Social Media Concerns During Emergencies and Incidents: Lessons from a Recent Tragedy

By Joshua Shanley

Our nation was recently shaken to its core as news broke of the Boston Marathon bombings. The public immediately took to social media to follow the story; more than a quarter of Americans to be exact, according to a survey report by the Pew Research Center. The online activity continued to shape the efforts; it has even been credited with helping identify suspects.

Millions across the world received instant information. However, misinformation also flowed. An innocent bystander was targeted and multiple inaccuracies occurred in media coverage, including premature announcements that suspects were in custody and frantic live-tweeting of the pursuit, which compromised officer safety by broadcasting tactical positions.

Ultimately, the end of the intense manhunt was announced by the Boston police not through traditional methods, but with a tweet. Clearly, social media continues to be a powerful tool to connect with a mass audience during a crisis. Emergency managers can learn from these recent tragic events and reevaluate their social media strategies to prepare for the next emergency, which follow:

  1. Never sacrifice accuracy for speed. As stories surrounding the Boston tragedy began to unfold, social media was a source of both information and frustration. Not only did major news outlets such as CNN and the Associated Press report incorrect information, but social media users fueled the false reports online, making it difficult for many to know what to believe. Getting information out quickly is important, but don’t sacrifice accuracy for speed. Disseminating inaccurate information may be worse than no information at all. It is vital for a public safety agency to maintain credibility, and nothing can undermine that faster than distribution of unclear, inconsistent or flat out wrong statements in the midst of a breaking situation.
  2. Stop and listen. Social media is a two-way street, both a vehicle to send information out to the public and to receive information from those people. From runners, spectators, journalists, and the surrounding businesses providing firsthand accounts and ground footage, Boston investigators relied on all the information they could get at the onset of the marathon bombings. Ultimately, it was the public and its social connections that helped identify the suspects. Having a social media presence implies that the department is going to be listening to the community and have a trained staff dedicated to responding, especially during an incident when interaction can be overwhelming. Social media staff must be informed, well-spoken, and politically sensitive.
  3. Prepare for fallen communication systems. Cell phone networks are not reliable during emergencies; systems become inundated or possibly even disabled by tactical teams to prevent improvised explosive devices from being detonated. In these cases, text messages are transmitted more effectively than voice. With phone lines jammed during the Boston bomcbing, many of the runners and spectators also turned to social networking sites like Facebook for communicating with others. Departments should prepare messages that are short enough to pass along by text or instant messaging, applying the same prudence as when communicating online. These brief messages can be easily shared by others through social media and repurposed as tweets, which can also be sent as text messages without the need for a computer.
  4. Build a strong foundation. Although the tragedy in Boston caused a spike in the police department’s social media following—an increase of approximately 70,000 followers on Facebook and 275,000 on Twitter since April 15—the department already had a good handle on its online practices. According to an article posted on the Web site, The Department was able to act quickly to disseminate details of the crime to the public because using social media in this manner was already second nature. Their Twitter and Facebook accounts were already established and well-used prior to the attack.” Having a social networking presence in place well ahead of an incident is fundamental not only for understanding the capabilities and limitations of each platform before it is needed but for establishing a solid audience as well. By creating a line of communication with the public beforehand, departments will be seen as relevant and current. People should be looking to the organization as a local authority and reliable source of information.
  5. Less is more. Although it is important for an agency to communicate information to the public in a timely manner, they should not inundate or over saturate the community with too many messages. Rather than a play-by-play of a situation, the general public needs context and interpretation of the situation—not just what is going on, but what it means to them.

Agencies must be prepared to know what to share and when to hold back. Communicating risk and threats in a dynamic environment can be complicated and, if not done properly, can create unintended consequences. For a clear and collected picture of the situation and next steps, authorities can also direct audiences to traditional media environments.

Additionally, agencies must also choose their words wisely; the potential for miscommunication can be amplified during emergencies—cues one takes for granted in face-to-face conversation such as body language, vocal intonation, and eye contact are absent. Avoid sarcasm or edgy humor to prevent offending people that may already be on edge. Staff must post cautiously to avoid sharing inappropriate content such as graphic images of victims or ordinary updates that would be seen as harmless on a typical day but insensitive during a tragedy.

In the wake of an evolving incident, the key focus of all social media activity should be to increase situational awareness and reduce further damage and confusion for the public. As an entire city was shut down for a day during the Boston bombing suspect manhunt, it was evident that social media served as a lifeline for breaking news and outside communication. Emergency managers must stay current with how people interact with the world around them and tap into the lasting trends. Tried-and-true methods of risk communication will still play an important role, but as social media continues to become ubiquitous, it will serve as a necessary addition to agencies’ toolboxes.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Aaron “Tango” Tang


Joshua Shanley is Adjunct Faculty at Kaplan University in the School of Public Safety and has been a firefighter-paramedic for more than 20 years. He participated in the response to the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and again in 2001. He is currently the Emergency Management Coordinator in Northampton, Massachusetts. 

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