DTR005 Crisis Management and Social Media

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This module will take you through Crisis Management and Social Media.

  1. Introduction
  2. Uses of Social Media
  3. Case History: Social Media and the Queensland Floods
  4. From the Queensland Police Social Media Report
  5. Basic Services
  6. Why Did It Work?
  7. The Benefits of Social Media in a Disaster
  8. Lessons Learned
  9. Summary
  10. Main Points

The information in this document is part of the Deltar
‘Level 4 Management Award in Advanced Risk and Crisis Management’


Of all of the developments that have had an impact on crisis management over the last ten years, one of the most significant has undoubtedly been the rise of the use and availability of social media.

If we think of the events of September 1st 2001, with the attack by the two planes on the World Trade Centre in New York that marked the start of the modern security management era, then the vision that you have of that event will undoubtedly have come from iconic images that you saw on the television. If you think to the Boston marathon bombing that took place in June 2013, then the likelihood is that the images that you have in your mind from that event are not from some centrally controlled television broadcaster, as sent to them by a professional news crew, but rather pictures taken on people’s mobile phones and uploaded almost instantly onto the internet.

The ability that modern social media has to connect people instantly across the globe is something that we are still coming to terms with, but from a security manager’s perspective it is undoubtedly one of the most powerful tools that they have for accessing, managing and controlling information on a whole range of levels. The use of social media, that is, shared open access media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, as well as SMS texting systems, is something that is still developing as it concerns crisis and emergency management, but it is generally accepted that the first ‘social media disaster’ was the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.

Haiti was an example of a ‘true crisis’ in that there was an almost total destruction of local infrastructure, and complete lack of reliable information sources. For many companies with employees in the area, social media was the only way that they could communicate with them, assess their needs and maintain an on-going dialogue throughout the early days of the disaster. Even for international news agencies, such as the BBC, social media was one of their main sources of information.

Uses of Social Media

In general terms, social media can be used in one of three ways. It can be used to ‘push out’ information, that is it can be used by the central command or headquarters to send out information to everyone it is connected to. As an example, it could be used to inform the public of an emergency telephone number, or where the meeting point for an evacuation might be. Secondly, it can be used to ‘pull in’ information, using its network of connected people out in the world to supply information. In the event that there is a flood, for example, social media is an excellent way of understanding what is going on with outlying facilities, what the damage has been, what the impact has been and what steps need to be taken.

Another example is if an incident has occurred in a foreign country, and you need to have local information translated into English. It is possible that you do not have a native-speaker within your own organisation, but that is something that is easily accessible on social media. The third use of social media is to monitor general situations through ‘crowd sourcing’, that is, by plugging into the world-wide online community and seeing what other people are talking about.

As one journalism blog reported, the power of crowd-sourcing can be seen by the fact that within 48 hours of the Haiti earthquake, the ‘Earthquake Haiti’ Facebook group had 170,000 members, and the Red Cross, whose previous largest fundraising campaign had raised $190,000 had raised $8 million within the first three days through social media.

However, as with any aspect of crisis management, however powerful social media might be, it doesn’t just happen. It is the ability of an organisation to understand how it works, how it can be used, and what effect it might have that allows it to become the powerful tool that it has the potential to be.

The design and use of social media is one area of security management that requires expert knowledge, and any system that it designed by non-experts is likely to be less than optimally effective (and actually, may well fail completely) under the pressure of a crisis situation. In order for it to be effective, the use of social media needs to be woven into the fabric of a company’s daily routines, so that if a crisis does occur, everyone is already familiar with social media and comfortable with how they can use it.

Case History: Social Media and the Queensland Floods

One organisation that was an ‘early adaptor’ of social media, and has subsequently had it tested in genuine crisis situations, is the Queensland State Police Department in Australia. They initially established a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in May 2010, and had an opportunity to test it out in real-time conditions only six months later.

Heavy rains in December 2010 started to affect wide areas of Queensland, the second largest state on the continent, and by December 24th a state emergency had been declared. On 10th January 2011, a flash flood that was described as an ‘inland tsunami’ occurred that led to significant and wide-spread flooding. By the second week of January, 200,000 Queenslanders were flood-affected and three-quarters of the state was declared an official disaster zone. This was a perfect scenario to test the effectiveness of social media, given the wide geographical spread of the disaster and the isolated position of many of the people affected.

