Presenters at NPHIC meeting

Tom Christensen, with San Diego County Health and Human Services, and Monique Davis, with New Jersey’s Hudson Regional Health Commission, discuss using social media during emergencies with an attendee at the National Public Health Information Coalition Symposium in Chicago this week. Photo by David Fouse

When the power went out in San Diego in September 2011, residents weren’t left completely in the dark. With traditional communications channels such as television news hamstrung during the citywide blackout, health officials turned to social media to help 3.2 million San Diegans stay informed during the emergency.

“Social media allowed us to interact directly with the public,” said Tom Christensen, communications specialist with San Diego County Health and Human Services, when describing the agency’s response during a presentation at this week’s meeting of the National Public Health Information Coalition in Chicago. For instance, when news outlets couldn’t broadcast situation updates from the official news conference, Christensen live-tweeted the event.

Likewise, when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the Northeast last October, local health officials tweeted and posted to Facebook to update the public on the emergency and mobilize volunteers. The storm, which brought high winds and 12-foot storm surges to Hudson County, N.J., knocked out power in some areas for up to 14 days, reported Monique Davis, health educator/risk communicator for the Hudson Regional Health Commission.

Lack of power limited communications options and presented unique challenges for many residents in keeping their cell phones charged, said Davis. But where people had access, the mobile technology provided important communications channels that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.

When communicating about emergencies in San Diego, New Jersey and other regions, social media has become an increasingly valuable asset in the public health communicator’s toolkit. But as presenters at today’s NPHIC session pointed out, there are several best practices to keep in mind.

  • Build your audience before disaster strikes. Whether you’re on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, your message can only be received if people are following you. “You’ve got to have that audience before you need to communicate with them in an emergency,” said Laura Oxley, communications director for the Arizona Department of Health Services.
  • Prepare for crisis. Share tips in advance to help educate residents about possible emergencies. Christensen said his agency regularly tweets tips about the importance of having an emergency kit and having an evacuation route should people need to flee their homes.
  • Communicate during the crisis. When extreme heat struck the Phoenix area this summer, the health department reminded residents to stay cool, stay hydrated and stay informed, Oxley said. The department developed videos about keeping kids safe during times of extreme temperatures and heat safety for adults. They’re developing a third video about heat safety for outdoor workers.
  • Follow up in the aftermath. Once Sandy’s wrath had subsided, Davis said her agency tweeted tips about road closures, open pharmacies and safe generator use, and retweeted tips and guidance from partner agencies such as the local chapter of the American Red Cross, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  • Don’t forget traditional communications channels. In an emergency situation, social media makes a great partner with traditional media to get your message quickly to as many people as possible, noted Christensen. But remember, Davis said, “Not all of us are on social media.”