Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Old Media Versus Social Media in Emergency Situations

By Dennis D. McDonald

Dave Fleet makes some level-headed comments on emergency use of social media in How Do You Define ‘Media’ In A Crisis? He discusses what the relationship should be between traditional media and social media in a crisis or disaster situation.

He’s of two minds. On the one hand he realizes, based on his recent Canadian experience during a flood, that the authorities need the participation of old media (TV, radio, newspapers) in getting the word out when disaster strikes. How to manage that participation in an emergency situation is a realistic issue that needs to be addressed.

On the other hand, he also sees the benefits of incorporating social media into the mix (blogs, wikis, “citizen journalism,” etc.), given how social media provide authorities opportunities for maintaining awareness of events and for engaging with citizens.

Discussion of this issue frequently revolves around the question of control, i.e., what type of control do authorities need to exert over news media in a disaster situation in order to communicate effectively with the public. Part of the discussion that arises around this question is the increasing blurring of distinctions between new media and old media. In the days of three TV networks, local radio, and journalist-based morning and evening newspapers, the number of channels to control during an emergency was defined.

Things are different now with the Internet, blogging, text messaging, email, and online social networks. Technologies and processes once controlled by a few institutions are now in the hands of individuals. When these individuals are caught up in an emergency situation, they may not wait for the authorities to tell them what’s going on; they’ll use their own tools to communicate, share information (and misinformation) and to decide on courses of action.

There’s no question that information needs to be managed in an emergency. The question is how to manage it. This requires a re-thinking of the appropriate type of control that can be exerted by the authorities.

Just as corporations are learning they cannot control how their customers communicate among themselves about their products given all the communication channels now available, so too emergency managers must learn that they cannot control how people communicate among themselves during an emergency. And just as corporations are learning new ways to engage with their customers using new media, emergency managers must learn new ways to engage with the public before, during, and after emergencies.

That will require the development of communication management plans that incorporate both old and new media and which take into account channel availability, appropriateness for message and content, and increasing variety in the technology available to diverse user populations.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald

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