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Leveraging Digital Communications in Emergencies


What’s Inside

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When you need to reach as many citizens and stakeholders as possible in an urgent situation, what do you do? Most likely, you reach for digital communications, like your organization’s website. But does your organization have the foundation and tools in place to reach thousands of people immediately with the right messages to ensure public safety? In this e-book, you’ll learn essential strategies and tactics your organization can implement to provide much needed information to the public while making a measurable impact in urgent situations.

Section 1: Preventive Measures: Outreach

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Expand your reach through email subscribers, widgets and social media. Lay the foundation for critical outreach by connecting with citizens and stakeholders before emergencies while focusing on preparedness and safety.

Section 2: Digital Emergency Communications

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Maximize your digital properties and engage with your stakeholders consistently by utilizing all available digital communication tools in relaying emergency information.

Section 3: Resources A list of resources used in this e-book including some additional resources on emergency communications.

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Section 1 Preventive Measures: Outreach


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Preventive Measures: Outreach

Expand Your Reach. Before you can leverage digital communications in urgent situations, you need to reach as many people as possible. As a government organization communicating about emergencies or disasters, your organization will be most effective when your messages are reaching as broad an audience as possible. Why? The more stakeholders receive your message, the more likely it is that they will be safe and prepared when an emergency does occur. So, before you need to reach your citizens and stakeholders during an emergency, you should take preventive measures and expand your digital outreach. Here are three easy steps to expand your reach.

1 Having a robust email list of citizens or residents is critical in an emergency situation. It’s important to get the word out as quickly and broadly as possible in an emergency, and part of your strategy should be to leverage outside communication channels, such as local and national television and radio. But it’s just as important to connect directly with your audience, and one of the best ways to do that is through email.

92%

of adults use email. Source: Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

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Preventive Measures: Outreach

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The first thing you need to do is to put email subscription areas on your major digital properties: your website, blog, social media channels, etc. Having a prominent sign-up box for updates from your organization on the home page will help you gain more email subscribers easily. Extend this same tactic to your blogs and social media channels.

Add to your homepage

Highlight on emergency pages

Go further by adding sign-up areas to secondary pages that tie to departments within your organization that may need to communicate advisory notices or emergency alerts. For the City of Minneapolis, this may mean calling out the option to sign-up for snow emergency updates on their Snow Season web pages. Or, this may mean providing clear call-outs for citizens and residents to subscribe to updates from police departments or public safety officials.


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Preventive Measures: Outreach

Recent analysis of GovDelivery subscription rates to UK local government clients clearly shows that there is considerably more activity between the months of November and February, and it’s no surprise this period coincides with winter service disruptions. (Interestingly, the majority of new subscribers during this period subscribe to multiple topics of interest, including school closures, missed bins, council tax updates and local events. Even obscure service areas, such as Pest Control, get multiple subscribers.)

Source: GovDelivery Reach the Public Blog Post

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Preventive Measures: Outreach

By having sign-up boxes in major areas of your digital channels, your organization can start building its citizen contact lists long before an emergency. Also, consider asking citizens, residents and stakeholders for their zip codes or physical addresses when collecting their email addresses. With the right tools and technology, you can segment this data easily and quickly. In advisory or urgent situations, this kind of segmentation is critical. It lets you reach the right people with the right message, so the citizens that will be the most affected receive your messages, encouraging broader engagement. For an in-depth guide on leveraging email for government-tocitizen communications, download Public Sector Digital Communications Best Practices: The Critical Role of Email.

Download the Email Guide

Ask residents to identify their zip codes

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Preventive Measures: Outreach

2 It’s impossible to have a conversation about expanding your digital communications outreach without including a section on social media. Social media has moved far beyond a simple trend into a pervasive way of life and is now a critical communications tool for many people. How can you expand your outreach via social media? Take an integrated approach. If you have a list of email subscribers, send out an email asking them to follow you on Twitter or Pinterest, like your Facebook page, add you to their circles on Google+, etc. But remember, you also need to offer them a compelling reason to take this action. When asking a stakeholder to take an action on a social media channel, remind them why it’s a good idea. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) use of social media to communicate during Hurricane Isaac is a great example. A recent article on NextGov highlighted how FEMA, the White House and the National Weather Service (NWS) all used Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about the storm as well as offer tips on how to prepare for the disaster. This kind of compelling content offers the public a reason to connect with government organizations on social media.

