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The Risk Communicator

Issue 1 (August 20, 2008)

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Photo of girl using mobile phoneSocial Media and Your Emergency Communication Efforts

From cell phones to YouTube, new and exciting innovations in technology benefit the field of risk communication. Not only are they changing the landscape for information sharing, they are also influencing how communicators could plan for emergency situations. This article reviews the recent research and examines various opinions about social media and their impact on crisis and emergency risk communication.

In her blog "Crisis Management in the Year 2007 and Beyond," Toby Bloomberg writes, "Crisis management must incorporate processes and systems that reach people in ways in which they communicate."1

Until recently, communicators relied solely on traditional media vehicles such as radio, newspapers, posters, brochures, and television to push risk messages to the public. With the advent of the Internet, risk communicators began modernizing their communications channels and adopting first-generation social media tools, including e-mail, Web sites, and online instant messaging as a means for connecting with their audiences.

With the "Web 2.0 Revolution" toward social media, risk communicators are again adapting to a changing society of media-savvy consumers who not only seek information, but also generate information of their own on sites such as YouTube, Flickr, and MySpace, substantially contributing to new content.2, 3 Now, practitioners consider the impact of blogs, RSS feeds, wikis, online and mobile video, podcasts, and other new media networks and communications as critical components of their emergency and crisis preparedness, response, and recovery strategies.

Data collected by comScore Video Metrix, a provider of Internet audience measurement services, reveal that today, more than 184 million Americans (over 75 percent of the population) are Internet users. In November 2007 alone, 3 out of 4 Web users viewed online video, including streaming video and progressive downloads, totaling nearly 9.5 billion videos. YouTube accounted for 2.9 billion videos and 74.5 million unique visitors. Since January 2007, online viewing hours per person has increased 29 percent from 2.52 hours to 3.25 hours per month.4 Technorati, an Internet search engine for searching blogs, photos, videos, and audio files, currently tracks more than 112 million blogs.5

Although social media channels such as YouTube, blogs, and podcasts are considered by most as a means for delivering entertainment and personal opinions, communicators should also consider their relative importance in reaching their audience segments during an emergency. "The social and community qualities of new media can advance health and risk communication by changing how we understand our problems and construct our solutions," shared Jay Bernhardt, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Director, National Center for Health Marketing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in his Health Marketing Musings Blog entry entitled "This blog could save your life."6

The value of social media in emergency communication became apparent in the aftermath of the April 2007 tragic school shootings at Virginia Tech University. This horrific event has caused many practitioners to argue that social media channels should be incorporated in every communicator's crisis and emergency risk communication plan to extend audience reach. According to reports, the university relied on e-mail, the Web, and messages sent to dorm phones to alert students of the shootings. One method that was not available: sending text messages to cell phones.7 Some believe that students would have been better able to protect themselves had this technology been used, especially for this generation, which is more engaged in SMS (sending text messages via cell phone) than in sending and receiving e mails. University officials are now considering using text messaging to stay in contact with students for whom even e-mail is becoming passé.7

Throughout the Virginia Tech event, students used new media to reach out to others with information they wanted to share. According to news reports, after becoming aware of the incident, students communicated with their family and peers about their safety using telephones and social media networking services. A YouTube search reveals approximately 9,000 postings tagged with a combination of "Virginia Tech" and "shooting," "massacre," and "murder." Jamal Albarghouti, a student at the school, captured video from his cell phone camera of police firing at the then-unknown gunman and posted it to CNN i-Reports.8 The perpetrator, Cho Seung-Hui, mailed a package with videos and photos to NBC, expecting them to be broadcast and downloaded from the Web.

During the shootings, so many people used cell and wireless communications that the system became overwhelmed. In his blog, "Virginia Tech: Yet Another Wake-Up Call for Better Emergency Preparedness," Andy Carvin, Internet activist, author, Edtech expert, and host of At the Crossroads of Internet and Education, reprints Bruce Pencek's e-mail, which was posted on MySpace following the Virginia Tech tragedy. Pencek was a student at Virginia Tech and was on campus during the time of the shooting. In his e-mail Pencek states, "Communication of the event was very much a case of who had a cell phone or wireless device before the bandwidth got constipated."7 The activities of all three students appear to corroborate the opinions that social media should be integrated into risk communication plans.

According to Sheldon Krimsky, Ph.D, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, "The openness, accessibility, and transparency of the Internet will allow consumers to weigh conflicts of interest in risk communication, question authority, and build networks of trust among affinity groups that may or may not be concordant with the perspectives of technical decision analysts."3 The Internet has given average citizens access to professional journals and government reports, increased power to question authority, the ability to witness debates regarding various issues through blogs, and the opportunity to participate in chat room discussions where they exchange ideas with people with similar interests but whose ideas may not necessarily be the same as those of subject matter experts.

Many state and local government agencies now are creating their own social networking sites in response. In February 2008, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management launched a YouTube channel to reach Virginia citizens with emergency-related information and public service announcements from Governor Tim Kaine.9 The site was developed in partnership with Google.

Conversations and information-seeking during an emergency event will continue to occur in the social media sphere. A sound strategy that includes using social media channels where audiences are already sharing and seeking information will help emergency risk communicators reach those audiences with critical information they need to protect themselves and others during and after emergencies.

The Risk Communicator staff is interested in hearing about your experiences with social media. Send your stories to


1Bloomberg T. Crisis management in the year 2007 and beyond. Diva Marketing Blog; 2007 [cited 2008 June 2]. Available from:

2Lefebvre CR. The new technology: The consumer as participant rather than target audience. Soc Mar Q. 2007;13(3):31-42.

3Krimsky, S. Risk communication in the Internet age: The rise of disorganized skepticism, Environmental Hazards 2007;7:157-164.
Available from:

4comScore Video Metrix. Google sites' share of online video market expands to 31 percent in November 2007, according to comScore Video Metrix. Reston, VA: comScore; 2008 [cited 2008 June 2]. Available from: San Francisco, CA: Technorati [cited 2008 June 2]. Available from:

6Bernhardt JM. Health marketing musings: This blog could save your life. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2006 [cited 2008 June 2]. Available from: Virginia Tech: Yet another wake-up call for better emergency preparedness. Arlington, VA: PBS; 2007 [cited 2008 June 2]. Available from:
yet_another_wake.html Student shot video of campus shooting. Atlanta, GA: CNN; 2007 [cited 2008 June 2]. Available from:

9Virginia Department of Emergency Management. VAEmergency. Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Emergency Management;2007 [cited 2008 June 2]. Available from:

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