Social media use in tragedies

As I write this post, I’m re-watching Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” which if you’ve not yet seen it, I highly encourage it. It’s extremely powerful, though incredibly hard to watch at times.

I remember when Hurricane Katrina happened, and I remember surfing the online news to see what new information we could get. It seemed with each day, with each hour, it was unraveling into a horrific situation that should never have occurred in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. I’ll hold off on my social commentary for now, however.

It was during this event that I first learned the importance of what we now term social media during a crisis. I was, of course, looking for information on the standard news sites like CNN, MSNBC, etc., F5-ing constantly to see if there were anything new posted.  I then found something more informative and personal: the blog updates from an employee of the Internet domain name service, DirectNic (who have, since 2004, hosted my own personal Web site).

DirectNic was headed out of New Orleans and some of its employees had stayed behind to ensure the data center would remain functional. Michael Barnett was using his blog (through Live Journal) to let his friends know he was okay. However, his blog turned into much more than online notes to his friends and family. His updates were read across the nation, particularly after the site link was posted on Fark. He had more information, it sometimes seemed, than the media and was sharing it openly with the rest of the breath-holding nation.

We’ve seen plenty of examples of this in tragedies that affect our hearts and our health. One twitpic image tweeted by Janis Krums moments after Capt. Sullenberger heroically landed the USAirways flight in the Hudson was circulated across the globe in a flash. A few years earlier, we had the tragic events of September 11. This was PT (pre-Twitter), where nearly everyone communicated simply through e-mail, and blogs were more related to the geek set. I recall, for example, a friend sending out periodic group e-mails to all of us, as we desperately awaited her next communication.

Let’s fast-forward back to the present. We can now track hurricanes through iPhone apps, weather-related Twitter streams, sites tailored for mobile browsers and, of course, plain ol’ Web sites. I suspect that if Hurricane Bill had turned out to be anything greater than a Category 1 storm, we’d be looking for information from our neighbors – the everyman who’s actually experiencing the event – rather than the media. CNN’s iReport.com is set up for that, but breaking news will likely come from our Twitter and blogger friends. Perhaps we just leave the hourly updates to the traditional media channels. (Aside: The folks at Mashable gathered a great Hurricane Bill list together last week.)

At my own company, there’s a specific, multi-faceted disaster plan in place that is constantly reviewed and updated as needed. One component of it is an employee-only (i.e. private) Twitter stream that we can use to tweet out instructions or updates in the event of an emergency.

As a side note…Yet another thing I’m particularly proud of with Premier was the quick response by staff during Katrina (although I wasn’t employed there at the time). Member hospitals unaffected by the storm volunteered supplies and medical employees and, in fact, clinical staff from Premier went down to help as needed. Another VP was instrumental in orchestrating suppliers to transporting desperately needed items to the area, even speaking on two phones at once to quickly get the information passed. That quick, innovative response was what was needed. It raises my eyebrow that it was arranged by private organizations, rather than the federal government, though.

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