We’ve seen the power of social media enable a viral idea. We’ve watched governments topple under its momentum as well as the fun and danger of flash mobs. And this week, we realized its utility and application during natural disasters. Years ago, I worked on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita recovery efforts in New Orleans, and one of the biggest challenges faced was effective, reliable and scalable communication systems during the crises. Such systems were nearly nonexistent during and immediately following the storms, leaving victims to ask: Where are my loved ones? What should I do next?
I found myself asking the same concerning questions when the earthquake hit Washington, D.C., last week. Like many on the East Coast, I did not immediately think earthquake when I heard rumbling and felt the shaking. Instead, I feared that an explosion had occurred in our nation’s capital. I needed accurate information fast; however, the phone companies could not handle the bandwidth increase, and the broadcast news outlets had a time lag. This real-time need for information rendered the traditional way of communication inadequate, causing gridlock in the city and citizens to be unaware of the proper emergency routes.
Almost immediately, trending Twitter feeds were reporting “5.8” and “earthquake.” And then came the Facebook messages and images posted by family and friends. I immediately felt relief, knowing that I did not have to evacuate, stockpile water, wear a mask and track down family.
And on Sunday, Hurricane Irene completed its travels up the East Coast, setting into motion another round of firsthand accounts of images, tweets and video by everyday people. ESRI developed along the path a mashup of the storm’s activity, in addition to YouTube, Flickr and Twitter feeds, videos, pictures and commentary.
Social media has augmented the traditional outlet of news media to answer the “what” question. “Why” will always be covered by credible, well-thought-out news analysis and commentary. However, with social media, we all seem to be empowered as an author, photographer or reporter.
While businesses debate the utility and relevance of social media, it has become clearer to me based on my experience last week that this vehicle offers a super-condensed “occurrence” to reporting time frame of humanly relevant information that I need. It’s fast, scalable, searchable and originates at the source. For this reason, I will always have a Twitter handle.
While the government continues to invest in updating the emergency response communication systems, it would appear that Twitter and Facebook have temporarily filled the void. The earthquake and hurricane on the East Coast have shown how social media has changed the way we consume and disseminate meaningful information, particularly during a crisis.
by Don Ball
Managing Consultant, Channel Marketing
Cross posted at Ignite Something on the Forbes CMO Network