Ever tried to get on Twitter only to find that frustrating white whale floating in a sea of blue with the message that the network is overcrowded and you should come back later? In the social media world, this is known as the Fail Whale. Twitter has failed us. Come back later.

During yesterday’s mini emergency in Washington, when a 5.8 earthquake shook the city and sent scared and confused folks fleeing from buildings (right into the line of any potential falling debris, by the way), we experienced a Fail Whale on the part of the Washington DC, government.

Cell phone service was down. Traffic on the DC roads seemed a bigger disaster than the earthquake itself. Buses — some crowded, some half empty — blocked lanes and intersections. Cars sat immobile. Metro was stop and go. Meanwhile people scrambled to figure out what had happened. (In this city, when buildings shake, more people think terrorism than earthquake.)

Unlike the righteous cluckers of California, many in the Washington, DC, and Virginia areas have little experience with an earthquake. They wanted guidance on what to do, whether there was a safe place they should go, how to avoid falling walls or other dangers should there be another temblor (all the reporters have dogpacked around this shiny new word, so I will too) or simply how to get out of the city with all of the arteries blocked and few traffic cops providing any direction. (God forbid a serious crisis had hit and panic overtook commuters fleeing the city.)

Blocked from returning to their office buildings where televisions might offer news, wandering among crowds of people with conflicting stories, looking at seemingly immobile traffic patterns, people didn’t turn to the DC government for help or insights. They turned to social media.

This is an increasingly common occurrence, and governments (whether municipal, state or federal) should be alarmed that they are becoming irrelevant to many citizens during times of crisis or disaster — whether it’s a homeland security incident, a natural disaster or a break in a water line. With their bureaucratic processes, their risk aversion, their paralysis over political repercussions, and their lack of awareness of (and oftentimes interest in) new communications technologies, government agencies are losing their positions as first-line trusted sources of information for the public. Increasingly, citizens aren’t turning to government officials for disaster management but to one another. And they’re doing it through social media.

I know I did. I was eating lunch at a local restaurant when the floor and walls and ceiling shook and everybody around our table looked anxiously about for an answer. During those first anxious moments, multiple alternatives flitted through our minds — being literally a block from the White House, foremost among them was a terrorist explosion or another wayward plane. Second, was an earthquake — but when has a real earthquake ever hit Washington? Some kind of metro subway collision? Alien invasion?

Social Media to the Rescue

Without phone service, there was no way to contact the Washington, DC government. Even if the phones had been live, the lines into the government would likely have been flooded by other anxious residents. At least initially, the website for the DC government – which could be a valuable source of information in an emergency – highlighted a picture of the mayor at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. If the DC government has a way of sending alerts to the private sector to help provide guidance, I’m not aware of it and it certainly didn’t work.

So I turned to social media. In truth, it was a natural reaction — even for me, with graying hair, not to mention an entire generation weaned on social media, using Twitter, Facebook, GooglePlus and a host of other social networks as a primary means of communication and information gathering. Thirty seconds after the earthquake hit, I was on Twitter reading dozens of well-informed posts. Within minutes, I was confident we faced a minor earthquake, not something more sinister, and felt reasonably comfortable going to a bar since my office building remained closed.

To be fair, DC does have a Twitter account. Well, it has 22 of them, all with different Twitter handles, which can make it a little tough to figure out where to go. There’s a homeland emergency management account that did get geared up. But there’s also a fire and emergency management account. Which one do you go to ? There doesn’t appear to be one centralized account. It’s too much to ask citizens to remember all of these accounts, particularity when they have little use for many of them. (Looking for information from the Department of Insurance, Security and Banking? Anyone … Anyone?)

Crowdsourcing Emergency Management: A Crisis hashtag

One solution? Why not create a kind of social media 911 for emergency situations? Not simply a Twitter account but a hashtag dedicated to emergency situations. #DCcrisis perhaps. Something simple and easy to remember. A sustained public education campaign would be required to work this into the public consciousness so that anytime the city faces a crisis of some sort, it becomes as natural as dialing 911 to tap #dcrisis into your phone or on your computer.

