How New Orleans is using social media to prepare for Hurricane Isaac

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How New Orleans is using social media to prepare for Hurricane Isaac

By Matt Wilson | Posted: August 27, 2012
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According to The Weather Channel, Tropical Storm Isaac will make its landfall on the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico sometime Tuesday.

With Hurricane Katrina still fresh in the minds of many in that region, particularly residents of New Orleans, preparedness is the name of the game for big storms such as Isaac. That’s why the city has set up a NOLA Ready website and Twitter account to get information out as it becomes available.

“If the storm does something incredibly crazy, we will react to that, but at this moment there is no plan to evacuate the City of #NOLA,” one tweet announced Monday, followed by this quote from Mayor Mitch Landrieu:

“If you plan to leave, you feel comfortable leaving and you have a place to go, don’t wait. Now would be a good time to go.”

New Orleans officials were, quite understandably, unavailable Monday (a call to City Hall resulted in a busy signal), but local communications professionals mostly said city and state social media efforts in the face of the emergency have been handled well.

What they’re doing right

“The updates are engaging, informative, and timely,” says Sara Estes Cohen, an emergency response and social media strategist in New Orleans. “The profiles also respond to questions and statements easily and quickly.”

Some of the direct responses to citizens have come from the mayor’s Twitter account, often with the intent of correcting misinformation. The NOLA Ready account has mostly been answering questionsabout closings and transit changes.

Estes Cohen particularly says the state’s Twitter account for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness has stayed on top of things well.

“I’ve also noticed that most parishes have mentioned their social media accounts on the news this morning and have been encouraging viewers to sign up for notifications, to check websites, etc.,” she says.

Tripp Frohlichstein of MediaMasters Training says the social media accounts are doing a really nice job of sharing links to information.

“This is great for a large percentage of people in the area,” he says. “However, it must be remembered that there are large numbers of people that don’t have access to social media, or simply don’t use it. So it is important they also use traditional electronic media to keep people updated.”

Jeff Zehnder of New Orleans-based Zehnder Communications says the mayor’s office has done “a stellar job” coordinating communications with parish and state officials to get information out through social media. He adds that the availability of social channels makes it much easier to spread word of what’s happening now, compared with when Katrina hit in 2005.

Potential missteps

Though the city’s social media efforts are thorough, Frohlichstein says they could be a little more personal.

“Perhaps it is implied, but I think it would enhance the efforts of the local and state governments to note that everything they are doing is to keep people safe,” he says.

For example, Frohlichstein points to a tweet from the governor’s emergency preparedness office:

“Gov @BobbyJindal: Authorized activation of up to 4,000 LA Nat’l Guardsmen if necessary for #Isaac; 700 fulltime Guardsmen working today.”

It should maybe read more like this:

“Gov @BobbyJindal: Authorized activation of up to 4,000 LA Nat’l Guardsmen if necessary for #Isaac to make sure we keep people safe and protect their property; 700 fulltime Guardsmen working today.” (That does exceed Twitter’s 140-character limit, but the point Frohlichstein raises is one of tone.)

Communications strategist and former CBS News correspondent David Henderson, who bloggedabout Isaac on Sunday, says he sees the NOLA Ready site and the Twitter accounts as mostly self-serving.

“The [NOLA Ready] website is too wordy, too generic, and too politically correct by presenting all the press releases of the various politicians,” he says. “It seems more about the local politicians than an emergency service for residents.”

Same goes for the Twitter accounts, Henderson opines. Most New Orleans residents will be getting their news by radio.

“Internet penetration in the region is considerably below the national norm, and social media, including Twitter, is even less effective for reaching people in the area,” he says.

Another problem? The NOLA Ready has some information available only in PDF form, which is a sure way no one will read it, Henderson asserts.

Internal emergency comms

What about how businesses in the storm’s path are communicating with employees? SAS doesn’t have any offices directly in Isaac’s immediate path, but it’s seen its share of big storms with offices in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

“As long as it is a life-safety event, all communications are handled by our safety and security team,” says Becky Graebe, SAS’s internal communications manager. “There are communication tools in place for them to automatically post alerts to our intranet home page as a top-of-screen banner. The security team also has an Emergency Notification System that can be used to notify employees in that specific location.”

After the storm, earthquake, or other event is over, communicators post regular updates to the company’s Employee Voices blog and invite employees to offer support, she says.

Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.