Urgent Matters

Social media: Uncharted waters for government


Social-media outlets like Twitter and Facebook have become valuable tools for public safety and other government agencies that want to communicate with citizenry, especially in emergencies. But government officials also are finding themselves grappling with the misinformation that such media often spawns.

A recent blog post from Crisis Commons, an organization that develops innovations in crisis management through open data and volunteer technology communities, talks about the limitations associated with Twitter as a way to notify the public about imminent dangers.

During the recent spate of deadly tornadoes that hit several states, Twitter messages surfaced from relief organizations and news media that said "take shelter now." While that can be a valuable tool for those carrying smartphones everywhere they go, there are problems, according to Crisis Commons. For example, such messages often are retweeted by others, but don't specify the exact location where one should take shelter and when the message was sent. The organization also cautions that tweeting these types of messages on a consistent basis may desensitize those who should take heed.

This week the citizens of West Bloomfield Township, Mich., debated the usefulness of social media during a town hall meeting, according to the West Bloomfield Patch. The board was divided on what the township's Web presence should be in light of the fact that the township's website offers links to its official Facebook and Twitter pages, while the township clerk and community development department each operates its own social-media presence.

Some officials wanted links removed from the official website because online public comments are un-moderated. Others want some policies in place as to who is allowed to post and what sort of content can be posted. Another trustee wanted to do away with a Facebook presence altogether.

Earlier this year, the International Association of Chiefs of Police conducted a survey on local law enforcement's use of social media. It questioned 728 local law-enforcement agencies in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Some 81% said they used some type of social media.

About 40% used social media to notify the public of emergencies. About 67% of the agencies questioned had a Facebook page. The challenges cited, however, were security concerns, resource constraints in terms of time and personnel and privacy concerns.

The IACP's Center for Social Media, which offers no-cost resources to help law enforcement use social media, said it's important for every agency to determine the answer to these questions: Who will manage your social-media presence? What will your message be? Which medium should you choose? And when will you update and manage your social media presence?
The use of social media clearly represents uncharted waters for governments and public-safety agencies, but can be quite valuable in terms of building transparency and notifying the community. It seems to me there is an opportunity for technology companies to cater to the needs of the government community when it comes to aspects such as security and time-critical information. The evolution is going to take a track record of best practices and, unfortunately, not-so best practices. It will be a constantly evolving process.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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