Weathering the Storm: Preparing a Social Media Plan for Emergencies

On Friday, August 26th, Hurricane Harvey touched land in Rockport, Texas. It had already wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and it was about to devastate the coastline of the U.S. By the time it spun itself out, it had caused 125 billion dollars in damage – one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.  

Time Magazine called it The U.S.’s First Social Media Storm.

During the hurricane, people took to social media by the thousands, using hashtags like #sosHarvey and #helphouston to flag citizen rescuers instead of using official emergency channels. As the towns and cities in Harvey’s path flooded with rain,  Facebook and Twitter flooded with pictures, videos, pleas for assistance and constant commentary.

Harvey showed us that, for better or worse, the online environment is just as affected by disasters and emergencies as the physical landscape.   

Of course, you hope never to face that kind of crisis. But from wildfires to floods to civic emergencies, the possibility that you might is ever-present. The last thing you want is to be caught without a plan during an emergency.  As an individual, you want to be prepared to respond to an emergency with all your supplies ready and in place. As a business owner, you want to think about how you use social media during a crisis as well: You want your online emergency response to be beneficial to you, your community and your clients.

So how do you prepare a social media plan to weather the storm?

  1. Make sure you have emergency protocols in place. Be clear on what steps you’ll take and who you’ll contact.

  2. Be informed; know where to get official, reliable information. Social media is the wild west at the best of times and, during a crisis, it’s worse. Have a list of reliable sources like your local police or fire department, the Forest Service, Red Cross, FEMA and other established emergency services and responders that you can turn to in dire times.

  3. Establish when you will respond publicly.  If your business can provide a real service during an emergency, you may want to be online and make it available as soon as possible. Otherwise, it’s best to wait and evaluate the situation.  

  4. Establish how you will respond publicly.  Have an idea of what you want to say given the situation: “if the incident is this, I’ll do that”. While it may be tempting to publish videos of your storefront window being blown out, consider the impact that information will have on your clients and community. Is it useful or adding to the sense of disaster or panic? Is it insensitive or crass? If you have a reason to reach out and offer help or service or consolation, consider who you want to reach and how that message will land. Be aware of how you and your business look and the impact you’re having.

  5. Determine ahead of time which types of incidents will affect your brand and your clients.  Not every crisis will impact you or your customers directly.  Formulate plans for those that will and those that won’t. Be prepared to respond to concerns and questions in ways that are clear and helpful.

  6. Stay on brand with your social media presence, even during an emergency. This can sound superfluous or even mercenary, but during a crisis people take comfort in being able to count on constancy and familiarity. Don’t freak out and add to the chaos. After an emergency, people need to know that their community can still function and services are still available.  A disaster can have deep economic effects. Being on brand and maintaining your brand voice and image can help offset the damage and help speed recovery.

As Hurricane Harvey showed, social media is becoming a crucial way of communicating during a crisis, from calls for help to disaster relief to rebuilding. That means it’s increasingly important to know how you want to be a part of that response during a disaster. By creating smart social media protocols, you can participate during a crisis in a way that’s thoughtful, on-brand and sets you and your local economy up for recovery.

Christie Osborne is the owner of Mountainside Media, a company that helps event industry professionals brands develop scalable marketing strategies that brings in more inquiries and leads. Christie is a national educator with recent speaking engagements at NACE Experience, WIPA and the ABC Conference.


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