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.


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

« Cognitive Enhancement and Scientific Collaboration, Working Together | Main | Project Blogs, Email, and Dual Collaboration Channels »

Reader Comments (3)

Hi Dennis,

I agree - organizations can definitely benefit from embracing social media during an emergency. The focus of my pondering, though, is whether to put 'citizen journalists' under the umbrella of 'media' during those situations. For example, should we allow them to attend news conferences? Take them on incident site visits?

The argument for doing this is largely the same as you and I outline our your pieces. The argument against is that in situations like this, control of the situation is critical. I don't mean control of the message, I mean physical control of the site. People that argue against expanding the definition of 'media' may argue that 'traditional' journalists may have higher standards, and are more accountable, for their behaviour.

Like I said, I'm torn. I'm all for embracing social media. In almost any situation I would strongly recommend that organizations should consider its benefits. Emergencies, though, are a different kettle of fish. Lives may be at stake. There may be graphic images that aren't appropriate for public release. At the best of times they're hectic; at the worst they can be chaotic. That's where my dilemma lies.
January 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDave Fleet
Serious bloggers will probably understand the logistical limitations that limit access to disaster or accident scenes. (Non-serious folks can be treated as Members of the Public and turned away.) But if there's room, it would be a good gesture to let them have a seat.

But that may be less of an issue than the fact that "citizen journalists" may well be already embedded in the event. This could work to advantage - witness the recent Twittermapping of the San Diego CA fires. "Regular folks" provided real-time intelligence about hot spots locations, street closings, etc. I don't know if the FDs and PDs took advantage of that resource, but linked-in members of the public did.

But you might have a very different situation, say, in a hostage event if one of the hostages has a cell phone, Blackberry, etc. Remember that during Desert Storm, military observers in DC and Baghdad were watching CNN for real-time intel.

The lesson is, think it through in advance.
January 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCorrie Bergeron
Very interesting discussion. During the Katrina response, we saw a variety of new media tools adapted for use in the response. For instance, Google Earth was quickly adapted to convert the street addresses given in distress calls into LAT/LONG information. With the flooding and wind damage, street signs had become useless. While this technology has been available in professional GIS systems for some time, Google Earth provided this capability to volunteer organizations, small departments, amateur radio operators and others.

Traditionally, amateur radio handled a lot of requests for "health & welfare" information. Persons outside the affected area are desperate for information about their loved ones, and this has been the role of ham radio for decades, but during Katrina it was greatly diminished. Instead, the Red Cross and other agencies along with citizens used web based tools for this purpose. This is a perfect application for the tools, and a huge improvement over the traditional systems.

Twittermapping, geochaching, and other tools will no doubt provide better situational awareness for first responders in the future, but they'll also be faced with new challenges. How long will it be until an investigation is compromised due to the uncontrolled flow of information from a "citizen journalist?"

What is clear is that this will be a struggle for authorities. Many emergency managers wrestle with the complexities of e-mail and the web. SMS text messaging seems foreign to them. P25 Digital radios a mystery. How much of a challenge will tools like Twitter be these groups?

The reality is that none of us can afford to live in a vacuum when it comes to this issue. The march of I.P. and cellular based media will continue to challenge our perceptions about "media" and information management. The merger of portable devices with geo-positioning and GPS data is also on the horizon, and will offer even more challenges.

An associate recently pointed out to me that while there are thousands of blogs, only a handful have sufficient readership to qualify as "media", even if you're open to non-traditional definitions. This has been true of almost any new form of media. In the past, most cities had three or more newspapers, but economic factors have reduced that to one or two in most markets. There is simply a limit to how much media and how many sources for that media a person can consume.

New media offers the ability to "narrow cast", which is the opposite model from broadcasting. If you're trying to safely evacuate from a fire zone, you don't want a lot of information, you want very narrow, specific information. Where is the fire in relation to your escape routes?

But the inability to vet the source of information is a huge concern. For now, new media sources have their own "street cred". Like Ebay, they depend on a system of trust and feedback, but they lack regulation. In fact, it may be impossible to regulate these sources at all in the traditional sense. Hoax postings, deliberate misinformation, and lack of rumor control may quickly sap the public confidence in these sources.

At the moment, users are primarily young,technology savvy, and able to vet on the fly. Without even being aware of the process, they mentally evaluate the posters based on a mixture of past experience and intuition. It's remarkably effective and accurate. But I doubt that this can scale to the wider population.

Can you imagine your mother in law trying to decode these cryptic postings and visual displays? On her mobile phone, while driving through raging brush fires? Not likely, but for your 20 year college student, that may be child's play.

Now imagine on-lookers e-mailing cell phone photos of your crime scene to CNN, even as you first arrive on the scene. Trying to control citizen journalism is already proving to be a lost cause. YouTube has become a nearly daily source of information in many organizations. Trying to manage new media sources may make many PIO's nostalgic for the good ole days when all they had to worry about was an aggressive news photographer or a too eager cub reporter from the local paper.

On thing is for sure. Learn to smile and look confident. The world is watching, and they get their updates in real time.

January 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLes Rayburn, N1LF

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.