How is this different from the city having a Twitter account (or 22 of them)? For one, it would be used purely for public emergency situations, not for marketing the mayor. Take a look at the city’s homeland Twitter handle, and you’ll see that prior to the earthquake hitting, the account was dedicated to promoting the unveiling of the MLK statue and the mayor’s activities around it. An emergency channel is not very credible if it’s half dedicated to emergency response situations and half dedicated to political marketing.

Another way in which such a hashtag would be different is that nobody would have to remember all of the city’s Twitter handles and which one is used for which purpose. This is where the public education campaign would be critical. (Such a campaign, by the way, would not have to be dedicated to Twitter or social media channels alone but to any channels through, digital or traditional, by which the city would direct information to the public during a crisis situation.

Finally, and most importantly, the hashtag would allow for true public engagement. A hashtag is not a property controlled by a government agency but is an open space, a digital public forum, for the exchange of information. It would allow crowdsourcing. It would take full advantage of observations, comments, questions, shared images, etc., of the city’s entire public network. It would allow the city to tap into a broad and diverse spectrum of citizen information and participate in that discussion, to correct misinformation, share guidance, and answer questions in a forum that exists in a viral environment. And for risk-adverse government agencies, it would allow the city to participate in this public dialog but also be held responsible only for the content it posts — not any other information that may or may not be accurate. Equally important, it would allow citizens to do what they are already doing anyway — talk to one another rather than rely on the government only.

In other words, it would be a shared forum – the real version of the mythic public-private partnership.

Managing an Emergency Response Twitter Account

For those who did search and find DC’s homeland and emergency management account, they found some useful information eventually (though the amount and diversity of information posted was disappointing). Yet, these folks had more rapid access to more voluminous and diverse information from their own crowd-sourced networks.

What the DC government did not do was engage that crowd. There was some minimal retweeting — only three or four retweets of other government agencies or news outlets. No use of hashtags, either to find more information or to answer panicky questions from the public. No encouragement to Twitter followers to post questions that could be answered and shared with the crowd. No requests for eyewitness information or photos that might dc mayor facebook pageprovide situational awareness of what’s happening on the ground around the city. No use of images, mash-ups or real-time maps by the agency itself.

Had you visited the Mayor’s Facebook page, you would have been forgiven if you came to the conclusion that he was oblivious to the fact that an earthquake had struck his city. There was was no reference whatsoever to the quake, much less any guidance to the city’s residents and workers.

No doubt there is resistance on the part of government agencies to allow anybody to post information for fear of misinformation making its way onto the site and the government being held liable — whether to lawsuits or political repercussions. Hence the unilateral manner of conversation … limited posts of varying degrees of usefulness all issued one way, from the city to … whomever. There are, however, ways to address liability concerns — the hashtag concept above being the first that comes to mind.

If not an emergency hashtag, city agencies could regularly post qualifiers about the veracity of non-government content. There are other approaches, and a team of competent lawyers and emergency management officials could come up with more, no doubt.

Darwinism for Crisis Communications – Adapt or Become Extinct

What if city governments maintain a risk-adverse style to crisis communications? What if they continue to avoid using social media in the way it was meant to be used? If they maintain a conservative, safe, unilateral approach to getting information to the public? If they continue to fear making a wrong move and cling to bureaucratic processes, running any public statement through an exhaustingly complex labyrinth of “proper channels?”

The result will be that they no longer fill the role of crisis communicators, a critical aspect of emergency management.
They no longer meet the needs of the public or communicate via the channels by which the public increasingly communicates.

Quite simply, they become irrelevant. In today’s rapidly evolving media and communications landscape, the public won’t wait for the government. Indeed, they will have no need for it.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More


  • Sammy

    Dawn: If you don’t know the difference between a plural (lies, boys, buildings) and a possessive (lie’s, boy’s, building’s) I’m not sure what you know or whether you have the capacity to think clearly. So I’ll disregard whatever “thinking” may (or may not) exist in what you write.

  • Anonymous

    Chris, Thanks for your firsthand account of DC’s failure to effectively use social media as a part of crisis communication. Your hashtag idea is a good 1st step. Sounds like its time for #IreneNC, #IreneDC, #IreneNYC etc.