Get the word out with Social Media

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Preventive Measures: Outreach

Consistently remind the public of your social media presence. This may mean having a social media page on your website, linking to the different channels your organization uses. Consider including your social media handles and links to your social media pages on your external communications – press releases, newsletters, news articles, and more.

Finally, provide a seamless integration for your outreach efforts. Your email subscription process should offer subscribers the ability to share their subscription actions with their social media networks. For example, Driving Standards Agency (DSA) in the UK offers all email subscribers the chance to share with their Facebook and Twitter friends that they signed up for email updates from DSA. Or remind your social media followers and fans to sign up for email updates to get the latest news beyond 140 characters.

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Preventive Measures: Outreach

3 Earlier, we discussed FEMA using Twitter to distribute information during Hurricane Isaac. But even in non-emergency times, your organization should build relationships with your stakeholders to remind them of your presence. This helps your organization build trust with your audiences, so when an emergency does strike, your messages will go to the top of the must-read pile. For example, FEMA promotes National Preparedness Month in September every year, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t communicate with stakeholders who are interested in preparedness until September. They provide preparedness tips and remind stakeholders about how to help others be more prepared in the event of an emergency. This helps FEMA further its reputation as a trusted source of information.

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Preventive Measures: Outreach

Technology has evolved drastically, and thankfully, getting the word out is not nearly as cumbersome as it used to be. Beyond growing your email list and sending out consistent communications, you can expand your reach by offering easy access to your organization’s updates. There are many ways to do this, but one that has been highly effective is the use of widgets. Widgets can be set up to automatically update with official content from your government organization, be branded for your organization, and be easily embedded in other websites or digital properties. This can be especially useful if you can partner with online media and newspapers or local neighborhood organizations. They can embed your organization’s widget on their websites or blogs, instantly giving your information more reach.

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Preventive Measures: Outreach

In addition, you can add a call-out box to sign up for updates on the widget itself, so even if a citizen or resident is not on your organization’s website, they can still sign up to receive information from you. A great example is the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a service within the US Department of Agriculture tasked with “ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.” In fulfilling their mission, there are times when they need to get the word out about an unsafe food item as quickly and broadly as possible.

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Section 2 Digital Emergency Communications


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Digital Emergency Communications

Now that your organization has a firm strategy to increase outreach, you can leverage those connections at any point, including at the most crucial times: emergencies. With increasingly smarter technology that can deliver communications instantly, your organization can help the public and your stakeholders be more informed and stay safer.

1 While email, text messaging and social media are a major part of emergency digital communications, one of the first places the public will go to seek information in urgent situations is online. They look for information via the web, whether they’re using their computer or a mobile device. That means the first thing you should do is to maximize your digital properties. Update your organization’s website and blogs with official information. For Hurricane Sandy, FEMA prominently displayed their updates on their website.

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Digital Emergency Communications

Additionally, in emergency situations, the public is highly engaged with government, looking to organizations like yours to provide up-to-date information. Make sure it’s as easy as possible for citizens visiting your website, blog(s) and social media pages to sign up for your communications so they can get updates or additional information after their initial visit online. Offer them the option to sign up for updates via email, text messaging, voice notifications, etc., so they can receive new information when you release it instead of having to continually check your website for information. If your organization has a robust multichannel communications system, you should be able to update your website and, with the right kinds of integration, push out email communications and text messages at the same time.

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Digital Emergency Communications

2 Don’t forget that there are other channels you can leverage to get the word out in the event of an emergency. In President Barack Obama’s public address during Hurricane Sandy, he directed citizens to Ready.gov to get up-to-date preparation and safety information on Hurricane Sandy. If your organization is holding a press conference or being featured through any media outlets, be sure to promote your communications and the ways citizens can subscribe to get updates via digital communications. Somerset County Prepares for Hurricane Sandy

In an emergency, the ability to reach a broad audience is crucial, and your organization shouldn’t ignore the change to push the public to directly connect with your organization via news outlets and journalists.

