When Disaster Strikes, Are You Listening?

The American Red Cross listens in the social media space. It has teams of people ready to be deployed when disaster strikes.

Wendy Harman talks about listening at NonProfit 2.0.

Its Social Media Manager Wendy Harman has conducted training so that staff knows how to be a subject matter expert. She’s even developed a social media handbook (and has said we can use it!).

Most of her social media posts are intended to make the organization’s mission more known. “We like to have fun nerdiness with our posts,” she told the NonProfit 2.0 audience recently.

But, of course, there is a serious side to her job. And that’s getting the word out about disaster efforts. At 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, Wendy and the Red Cross “put into practice everything we did before.”

That included Facebook updates and interviewing a subject matter expert on Haiti in front of a world map with a flip cam so they could post the video interview.

At the start of a crisis, the Red Cross may have limited information. “Even if we don’t know anything,” Wendy said, “we acknowledge that something is going on.”

Ironically, Wendy said that on Jan. 11, she was feeling frustrated about social media. “We weren’t moving the needle on people taking action.”

All that changed after the earthquake struck. By 9:38 p.m. on Jan. 12 the Red Cross had set up text mobile giving through the State Department. By the next morning, 3 million people had made donations via their phones.

“We just had to tweet about it one time,” Wendy said. The White House also tweeted once about the mobile giving option.

“The rest was the American public,” Wendy said. “We were seeing an unprecedented mobile giving phenomenon.”

From then on it was about keeping the information churning and the public information push in the social world, she said.

In the aftermath, Wendy said the biggest lesson learned was that social media wasn’t “just fun and games anymore.”

“We really can do something here,” she said.

She learned about a group trapped under a supermarket. “They could hear the rescue workers, but the workers couldn’t hear them. But they were tweeting,” Wendy said.

Despite efforts, the group later perished.

What will change for the Red Cross, Wendy said, is that “we’re going to let the public come in and tell us where we need to mobilize. In the past we relied heavily on disaster teams.”

Wendy said in the future, for her, social media is going to be about tearing down the wall and “being really informed, really becoming  a facilitator.”

It’s her goal, and it’s a worthy one.

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