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Taking Crisis by a New Kind of Storm

Posted At: October 10, 2011 1:40 PM
by Hope Peterson

On April 27, 2011, citizens used words such as destruction, devastation and panic to describe Tuscaloosa, Ala., after a tornado swept through the heart of the city. However, upon hearing the date April 27 today, Tuscaloosa residents might be more likely to use words like united, rebuilding and hope.

A contributing factor to this change of view is the positive effect of engaging in social media during crisis situations.

University of Alabama Director of Web Communications Andy Rainey said, “We knew that effective social media usage would be critical for us during an emergency situation, and we saw that using social media was a highly effective tool for communicating with both on-campus and off-campus audiences during and after the tornado.”

Tuscaloosa’s emphasis on social media during the tornado provides a clear example of how effective new media channels can be in crisis situations. According the Meredith Lynch, PR coordinator for the city of Tuscaloosa’s Incident Command Center, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox utilized social media to communicate with residents before and after the storm, with thousands following in his footsteps by utilizing Twitter.

From the moment the bad weather hovered over Tuscaloosa, Maddox’s office found new ways to use social media. The first was through its Twitter account, @Tuscaloosacity. After its first tornado-related tweet on April 27, @Tuscaloosacity’s recognition skyrocketed as the account went from 1,200 followers to 5,810.

The magic of the tweets existed in what was being said and who the city was “retweeting.” @Tuscaloosacity soon discovered the power of retweeting.

For example, @Tuscaloosacity retweeted James Spann, weatherman for ABC 33/40, whose tweets updated Alabama residents on tornado watches and warnings across the state. Spann’s current Twitter popularity can be credited to his contribution during the storm, Lynch said.

In addition to many other news outlet retweets, @Tuscaloosacity came up with a way to bring immediate help to those without phones or Internet: they could tweet a specific need and include the hashtag of #TUS for a quicker response. When Lamar Advertising saw that hashtag, it agreed to immediately link the message to every online billboard in Tuscaloosa.

“Following” in Mayor Maddox’s footsteps, Rainey said that University’s media relations also utilized Twitter as a way to reach out to students specifically during the disaster. Rainey said the University has gained 1,025 followers on Twitter since the storm.

“Twitter was the most effective channel of communication. Phone lines were jammed and no one had power, but people were still able to check Twitter for vital information,” Lynch said.

Twitter was taking Tuscaloosa by a new kind of “storm,” as one of the only ways people could communicate during the storm. It was vital to relief efforts.

Facebook jumped in line behind Twitter as the next most relied on social media channel. Lynch said that the city’s Facebook page went from less than 100 fans to 3,310 in less than four months. Rainey said UA complemented the city’s rise in numbers with its own impressive following of 6,765 new Facebook fans.

Lynch said the “friending frenzy” on the city’s page was a direct result of the page becoming a source of encouragement to the residents. Pictures of visiting celebrities, the progress of the town itself and successful aid stations gave residents hope that change was happening. Those pictures were evidence that their contributions were making a big difference.

“Posting pictures of Charlie Sheen even brought the focus of the nation back to Tuscaloosa after the death of Osama Bin Laden the following weekend,” Lynch said.

Fast forward to several months after the tragedy: social media is still prevalent for continuing relief efforts and building morale among the people of Tuscaloosa.

Lynch created the site, Tuscaloosa Forward, to enable continual two-way communication after the storm. The site functions as a community blog that allows anyone to post ideas to benefit the city. So far, the site has consistently showcased new recovery ideas and success stories, reminding site visitors what is possible with their support.

Lynch said this citizen-driven, transparent site has garnered more than 74,000 website visits and has indirectly resulted in progress such as enough collected debris to fill Bryant-Denny stadium three times.

Maddox’s social-media-centered approach is just one example of a success story amidst a disaster; in fact, the idea seems to stem from a global phenomenon known most recently as “crisis mapping.”

According to a “Need to Know” article from PBS, crisis mapping is the ability to connect people globally during disaster situations using technology. And, while this idea gained popularity during the Haiti earthquakes through the use of cell phones, it has evolved into a Twitter-run program.

Volunteers from around the world track Twitter updates to see the moment-by-moment breakdown of disasters. An online virtual map is then put together to form a crisis response plan best suited to each situation. Essentially, social media is used to find out who needs what, and when, as it was in Tuscaloosa.

Lynch noted that “social media saved countless lives on April 27th.” Isn’t that the point of crisis management for disaster situations? The social media usage seems to be evolving from disaster to disaster, and for a pretty good reason.

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