    Last Thursday, I interviewed a former Indiana Risk Communication Director on this issue. His point: Agencies can only be a voice of authority if they engage and build their social media audience before the emergency happens. The link:


    • Don, thanks for your post and the link to your blog piece including the
      interview of Eric Deckers. Two points raised that I think are right on:

      1. If agencies don’t engage audiences with this information, then audiences will move on without them.

      2. If agencies want to have influence in this space and be able to
      engage the public, they need to start building their audiences and
      building comfort levels with such engagement NOW, before the next crisis

  • Bob Wade

    From across the pond, I’m with you Chris on all of your comments. In March, I led the media simulation team for Exercise Watermark, the largest emergency exercise held in the UK for 60 years, involving around 40,000 emergency responders. Beside the usual traditional media, our team also delivered a mock ‘twitter’ feed, hosted on the exercise website. Out of the 26 Government departments and emergency response organisations involved, only 10 proactively engaged with this social media platform.  The attitude of press officers from over half of the exercise participants was ‘we don’t do social media’.  This is as nonsensical as a press office suddenly saying they will no longer speak to radio journalists anymore – social media is now as much part of the mix as traditional media.
    Social media is beginning to shape events, as seen in the ‘Arab Spring’, where the digital revolution has underpinned real revolution.  In Germany, 19 spectators were killed at the Love Parade a couple of years back, after tweets and texts went round that the quickest route out of the site was through the tunnel, leading to the horrific crush. The emergency services need to start getting engaged, not ignore this new media platform.
    The University of East London and others are currently carrying out research into the dynamics of social media. They tracked social media conversations after the Cork air crash in Ireland in February 2011. The first comment appeared on Facebook only a minute after the crash. But while social media conversations can be fast and furious, it was two hours before tweets began to carry the correct facts. Had the authorities ‘joined the conversation’ from the start, that would have stopped two hours of confusion and conflicting information.
    The UEL study says that tweets go through three phases during a major incident, or even a perceived one as New York demonstrated.  First comes ‘Perception’ (information seeking and sharing), then comes ‘Comprehension’(piecing the facts together), and then ‘Projection’ – sharing opinions and blame. It’s very similar to the old ‘Mayhem, Mastermind and Manhunt’ model we used to teach on the dynamics of the mainstream media during a crisis. UEL found that around 50 per cent of tweets are re-tweeted. So press officers need to be getting in at the ‘Perception’ stage very early on.
    In the post-Exercise Watermark debriefs many authorities justified shying away from social media because they thought it was labour intensive and expensive. Not so. My collaborator for the exercise was Ian Cameron, who spent 35 years with the BBC. He recently toured the emergency services in Australia – they are way ahead and organisations like the State Emergency Services and the Rural Fire Service use Facebook and Twitter, not only to get real-time information – essential in a bushfire – but to put out warnings and bust any myths circulating.
    They also think ‘mash up’ sites generated by the public serve a very useful purpose too, such as Bushfire Connect which uses the Ushahidi platform. As for hoaxes and wrong information, their experience is that the public ‘self moderate’ sites pretty quickly.
    It is actually not resource intensive – for monitoring social media, there’s already many inexpensive internet tools out there, like Twitscoop, Listorious, Addict-o-matic and Trendsmap.
    Neither is responding. One well trained press officer can ‘join the conversation’ and see re-tweets and viral spread rapidly lead to message magnification and reinforcement. That aside, organisations have little choice but to engage – certain Arab regimes ignored social media. And look what happened to them.

    • Great points, Bob. Your observation about the value of credible govt agencies diving into the crowd, so to speak, and helping to correct misinformation is well put. I would love to read the UEL research. Is it posted online anywhere?

  • Anonymous

    Chris, Thanks for your thoughts based on your personal and professional experience. Here in Indiana, we saw a similar situation during the state fair stage collapse.I summarized your  reflections (and linked back to you) in an update to my post “Why Crisis Communication Needs to Include Social Media, Now”

  • Dana Mulvany

    Interesting article, but I think that most government agencies aren’t nimble enough to handle social media quickly. Rather, I think it would be better to encourage the news media to be such sources of information because they have 24-hour staff, they’re trained to evaluate the credibility of information, and they can conduct further research.  They have the resources to update their web page, and they’re also hungry for gathering and disseminating information because that’s their single purpose. Government personnel will have their hands full just dealing with the crisis, will be likely to be inexperienced at dealing with crises, and they will also be doubtful about how much they can say.  During Hurricane Katrina and Rita and other disasters, I’ve realized that the web sites of the local newspapers were far more useful at crowdsourcing information than the government web sites were or could be (though some newspapers were much better and innovative about doing this than others were). 

