How Social Media Fits Into Los Angeles’ Crisis Communication Strategy

It’s been a slow but steady climb in Twitter followers for the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department (EMD). The site, launched about 18 months ago, is one of two social media properties owned by the EMD. Twitter followers now exceed 1,000.

The EMD’s use of social media reflects a growing trend among public safety agencies: the use of social media to connect with a public that is increasingly spending more time on social media sites than accessing traditional media such as television, radio and newspapers.

The EMD uses Twitter to post official city bulletins and advisories about emergencies, significant events and disasters that affect residents. The account is “verified” by Twitter, a distinction Twitter carefully dispenses to establish authenticity so users can trust that a legitimate source is authoring the tweets.

Twitter followers tend to increase when bulletins or advisories are posted about mud and debris flow concerns or announcements of cooling centers during a heat wave. The last significant spike in followers happened over the past few weeks when the EMD posted tweets updating Angelenos about the city’s efforts in monitoring radiation levels from the nuclear plant in Japan.

The EMD has also used Twitter to update Angelenos on road closures, evacuation notices of residents in burn areas, heat advisories, information about missing children during large public events, and to post messages encouraging the public to remain calm during special events like the Lakers championship game, or imminent verdicts like the Oakland transit officer case.

Twitter has become an important communication tool and a vital part of the EMD’s crisis communication strategy.

“It’s important to leverage technology,” said James Featherstone, general manager of the city’s Emergency Management Department.

“You have to fish where the fish are. People spend more time getting information on the Internet than they do from traditional news sources. Social media allows us to quickly push out messaging during critical events and let residents know what has happened, what the city is doing and what we need residents to do. It’s our most important crisis communication management tool,” said Featherstone, adding that in addition to using traditional media, social media allows information to spread exponentially through retweeting and reposting. It has given the EMD a more direct way of reaching more residents during an emergency or critical event, in real time.

The EMD is not the first public safety agency in Los Angeles to use social media. The Los Angeles Fire Department uses Twitter to post information about incidents and alerts to its more than 10,000 followers.

The Emergency Management Department also has a Facebook fan page with more than 500 friends. It too has seen a spike in subscribers after the recent Japanese power plant emergency.

While events such as the nuclear crisis in Japan tend to heighten public concern and increase their interest in following the EMD’s posts, the most effective use of the EMD’s social media sites has been using them to emphasize the importance of being prepared for any of the natural disasters that characteristically affect Los Angeles such as earthquakes, wildfires, and mud and debris flow from winter storms. Twitter has helped readyla.org — the city’s official readiness, response and recovery website — become a valuable and recognized source of readiness information for Angelenos.

“We believe in messaging over time,” Featherstone said. “During non-emergencies, posting tips on how to prepare for emergencies helps to create a culture of readiness — and readiness is the most powerful tool we have to survive disasters.”

The author, Veronica Hendrix, is a public information officer for the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department.

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