Federal agencies use social to preach preparedness

WASHINGTON: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agencies are relying heavily on social media as they give the public information about Hurricane Sandy.

WASHINGTON: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agencies are relying heavily on social media as they give the public information about Hurricane Sandy.

The federal agencies are using Facebook and Twitter  to get their safety messages to large audiences quickly, said Chris Vaccaro, director of NOAA communications and external affairs at the National Weather Service.

“It allows people to be a force of nature in and of themselves by further amplifying the forecast and safety information,” he said.

Mentions of the terms “Hurricane Sandy” and “Frankenstorm” on Facebook have spiked. “Hurricane” has seen a 21,962% increase, while “Sandy” is up 6,578% and “storm” is up 2,999% compared with before the storm, according to Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications at Facebook.

The social network uses a metric called the “Talk Meter” that works on a scale of 1 to 10 to measure how popular a certain topic is across the platform. Hurricane Sandy is up to 7.12, much higher than “Obama” at 3.86 and “Romney” at 3.5.

“It's important to note that all of these Talk Meter figures are very high on Facebook,” Noyes said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has used Twitter to recommended people in the affected states use social media to communicate with family members because phone service may become unreliable.

Many of these tools either did not exist or were not used as prevalently during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Vaccaro said. Federal agencies have used other outreach methods as well, such as daily news briefings hosted by NOAA and FEMA..

In addition to preparedness messages and telling people to pay attention to local authorities if they issue evacuation warnings, NOAA is also promoting the fact that it is halfway through upgrading its network of 160 Doppler radars across the nation. The upgrades provide better information about the type of precipitation accompanying a storm system and its intensity, size, and location.

PR experts who have worked on hurricane preparedness or crisis projects said they are pleased overall with how the government is reaching out to consumers, noting a high level of caution and sternness not seen during Katrina and other critical weather situations.

For instance, Washington DC officials decided to shut down public transit even though conditions were not severe for most of the day.

“They don't want people stranded,” said Ernest DelBuono, SVP and chair of Levick's crisis practice. It's an example of how the government is taking action quickly and in advance before the storm hits.”

DelBuono worked on outreach for the Red Cross after Katrina and served as deputy director of the Federal Joint Information Center for Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

One area he says both state and federal employees have overlooked is outreach to small businesses about the importance of contingency plans to make sure their accounting and customer information is backed up.

“It seems smaller businesses are being ignored a little bit,” he said.

The government could also do a better job of talking about the long-term impact of the storm, said Thomas Madden, CEO of TransMedia Group, which did crisis work for Hurricane Andrew.

“The longer-range effects are the biggest hardships, those messages need to expand in what to do in the aftermath,” Madden said. 

The way the federal government is dealing with Hurricane Sandy is a world apart from how it handled Hurricane Katrina at this point, said John Deveney, founder and president of Deveney Communication, the AOR for Louisiana's tourism operation.

So far, he has seen strong coordination among the federal, state, and municipal levels, with different but cohesive messaging.

“Chain of command and consistent communications were the two main failings when it came to Katrina,” Deveney said. “Things are happening more effectively now.”

He is also pleased by the fact that the president emphasized personal responsibility for US citizens by telling them to not only ensure they are ready for the hurricane, but also to help the people around them.

s important to note that the government can't do everything for us, so people need to not only be empowered, but prepared,” he said.

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