Disasters & Social Media Tools: Will They Help Our Need?

The Japanese and New Zealand earthquakes have given us allot to think about in the past few weeks and will have significant influence in new ideas and methodologies over the coming months and years, just as the Indian Tsunami of 2004 did or the terrorist attacks in New York, 2001.  There have been numerous commentaries on what should or shouldn’t be done and speculation as to what response plans were in place (and working) and what plans weren’t in place (and not working…).  Still, the Japanese earthquake offered something I hadn’t seen in other recent disasters: Social Media escalating usage.

 Now don’t get me wrong, social media sites were well in use during the New Zealand (NZ) earthquake and are used in many other situations today as well.  The Japanese earthquake added something I hadn’t seen or and aspect that mainstream media hadn’t reported on before; the sites couldn’t keep up and were failing users.

 Let’s clarify this.  Social sites were still available to users and I’m not suggesting they went ‘off line’ during the disaster.  The opposite is true; they were available and being used around the world. 

What was interesting was that since the phone lines were down and working intermittedly, the government and civil officials were asking people to use the social media sites to pass along information. 

On any given day, these sites are busy with users sending pictures to friends and seeking information on what’s going on in the world or what they and their friends will be doing on the weekend.  So, you can imagine what was happening right after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.  There were even more people – more than usual – using the sites seeking information on the disasters.  Not only were they seeking information on the disaster but those that were actually in the disaster were trying to get a hold of friends and family and get information.  It was clogging the social media sites.

CBC News (Canada) on Friday, March 11/11 (afternoon Canada time) stated that it had difficulty accessing twitter and other sites due to the sheer volume of those using them.  This means that if the news isn’t getting access, what must it be like for those who really need to use the site to communicate that they are OK or that they need help?  It begs the question; Will the social media sites be of assistance when a major disaster occurs?  Can they keep up with the communication demands and traffic that come out of such things.  This continued for a day or two.  Now, if we utilize these sites in our plans we must consider that depending upon the situation, they may not be reliable and available. 

With so many users would the messages we want to get out – what our corporations need to get out to employees, clients, suppliers, and media – get lost in the shuffle of so many other messages being sent out there?  Could the vehicles we are using to get out messages out actually be the same vehicles that can hinder us getting the right messages out?  With millions of messages being sent about our corporation’s disasters and only one coming out from the corporation, it might be easy to get lost in the myriad of messages. 

Japan does business around the world (like most countries of course) and is the world’s 3rd largest economy behind China and the US.  What happens here has a great impact on the rest of the world – what those impacts will be are still to be fully realized, though the stock markets are taking a tumble (at the time of writing).  Since they are such a global player, there are more people wanting to know what is happening, which increases the use of social media sites.  Even those that might not normally be using them on a regular basis are on them trying to determine in their interests are being taken care of. 

It is one thing to have a disaster restricted to a single facility; it is another to increase the scope to an entire country.  A single facility will still get people using the sites seeking information but the size, scope and scale of the users is much more central or local to the situation, rather than global in nature.  The more people impacted by a disaster – either directly or indirectly – the more users are going to be on the social sites.  Depending on the situation, your company may or may not be able to get its message(s) out there to the intended audiences, especially if the usage is extreme.

Can we rely on those sites to help us?  I think we can.  Though there are many issues at this time in Japan (as an example), the sites did help people eventually get in contact with each other and help communicate status’ and more.  It’ll be up to the corporate communications representatives to monitor the sites and ensure the right messages are getting out when you need them…and to the right people, or audience, that should be receiving them.

Phones are still working intermittently and causing some frustration but the social sites seem to be stabilizing and working effectively.  With cell phones and other portable devices used by more and more people, these sites will only increase their ability to be used in times of disaster.

In large scale situation – like Japan or NZ – we may encounter delays and the communications team(s) must monitor this so that messages aren’t missed or that too many are sent out over an unstable (though temporarily) network of applications.  Think of it this way; 8 lane highways (like the 401 in Canada) can keep traffic moving quickly from one side of Toronto to the others (which can take over an hour on a regular basis) but at rush hour, even these lanes aren’t enough simply because of the volume, as everyone wants to get home at the same time and there will be delays.  This is what we need to consider when using social sites to communicate during disasters; sometimes there just may be too many users and it might get a bit crowded. 


 “Heads in the Sand: What Stops Corporations From Seeing Business Continuity as a Social Responsibility” and “Made Again Volume 1 – Practical Advice for Business Continuity Programs”

by StoneRoad founder, A.Alex Fullick, MBCI, CBCP, CBRA, ITILv3

Available at www.stone-road.com, www.amazon.com & www.volumesdirect.com


One thought on “Disasters & Social Media Tools: Will They Help Our Need?

  1. Pingback: Disasters & Social Media Tools: Will They Help Our Need … | Midia Social

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