    • Dana, you raise some good points about the value of news media in an emergency situation. I think that the news organizations can, do and should play a vital role in this space. The one thing they can’t do, however, is serve as a primary source for critical information coming in to the government’s emergency management teams. While the field teams are going to be too busy to communicate with the public via social media, any emergency management response must have a strong crisis communications component, with a dedicated team committed to getting accurate information and guidance to the public. This has always been the case; in the past, however (and in too many cases today), these crisis comms efforts have focused on traditional media channels — newspapers, broadcast, etc. Such tactics can’t and shouldn’t go away, but social media is now firmly embedded into our media landscape and crisis management teams must acknowledge this and act accordingly.

  • Dana Mulvany

    Additional thoughts:  I’ve thought that Public Information Officers could be encouraged to work with the news media in their areas to designate a community web page to disseminate emergency information.  The PIOs would funnel information to the media, which they already do, but could refer the community to this page from the government agency’s web site.  The PIOs also need to have important crowdsourced information funneled to them from the news media, but currently, they don’t seem to have such a mechanism in place.  Such cooperation between government agencies and news media in times of crises could allow the government representatives focus on handling the crises while utilizing the resources of the media for the good of the community.    

    • I like that idea. It’s not unsimilar to the community hashtag concept I suggested in this post; however, that same concept could be applied to a microsite dedicated to public emergencies or even to a Facebook page. The key would be to keep the content clear of non-emergency related content. (Emergency could be broadly defined, or even a different word chosen, but something that centers all content and discussion on public safety issues.) The only thing I would add is to allow access to the full public to enhance the crowdsourcing capabilities even further.

      • Dana Mulvany

        Chris, I agree it would also be important to allow the public to participate on the designated community web page also, incorporating Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. I’m thinking, though, that one or more of the local news media could have a staff person assigned to monitor that part, though they could potentially end up asking volunteers to help as they surface.

        For example:  shortly after Hurricane Rita, one local newspaper ended up showcasing a blog from a local person who ended up collecting information about local resources providing cooked food, ice, gasoline, etc.  That blogger was a motivated volunteer, in other words, who ended up being trustworthy and useful, and the newspaper made intelligent use of him, his availability, and his motivation to help.  People in the community also found out about him because the local newspaper was showcasing his blog, so there was a useful interactive effect due to pooling resources efficiently in that manner.
        As someone who took online training for CERT this year, it seems to me that the current information structure used for crisis management needs to incorporate a way for Public Information Officers to obtain important information from the public (which someone would need to filter): as you know, the public can be extremely valuable for collecting and relaying information from cell phones and camera phones because they may be the only ones on the scene at the time. I think there very much needs to be planning ahead of time between government agencies and the news media about how to crowdsource information—-but I think most emergency management agencies haven’t realized that yet. Local news media often has already set up mechanisms to invite the public to send pictures and news to the news media, but the government hasn’t…so it could make sense to plan for the crowdsourced info to be evaluated and communicated from the news media to the Public Information Officer when necessary.  (Public Information Officers also need to be equipped with the technology to see photos and even videos wirelessly, too, but that’s not a given.)  If the crowdsourced information can be viewed by both the news media and the PIO, too, then the PIO could also respond directly if necessary and if time allows.  

        To summarize:  I think it would be highly valuable for emergency mangement agencies to work with news media ahead of time about how to deal intelligently and cooperatively with information from different sources, using web sites and social media.  Right now, I suspect that most emergency management agencies haven’t planned for a way to use crowdsourced information efficiently, which could greatly hamper the emergency response of the agencies and emergency responders. (They also need to know how to work with online mapping features like Google Maps quickly to display information and to get the personnel prepared to use these online resources , but that’s another subject.) 

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