Emergency Managers: It's OK to be a "Follower" on Twitter

Warning: numbers ahead.

As part of the American Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit on August 12, physical attendees and virtual attendees took part in an hour-long Twitter chat to discuss a myriad of complex issues concerning the role of social networking information-gathering in emergency management. One of the most important, and less esoteric, conclusions heralded by a number of the participants was, to quote the tweet, "when responding to disasters it's all about the relationships you've already built."

In social media, building real relationships requires a long-term focus driven by consistent engagement and substantive interaction, and it's no secret that Twitter is an especially fertile ground for both. However, all too often emergency management agencies use Twitter as a one-way-street for information dissemination rather than a tool for conversation, valuable outreach, and, in times of crisis, immediate situational awareness and information gathering. Aside from monitoring relevant hashtags, following members of the community with influence - i.e., neighborhood associations, individual community leaders, respected local businesses - and responding to what those people and organizations tweet on a daily basis are key if EMs want to maximize Twitter's potential. But looking at state emergency management agencies on Twitter, the numbers say there's work to be done.

As of August 13, 2010, our research found that 42 state emergency management/homeland security agencies maintain Twitter accounts (43 counting D.C.), and only one of those accounts is "verified" by Twitter. Surprisingly, 16 of those agencies do not link to their Twitter page from their agency homepage; of the 27 that do, the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency are great examples of agencies that give Twitter particularly prominent homepage placement.

North Dakota Department of Emergency Services homepage

The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services homepage.

Now let's look at the data for how many Twitter users state agencies are actually following. The median number of users state EM agencies follow is only 26, with four agencies following exactly zero. The Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management follows the most other Twitter users by far, a figure that now sits at more than 1,900 after officials aimed to answer every question they received over Twitter and Facebook during the Gulf oil spill. Thirty-one agencies are following fewer than 100 people, and 13 agencies are following fewer than 10.

Numbers don't always tell the entire story; an agency that only follows a handful of other Twitter users might be able to exchange and harvest just the right amount of pertinent information with only a dozen or so "friends" on the world's most popular microblog. But for that to happen, agencies must focus on long-term engagement, not short-term wins (as I mentioned earlier). A publically-available indicator of interaction is what's called "mentions," which essentially means linking to another Twitter user in one of your tweets, almost like citing a source. Mentions connect people. We examined 100 sample tweets from each of four different EM agencies that are active on Twitter, and the number of mentions made by each agency was, for lack of a better phrase, all over the map. While one follows 168 other users, it made only two mentions in a batch of 100 tweets; contrarily, another agency that follows just a few more users mentioned 52 other Twitterers in a span of 100 tweets. The data for all four agencies can be found in the chart below:

EM Agency Following Mentions Made
 Agency 1 74 4
 Agency 2 85 13
 Agency 3 168 2
 Agency 4 191 52

Mentions made in a string of 100 tweets by each agency. "Following" numbers are as of 8/13/10.

Agency #4, the purveyor of 52 mentions, is the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, which interacts with other EM agencies and regular citizens, like this:

Arkansas Department of Emergency Management tweet

The message here isn't to follow thousands of people and retweet everything they say. That amounts to little more than disorganized noise. The challenge for emergency management agencies is to first find influential people/organizations in the community who use Twitter, follow those users, engage and interact with those users, and build a network from there. Influential community members are likely to retweet or forward an EM agency's preparedness message, and, subsequently, the next recipients of that message are more likely to give credence to the message because it's endorsed by and comes directly from a pillar of the community. If a network of this kind is properly nurtured, critical lines of communication will already be open when a disaster strikes - and with instant access to the public pulse, you'll be one big step ahead.

Click here to follow our list of state EM agencies on Twitter.

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