On Monday, FEMA Administrator David Paulison participated in a citizens’ news conference on the social media Website Twitter. And, yes, that’s the news. It was, I believe, an unprecedented step for a U.S. government agency. Sure, the Administrator had a message, which we’ll get to, but the very fact that Paulison is embracing social media tools speaks volumes about the positive direction of the agency in terms of public communication and transparency. For an organization that is responsible for coordinating action during times of crisis and for pro-actively communicating with the public about those actions, this is a heartening step.
Indeed, a significant part of the future of crisis response lies in the realm of social media – whether in terms of identifying and coordinating delivery of critical supplies in the midst of a hurricane or providing mapped-out directions for emergency blood drive sites in those critical hours immediately after a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
The private sector and citizen organizations are already ahead of the curve on coordinating international aid efforts after crises throughout the world. After the Mumbai massacre, for example, numerous sites coordinating aid to the victims and families popped up immediately online – before the standoff with the gunmen was even complete.
When Security Debrief spoke with John Shea, a member of the FEMA external affairs team, he emphasized that FEMA saw Twitter as an instrument for providing the public with information rather than as a customer service tool. Shea, who originally was drawn to the new social media tool by the story of the American student arrested in Egypt using Twitter to alert people back in the United States, sees a great opportunity for quick and direct communication with citizens. During national emergencies such as the recent Colorado wildfires and Washington state floods, FEMA, local government and citizens took to Twitter as a means of communicating about blocked roads and infrastructure.
Other governments are also moving forward with social media. Earlier this month, the Israeli Consul in New York held the first ever citizen press conference on Twitter to fight the war of information it was facing in its attacks on Gaza. As with any innovation, there were lessons learned by the Israeli effort and, to their credit, the FEMA staff appear to have studied those lessons.
For example, in a previous analysis of the Israel Twitter news conference, Security Debrief noted that the amount of information coming from the diversity of sources all at once could be overwhelming. FEMA addressed this challenge by using “hashtags,” meaning using the keyboard icon to separate questions related specifically to the FEMA news conference from any other conversations that might be going on in the popular online social venue.
Another challenge in using Twitter is the difficulty in posing questions, and even more so in answering them, within the 140 character limit imposed by Twitter. FEMA addressed this by following up the round of live questions with both an audio and text file so that participants (as well as those who could not participate) could circle back and review the questions and answers at their leisure. The audio file is unique and insightful because much of the FEMA staff participated in the event alongside the Administrator; the recording provides a transparent record of the Administrator’s response to questions and discussion with staff about how to reply.
Is Twitter the best social media platform for news briefing style communications? We’re still skeptical, due primarily to the 140-word character limit. In this sense, we agree with Shea that it is better as an informational tool, alerting the public to developing events and critical information, than as a formal and organized exchange of information.
However, that is merely a matter of venue. Twitter can definitely play a critical role in quickly distributing information and responding to certain inquiries and misinformation. For more organized exchanges requiring more substantive discussions, there are a number of alternatives that might make a better fit, including live blogging. Nonetheless, the emergence of citizens news conferences, such as those hosted by FEMA and the Israeli Government, make clear that social media tools have the potential to serve as critical communications tools during national emergencies. By starting to communicate with citizens through Twitter press conferences, even on the simple topics of how FEMA has grown under the Department of Homeland Security and where it is headed as an agency, FEMA is helping to lead the way in more effective and transparent communications between the public and its government.