The police were able to use social media to inform the general public of the developing situations, with real-time updates on an almost minute-by-minute basis. However, they were also able to use social media to monitor the situation based on reports that were coming in from people that were on the front-line, and were immediately aware of changing conditions. However, a third impact of social media was the creation of a genuine community feeling, giving that everyone on the media sharing sites were aware that they were listening in on experiences that were terrifying and devastating for the people involved.

Lessons Learned from the Queensland Experience

The Queensland State Police Department put out a report following the flooding, outlining the development programme that they had used and identifying some of the lessons that they had learned. It gives a one-document outline of how social media can be used, if designed properly and managed effectively. This outline could be used by any organisation that is looking to develop its own social media presence.

From the Queensland Police Social Media Report

  • Acting as a centralised clearing house for disaster-related information through Facebook and Twitter as soon as it became available, including details on behalf of other departments and authorities
  • Live video streaming of the Brisbane-based disaster-related media conferences on the QPS Facebook page with the video subsequently posted on the QPS YouTube channel
  • Live Tweeting key points as they were made in briefings and in these media conferences
  • Uploading bullet point summaries of the media conferences to the QPS Facebook page shortly after their conclusion
  • Uploading at least daily audio updates to Facebook from local disaster coordinators around the state
  • ‘Mythbusting’ of misinformation and rumours in the media and community
  • Tweeting most QPS Facebook posts generally using the #qldfloods, #TCYasi or #mythbusters hashtags
  • Providing 24/7 moderation of the QPS social media accounts, responding to inquiries from the public where possible
  • Coordinating sign language interpreters to assist with most media conferences
  • Coordinating the translation of media conference summaries into other languages for affected tourists and relatives based internationally

Why Did It Work?

  • Police Media had high-level organisational support, including from the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioners
  • Social media had a champion in the Executive Director of the Media and Public Affairs Branch who championed its benefits from within the QPS Senior Executive and set the direction for the media and public affairs team
  • Police Media was fortunate enough to have the benefit of a seven-month trial in which the team was able to become comfortable with its use and imbed it as part of its daily processes prior to a disaster occurring
  • Through circumstances Police Media was able to quickly prove the worth of social media during two major disasters.

The Benefits of Social Media in a Disaster

  • It is immediate and allowed Police Media to proactively push out large volumes of information to large numbers of people ensuring there was no vacuum of official information
  • The QPS Facebook page became the trusted, authoritative hub for the dissemination of information and facts for the community and media
  • Large amounts of specific information could be directed straight to communities without them having to rely on mainstream media coverage to access relevant details
  • The QPS quickly killed rumour and misreporting before it became “fact” in the mainstream media, mainly through the #mythbuster hashtag
  • It provides access to immediate feedback and information from the public at scenes
  • The mainstream media embraced it and found it to be a valuable and immediate source of information
  • It provided situational awareness for QPS members in disaster-affected locations who otherwise had no means of communications.

Lessons Learned

  • If you are not doing social media, do it now. If you wait until its needed, it will be too late
  • Rethink clearance processes. Trust your staff to release information
  • Add a social media expert to your team. While there should be shared responsibility for uploading information and moderating social media sites, expert technical advice and trouble-shooting will be necessary from someone with an IT background
  • Do not treat social media as something special or separate from normal work processes. It should be integrated as standard practice
  • Do not use social media solely to push out information. Use it to receive feedback and involve your online community
  • Established social media sites are free and robust which can handle volumes of traffic much larger than agency websites
  • Ensure that information is accessible. A PDF is not the most accessible way to deliver information.
  • Machine-readable information such as geocoding allows the information to be more accessible and usable for others.


The growth and spread of social media has been one of the most significant developments in crisis management and disaster response over the last few years. In a world that is increasingly dependent on fragile communication systems, it offers a genuine opportunity for security managers to create a self-managing and extremely robust crisis management system that is likely to be functional and effective when other systems break down. As in any security management system, the way that the use of social media is developed and managed has to take into consideration the culture and strategic objectives of the wider corporate organisation, but it should be something that is at the heart of the security departments strategic development programme.

Main Points

  • In the present world, were the management of information is a crucial aspect of any security operation, social media is a tool that can’t be ignored
  • Social media is not something that can just be added on. It has to be developed and managed in the way most appropriate to each organisation
  • The effectiveness of social media is dependent on the ease with which people can access it and contribute. It should be a genuinely open-source network
  • In the event that a genuine crisis does occur, social media may well be your best – and quite possible your only – way of communicating with your people spread out across the world. Make use of it!