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Boston’s Experience with Social Media Is Key During Emergencies

March 5th, 2014 by Guest Communications

Written by: Jim McKay

During the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent search for the perpetrators, Boston Police Department tweets in effect became the official source of information for everyone, including the media, especially after numerous reports by the press turned out to be false. By the time suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was holed up in a boat, the media had turned to Boston police tweets as an official source of information.

The police department’s work with Twitter didn’t happen just as a consequence of the event, but was a continuation of a community policing policy, so Twitter was a familiar avenue for the department. Response via social media to the bombings, the February 2013 blizzard and other events were products of an already-engaged following and further cemented the city’s proclivity toward social media.

In May 2012, the city established its social media office within the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) and a team that extends to 100 social media liaisons across 51 departments. A “lengthy” internal policy for Boston social media liaison conduct was developed (along with an external one) to change the way people exchange information in the city.

The Bombings

When the bombs went off on Boylston Street near the finish line of the marathon, traditional means of communication were quickly overwhelmed and to communicate with citizens, the police department immediately went to Twitter. “Folks thought that we had jammed signals with concerns about bombs, but that’s not what happened,” said Cheryl Fiandaca, bureau chief of public information for the Boston Police Department. “It was a volume of calls. You would get a call, but it would drop off. There was just too much for the towers to handle.”

Police immediately began requesting via Twitter that people evacuate the finish line area, that there were injured people who needed assistance and that if there were video and photos taken in the area to please send them in. When the bombs went off, the police Twitter account had 55,000 followers. Three hours later, that number had grown to 100,000. At the end of the ordeal, the total was close to 300,000.

“We took a leadership role in letting people know what was happening, which helped reduce the fear because people just didn’t know,” Fiandaca said. “They didn’t know if it was a terrorist attack or a chemical explosion; no one knew.”

Obviously there were volumes of information on social media, some of it accurate and some of it not even close to accurate. “That was a challenge,” Fiandaca said. “It was one of those situations where it’s impossible to figure out how you can handle a situation like it until it happens.”

Boston worked with the FBI to manage all the information, photos and videos being sent in and to correct inaccuracies. “We corrected misinformation; we asked people to look at pictures and let us know if they’d seen these folks,” Fiandaca said. “We tried to be as careful as we could with the information we were putting out and vet everything so we didn’t make mistakes.”

During the manhunt, they also asked citizens to not give away the locations where law enforcement was searching and asked people to shelter in place. It was received with vast cooperation as residents began to rely on the police department’s tweets for official information.

One of the keys was the department’s familiarity with the social media following it had already developed. “We realized that we were fortunate that we already had the infrastructure set up, so we already had a Twitter account, a blog and a Facebook page,” Fiandaca said. “If we hadn’t had that in place and hadn’t been using it in a substantial way, I think we would have been at a terrible loss during that time.”

During the marathon, Twitter donated a promoted campaign, where designated tweets were elevated as a global trend to extend their reach. Such promotion is usually used for advertising. Also during this time, the city launched The One Fund Boston to assist victims and received $5 million in individual donations digitally.

Already Engaged

Having that infrastructure in place citywide has allowed Boston to get ahead of events, including severe weather like the blizzard.

Even before the storm hit, about 48 hours before, Lindsay Crudele, community and social technology strategist for DoIT, started developing a social media kit — including an official hashtag — and began to outline safety and preparation information that was updated and repeated throughout the days leading up to the blizzard. Crudele embedded with a call center to take over the NotifyBoston hotline Twitter feed to get the information out to constituents.

“That was the case throughout the blizzard,” she said. “An around-the-clock operation with all members of City Hall’s operations team, and we stayed on course until it was time to return to regular day-to-day operations.”

Understanding that social media is a visual platform, staff used many “sharable PSAs” during the blizzard. It’s a self-contained graphic that people can click on to access critical information. “We did that a lot during the blizzard. A lot of that was seeing that there were complaints about driveways that weren’t shoveled, so we included PSAs that spoke to how to shovel a driveway or whose responsibility it might be.”

Crudele is the communication point for all of the liaisons and during an emergency can access the cloud-based Boston accounts from anywhere to get started. “In each case I have my enterprise social media management tool [HootSuite] in place,” she said, “and in one case I was able to start doing updates literally from a car moving down the highway.”

All of that was made easier by the fact that there was already a social media footprint left by DoIT and that was born from a strategy to engage constituents every day in a two-way conversation.

The creation of the social media office was an acknowledgment that social media was a viable way to reach constituents where they were. “We found quickly there was real value for the city in creating more consistency and professionalism around our use of social media,” said Bill Oates, then Boston CIO. “It really helps on day-to-day issues. Every day with all the things that are going on in the city, social media is a critical component of how we talk to our constituents at all department levels and how we listen.”

“We work hard on this every day,” said Oates who was recently named Massachusetts’ state CIO. “We do interesting, engaging initiatives through social media. Every time you do it, you’re adding followers and participants so that when something happens and you have to take it to the next level, we know how to have a conversation.”

An example is the city’s archaeologist who posts visual updates of his digs and the things he finds on Facebook. You can literally see underground through his posts. In March, the city will look at data to try to anticipate problems or trends such as complaints about potholes. “We know to anticipate complaints related to potholes,” Crudele said. “So instead of waiting for those to roll in, we acknowledge that this is the way the pavement behaves so let’s get in front of it with a social media campaign.”

The day-to-day use that develops a familiarity both with staff and constituents is key to being able to transition from everyday messaging to emergency situations. “A really key tenet of my social media strategy is daily engagement. It’s a daily two-way engagement so that we don’t have to work in the midst of an emergency to bring people aboard; they’ve already been a part of the conversation,” Crudele said. “Whether you’re talking about your internal social liaison team or how we educate the public about how to engage with us and reach us, in the middle of the emergency is not the time to work on this.”

In addition to the daily interaction, Crudele conducts weekly meetings she calls the City Hall social club. They’re in-depth, one-hour group training sessions. The meetings cover Twitter and Facebook best practices and understanding social media policies to make sure the liaisons are on the same page.

The trainings expand on the official policies that were unveiled in May 2012 when the social media office emerged. Those policies include the process of setting up accounts that are officially branded and linked to the Boston city website; ensuring the accounts are easily accessible to the public so they’re not confused during an emergency. The trainings also cover how to break news, constituent relations and best practices. “During the marathon, there was a lot of mixed information out there and it was really important that we were clearly identified as an official city of Boston source,” Crudele said.

In fact, early in the hunt for the bombing suspects, news outlets were falsely announcing that suspects had been brought into custody, which the police department corrected via Twitter. “That was a big turnaround from the beginning of the week,” Fiandaca said. “Early in the week, everyone was trying to report and put out information as best they could. We all know these situations are fluid, you get misinformation and things are not as they appear.”

That solidified, in the minds of Boston residents, the police department’s tweets as official word. It carried over into the World Series and the parade that followed. After Game 6, Boston police knew the situation outside of Fenway Park could get dangerous as scores of people left the stadium and others congregated outside to celebrate. Seven people were arrested after Game 6, and the police tweeted out, “Seven people arrested, don’t be number eight, #Gohome.” There were no arrests during the parade.

This article was written by Jim McKay, editor of Emergency Management magazine, and can be viewed online at:

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