contradict official information from the Japanese government. (Both governments had expert advisors and experts don’t always agree.) Crisis management meant a change of structure in how the account was managed. Behind the scenes were many people (paid and unpaid) watching the media, tracking down the origin of stories, and translating information.
Follower numbers increased. Many messages were retweeted. (They knew that the account was being watched after the first weekend – @AmbassadorRoos didn’t tweet during that time and received ‘r u ok?’ tweets from followers.) Although they hadn’t planned for the situation, four things allowed the embassy to respond -1. Twitter account already set up.2. Clear idea as to their purpose. 3. Connectivity was good.4. Good team of people willing to help out.
Huff’s number one message was to “Be Prepared” for the unthinkable.
Helpfully he gave us a checklist. (Good for general situations as well!)
- Establish social media sites – what’s useful to you and your users? What’s being invented that might be useful to you and your users? (The embassy used Twitter to connect with American citizens in Japan and Facebook for family and friends in USA.)
- Optimise online presence – link on websites and printed material; optimise your findability.
- Plan for increased workload in a crisis situation – make connections around the country (or the world). Are there people who can come in to spell the people who are on the ground.
- Define communication channels – what is the publication process? Who checks? Who approves? Who publishes? Is it different for different channels? Who is your media spokesperson?
- Develop staff and volunteer resources now – People will want to help – what is the training process? Who will do it? What may need to be done? How can you use your staff?
- Understand information needs – what do people want? What does this mean for you?
- Understand information delivery – how do you share information?
- Know authoritative sources – where do you go to get information that’s accurate? If you need to check a story, how do you do that?
It was a superb session which got me thinking about my own and my organisation’s emergency response. I have water and food at home and at work. I’ve now followed Wellington City Council, NZ Red Cross, NZ Civil Defence, Wellington police, and Geonet. I know that I follow people in Auckland who were tweeting useful information during #eqnz aftermath so I’m fairly sure that if something happens here I’ll still be able to get information. In my building there are several emergency supplies bins in different places. We’ve been encouraged to take personal responsibility re food, water and clothing. My organisation is in the midst of finalising plans for an emergency situation. Most of it is focused on keeping the organisation going (as it should be). I’ve joined the team and will be thinking about things from a communication point of view.
Do you feel prepared?