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Good, Better, Best … What Counts?

November 26, 2011

Recent discussions (see here and here) among social media-savvy emergency managers have questioned the value of citing certain efforts or examples as best practices. Their discussions have raised an interesting point. If social media is really all about sharing, isn’t it inevitable that people will compare what other people are doing and draw certain conclusions about what works and what doesn’t? If so, who’s to judge what’s really worth duplicating or developing further?

To some extent, the controversy (if that’s the right word) about “best practices” arose from a project I am working on with colleagues from Manitou, Inc. We’re in the process of developing a curriculum on social media for emergency managers, and the client has asked us to research what they (not us) have characterized as best practices.

As the team has surveyed the social media landscape we have found a very wide range of experience among emergency managers. Some users have developed very sophisticated programs in a short period of time. Others are still dipping toes in the virtual pond, playing with one or two tools to see what works and how. Everyone, geek and newbie alike, is confronting the reality that their communities have become very sophisticated information consumers and producers, which has forced emergency managers to run hard to try and catch up.

I respect the concerns expressed by some that it’s too soon to call something best practice. We certainly risk ridicule if we recognize efforts by the public sector that are still primitive, if not poorly executed, by private sector standards. Even the best efforts will struggle to stay on top in the rapidly shifting sea of social media swirling around us today.

This leaves us on the horns of a dilemma. Where do we turn then for advice and examples? What then should we rely upon to judge the quality of our efforts? If we’re really committed to continuous improvement, how can we measure our progress if we can’t even establish where we’re starting from?

For starters, I agree with several commentators, including Cheryl Bledsoe, that we should start with the basics. What are we trying to accomplish with our social media strategies? Will social media help us deliver better service, improve outcomes or encourage broader participation? And is social media better than alternative means of achieving these ends?

Despite my agreement with this argument, I think the evidence already exists to say the answer to most of these questions, in most instances, is unquestionably, “Yes!” How do we know? First and foremost, almost everyone we have reached out to with any experience using social media in emergency management has made it clear that these tools have several powerful advantages over other approaches: low cost, ease of use, accessibility, and scalability.

Emergency management has benefitted from federal investments in homeland security and preparedness since 9/11. But few of these investments have achieved such widespread adoption or secured as high a degree of community engagement as social media has in the same time period.

It might help to pause here and summarize what the Manitou team has learned so far that’s worth sharing, if not emulating:

  • Social media enhances situational awareness by amplifying the voices of disaster survivors and making their messages accessible to responders;
  • Social media helps emergency managers overcome the limitations of NIMS/ICS by encouraging coordination, cooperation, and collaboration among responders and with their communities;
  • Social media facilitates and encourages participation by providing ordinary people with access to powerful platforms for collecting and sharing emergency information;
  • Social media empowers and enables survivors to meet needs beyond the scope or reach of emergency managers and other responders;
  • Social media mobilizes resources by allowing people outside the affected area to lend support without impacting the efforts of on-scene responders; and
  • Social media allows people to engage one another with empathy.

Although social media has only been on the scene for a short time, we have found compelling examples of good practice associated with every phase of the emergency management process and across many more functions than public information and public affairs. This finding alone merits further exploration.

Almost to a person, those we interviewed started their social media initiatives without official endorsement or sanction. They operated outside the system to make the system better. In the process, they discovered surprisingly quickly that social media makes every element of emergency management more effective by making information and the means of sharing it more easily accessible to everyone. If, as Cheryl Bledsoe suggests, best practices should reflect a certain kind of stability reflected by the ability of a technique to produce consistent results, it would be hard to ignore this fact.

Many of those who initially embraced social media saw it as a more direct and efficient means of communicating messages to the public. But again almost every one of them quickly discovered it can be just as powerful a way of gathering information as spreading it. This too seems like a fact that is difficult to  ignore.

Best practices need not be complicated and should not be intimidating. But they must be valuable and replicable. The simple fact is that best practice in social media for emergency management, at least for the time-being, consists of at least two truths: 1) making information sharing easier and more accessible to everyone improves outcomes and 2) recognizing that the information produced when social media are employed is available to anyone and its effective use is what matters most.

We can wait for measures of their effectiveness to recognize these results. But that may mean missed opportunities. Someone much wiser than me once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 27, 2011 2:39 pm

    A great post … a very succinct way of summarizing the benefits of SM for the EM community, It comes down to the basics: we use the tools our audiences use … and move at the speed they move … or we (emergency management officials) become irrelevant and there is NO worse fate than that.

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