In the face of disaster, finding ways to get people the right information at the right time, as well as the right help at the right time is a monumental task. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has quickly learned that social media is the way to go. FEMA now has three Facebook pages and 34 Twitter accounts. In order to get the right information to people, FEMA has correctly chosen to meet people where they are.

A key component of social media for an agency like FEMA is to not just have a presence. The pages, accounts, and sites have to have a use. Americans expect a quick response if a request has been submitted. In a time of need, any tool that has been provided to the public has to be monitored. It’s also important to acknowledge the negative consequences of social media: misinformation and false rumors. FEMA has gone so far as to set up a webpage that the American people can use to verify the information that is being spread on social media.

Mobile devices are key to making social media a prominent tool for disaster relief, as they provide a ubiquitous tool that allows information and messages to be communicated. Again, messages can be good and positive, or messages can be filled with confusing information. Messages can even be filled with negative information, such as was provided via Twitter by Al Shabaab during the WestGate Mall attack. Agencies need to be agile enough to respond accordingly to all of the messages.

In disaster relief and humanitarian assistance efforts, the advent and usage of smartphones has created a leap-ahead capability that allows information to be shared. During the peak of Hurricane Katrina, Instagram users uploaded photos at the rate of 10 photos per second. Before smart phones, citizens of developing countries and even parts of the U.S. relegated to dial-up were not able to access information as quickly.

Getting help to people in need also requires a level of interoperability – both in process and in technology. FEMA has also created an application and text message short code, but FEMA cannot also be the shelter location, police, or rescue organization. FEMA can connect the people, but in order to close the circle and meet the need, the right people have to be talking and following through to respond to requests.

For agencies and companies, much thought and care should be given to how to handle social media.  A simple search provides lessons learned and best practices for creating a social media campaign. Although social media has negative components, it is important to establish a meaningful presence. Chances are, if you are not communicating a message, someone else is doing it for you…and you might not like the message.

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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.