HOW EMERGENCY SERVICES CAN HARNESS THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA

For blue light services, whether it’s police, fire, rescue and ambulance services or other first responders, communications are a critical function.

These emergency first responders are adept at handling crises if and when they arrive. But the emergency services network can either be enhanced or undermined through the way it handles its critical external communications.

External communications and media relations have changed drastically in recent years, as the prevalence of social media means it’s now commonplace for blue light services to have their own social media accounts.

The power of social media

When used properly, social media can be a tool for good. Social media accounts can be used to tremendous effect, either as tools to spread real-time information on an ongoing incident, as a form of media management and engagement or as community-building tools.

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In the case of media management, it’s important for the emergency services network to possess an element of control over the way a story is communicated.

It could be an ongoing investigation or a breaking major incident, but if the emergency services are involved then it’s more than likely the media will soon follow. If we also consider that with a smartphone, any member of the public has the ability to be a reporter, we see how important a function social media can serve to support resilient mission-critical communications.

Getting ahead of a story is critical in crisis management. Particularly as reporters can take incidents and occurrences out of context, social media can be used to form the basis of a story and act as ‘ground zero’ for all communications.

Emergency services communications: first responders, responding first

The most important communication moment in any crisis situation is the very beginning. Timing is everything and how you initially respond will dictate the tone and state of play for the remainder of the engagement.

Measured responses, timed to perfection will ease the initial media attention. Taking the spotlight off groundworkers and setting the standard for good clean communications channels between emergency services communications and media.

How this is achieved on social media can vary. This could be a written response, a recorded or even a live video. Weigh up the gravity and severity of the crises and respond accordingly, it’s important to neither overstate nor underplay the response.

Critical communications: rapid information dispersal

It is crucial not to ignore this first step. From a media perspective, a crisis is a significant news source and from a critical communications perspective, you need to have control over the messaging.

Being tardy in response can often lead to a situation whereby a breaking story is covered in the media, or worse picked up by a member of the public. You do not want to be in a situation where the media is reporting on crises in a vacuum. Nor do you want to be handling a crisis in one.

Equally, getting social media can be a helpful tool for rapid information dispersal.

Managing an emergent news agenda 

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In an emergency situation, there is likely to be an emergent agenda. As the story evolves, it is the responsibility of comms teams to be fully linked with media outlets, ensuring that messages are appropriately conveyed and the emergent agenda is appropriately reported.

Social media can prove an incredibly useful tool in the real-time dissemination of information. When a crisis pivots or an emergent agenda appears, then using social media to ‘break news’ is a good way of getting information out fast.

On Twitter, for example, media outlets can also be tagged into emergent agenda posts. Media outlets regularly monitor Twitter for regional mentions, so this can sometimes be a more effective way to break news, than spending time drafting, signing off and issuing press releases.

Social in safety advisory groups

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Round-table exercises can be a useful media training tool within one or multiple blue light service ecosystems. These are often used in the run-up to a known event or gathering, which has the potential to provide crises.

This could be anything from a regional parish event, a huge music festival or a major international summit. A major festival will, for example, work with its Safety Advisory Group (SAG) to work through round-tables, with all emergency services and stakeholders, on a series of scenarios that may occur during the said event. They will likely do so with a Gold, Silver, and Bronze command structure.

Comms play an important part in these structures, but considering how social media sits within this structure as a key communications driver should definitely be considered.

Community engagement

The practicalities of sharing instant information aside, social media can also be used as a tremendous community-building tool. It doesn’t matter if it’s one of the most remote areas of the UK or one of the most densely populated areas of a city, there’s still a community aspect to what the emergency services do.

In this sense, social media can be used to tremendous effect. Be it communicating initiatives and campaigns, sharing information about individual members of an emergency services network (ESN), building trust and faith within a community and general enhancing and increasing the presence of the emergency services. When taking this community outlook, social media can also be used from a support services standpoint, whereby general queries and comments can be responded to by members of ESN.

Social in rural communities

These communities mean a smaller population, perhaps spread across a rural landscape or maybe even bunched together in a small, or series of spread-out villages.

In this instance, while the communities themselves tend to be much more tight-knit, the dispersion of information can often be slower than in a more urban community. Where blue light services can benefit from social media use here, is in the quick release of information, for the benefit of the community-at-large.

Social in urban communities

Emergency services networks in urban communities face a very different set of challenges. Large populations, perhaps covering many backgrounds, languages and creeds, can create hard-to-reach sub-communities where blue light presence is few and far between.

Where boots-on-the-ground presence may be lacking, a strong digital presence can be used to boost engagement and harness a stronger community.

Social media training

There are many ways in which emergency services networks can reap the benefits of social media training.

Whether that’s tuning up for fast and agile communications, practising the art of online community engagement, and learning how social can connect communities with the wider ESN.

Social media training can even be used to workshop certain techniques and practices. This could be the round-tabling of specific public safety scenarios, modelling how a new emergency services network can embed into an existing community, creating strategies around how to liaise on social with other organizations, or creating a model of a rigorous process to implement how a network manages its channels.

Find out how you can boost your social media here. Book a half an hour call to navigate your social media strategy at [email protected].