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Digital Emergency Communications

3 Finally, leverage your connections to keep the public informed and safe during an emergency, utilizing all the tools available to your organization. While your organization’s website may be the central hub for communications, it’s important to recognize that people need information pushed to them during emergency situations. During Hurricane Sandy, government employees with Somerset County, New Jersey found that their website was down. In the meantime, in the days during and following the storm, government officials used email and text alerts to get the word out about the hurricane, keeping citizens and residents safe and informed.

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Digital Emergency Communications

In another example, the City of Minneapolis leveraged a number of digital communication tools, from emails to text messages and social media, to alert and respond to residents after a tornado caused major damage to the north side of the city. Email alerts were sent to city subscribers informing them of severe weather and warning non-locals to avoid the area to prevent interference with first responders. Continuous posts were made to the city’s social media channels, such as Facebook. In addition, since the city has a subscriber system that allows residents to identify their zip codes to receive specific update that focus on their precinct, the city was able to quickly tailor alerts to areas that needed information, including directly informing citizens in the affected areas about local rescue and relief efforts.

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Digital Emergency Communications

In another part of the country, Kitsap County, Wash., has turned to Twitter and other digital communication outlets to reach residents. In January, Seattle was faced with a major two-day ice storm that grounded planes and left many roads dangerous to travel. A Kitsap County official was stranded in the Seattle-Tacoma airport, which had lost its Internet service. However, the official was able to use his smartphone to access digital communications tools, including social media, and was able to continue sending out timely messages about road closures and other pertinent information. Messages were sent simultaneously to subscribers who had indicated interest in topics such as road reports, inclement weather, front-page news and emergency management, thereby increasing the reach of the message. The salient messages also were posted to Facebook and Twitter, further magnifying the reach of the updates by further spreading to followers’ friends and social groups.

As a result of this proactive “pushing out” of the message, county officials reported that their call center—which generally receives up to 1,800 calls a day during inclement weather—recorded only 310 calls the first day, and 420 the second. After the storm subsided, the county reported a significant increase in both subscribers and social media followers.

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Digital Emergency Communications

When a “hurricane-level� storm struck the Washington D.C. area, social media and other tools were used not only to push out information to the public but to engage stakeholders in the area and rally the communities hit by the storm. Local Facebook posts from citizens announced their willingness to help others who had lost power during the event. The local power company also provided continuous updates on the process of restoring electricity to affected areas. And finally, a local couple reached out to an area news station via Twitter to say that they had lost power and were in trouble because the loss complicated a pre-existing medical issue. The station re-tweeted the information, and local Stafford County officials responded directly to the couple via Twitter to offer assistance.

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Digital Emergency Communications

Conclusion It’s clear that the public has come to rely on digital communications, especially social media, to connect and share information. Government communicators should be prepared to leverage these tools to effectively communicate with stakeholders, especially in times of emergencies. In addition to the public’s growing tendency to gravitate toward social media in times of crisis, social media channels address some key challenges to effective communication, including enabling mass distribution of messages and, with the proliferation of mobile devices, facilitating communication in the absence of power. Reaching the public through fundamental digital communication tools, like email, and through newer channels, like text messages and social media, is now indispensable in managing times of crisis and in protecting citizens during severe weather and other dangerous situations.

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Section 3 Resources


Resources

This e-book only touches on some of the fundamentals of digital communications in an emergency. Here are some resources to delve deeper into this subject. • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) • National Prepardness Month • Ready.gov • GovLoop Digital Communications Group • A Social Storm • Reach the Public: Public sector thought leadership • GovDelivery Digital Communications Management Email Guide • Severe Weather and Social Media: How effective are you? • As Isaac Hits, Agencies Take to Social Media • Emergency Management magazine • International Association of Emergency Managers • National Emergency Management Association Interested in finding solutions and tools that can help you better manage your emergency communications with digital technology? Email GovDelivery at info@govdelivery.com to find out why more than 550 government organizations worldwide trust us to communicate with their stakeholders.

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Leveraging Digital Communications in Emergencies