Hurricane Sandy and social media monitoring lessons

By November 14, 2012
OfflinePhoto of Patrice Cloutier

Hurricane Sandy will mark a turning point in the ongoing battle to convince some senior executives about the value of social media in disasters. Both as communications and situational awareness tools.

The passage of Hurricane Sandy in the great metropolis will leave a lasting legacy. Already we see that even in the centre of the greatest, most powerful country in the world, that nature can have a devastating impact and that response and recovery can be a long, hard process. It's far from over. We already hear recriminations against governments, utilities and even NGOs. That's human nature ... We also see that preparedness is not what it should be ... Those (the few) that are prepared, should be able to last more than the recommended 72 hours ... should we now say to families that they should plan to fend for themselves for up to a week? I believe so ... But that's another topic.

What really came to the fore was the prevalent use of social networks during all phases of the disasters. New York being the centre of the media/social media universe ... everything took monumental proportions. But for many, Hurricane Sandy is a major turning point in the general acceptance of social media's role in emergency management. 

This led me to harden my belief that monitoring social media during a crisis or a disaster is now an operational imperative for five key considerations:

NYC OEM tweets.jpg

  1. Verifying the effectiveness, penetration, acceptance, acting upon an organization's/government's emergency information your messaging resonating with the right audiences? Are they adopting the behaviours your want them to take? For example, are your keeping track of your reach on Twitter or how the info on your Facebook page is being shared? See this analysis from Fairfax County in Virginia.
  2. Rumour control ... Identifying, helping to dispel false information that could put lives at risk or flood authorities with irrelevant and incorrect data to support their decision making process. FEMA took this very seriously and dedicated lots of efforts to it. New York's municipal officials and agencies were clearly "on the ball".
  3. Detecting and responding to calls for help. Yes, I know. Twitter is NOT 9-1-1. But people will still use social networks to call for help and what's more, they expect first responders and emergency managers to answer the call. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) really came though with flying colours in that regard. Their social media presence was noted worldwide during Sandy.
  4. FDNY tweets.jpg

4.  Identifying reputational threats on social networks that could affect your organization and might impact its ability to fulfil its mandate during the ongoing    crisis. People will be unhappy. Some voice their displeasure in very vocal manner and have a lot of influence. That can be distracting. Better to detect potential reputation issues early and deal with them.  Such a situation presented itself to the American Red Cross. Despite a gargantuan effort to deliver food, aid, and raising more than $100 million dollars for relief purposes, the NGO found itself a target. Being able to ward off such negative press is crucial. Initiatives such as highlighting response work on the ground and the effectiveness of the digital ops centre helped turn the tide.

5.  Finally, using social media for situational awareness. I've written and presented extensively on that subject. Here's what FEMA is now doing to harness the power of the crowd ... expressed through social networks ...via mobile devices. Simply put: we have hundreds of millions of "walking sensors" out there that can transmit valuable data about what's happening on their street, in their neighbourhood and town ... That's info we didn't have a few years back. It should lead to a full community-based operating picture and allow for better decision making in the allocation of strategic response resources.

So, SMEM is here to stay ... It's not going away anytime soon ... Social Media Monitorong should now be a major component of any EOC and/or JIC operations. Maybe we should also incorporate it in our emergency preparedness messaging for the audiences we servev.


About the author

Patrice Cloutier

team leadOntario government

Patrice Cloutier is a communicator specializing in crisis communications and emergency management. Patrice was the principal strategic communications planner for the Integrated Security Unit that…


Photo of n2nov said 2 years ago

It certainly was a learning experience as our first foray into real-time disaster comms on Twitter. Normally NYC-ARECS ( would only be found on amateur radio frequencies. Hurricane Sandy showed us how useful the information was that we were sending out and answering questions from people in various areas and situations.  It is certainly a new tool in our EmComm toolbox!

This is an excellent article Patrice, Thank you. When reading it make sure to follow the links as they really drive the point home!

OfflinePhoto of Bob Gaspirc Bob Gaspirc said 2 years ago

Large media organization now have the capability to produce a "map".  NASA, Local governments, FEMA, Google, Bing, ESRI, weather stations, newspapers, and others now have the ability to replicate each others data or display it in a slightly modified form. All have the ability to generate a reasonably looking "situation awareness map".  Which one should the layperson use, and  which one should the first responder use?  The ability for anyone to produce a map may be pulling us away from the common operating picture to "media customized operating picture". Media agencies have the ability to publish  messages that perhaps should be coming from EOC's. Everyone wants to be first.     EOC providers need to be aggressive promoting their messages and constantly educating the public to recognize  authenticated and authorized  communication  channels.    I think there is a need to start publishing "controlled vocabulary" tags  so  people receiving the message know that it came from authorized sources or secondary sources .  Should we  publish  the common alert tags for each event and encourage the general public to use them in their tweets? How does the public actually know that someone is listening and  will be responding?


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Patrice Cloutier
November 14, 2012
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