In the weeks since Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) has found itself in the middle of an evolving and unprecedented crisis. And, the agency has been relying on its new Twitter feed @GOHSEP, which has become a vital communications platform and resource.
Though the @GOHSEP feed has been up for only a month and a half, it has already become a useful model of Twitter’s use by government in emergency management crisis communications. Last month, I wrote about GOHSEP’s extra effort to thank users who were ‘retweeting’ the agency’s announcements on the oil spill — it’s the kind of small (and cost-free) reward/positive reinforcement for the public not normally done by government entities.
Since then, I’ve noticed another smart (and unusual) thing GOHSEP is doing: aggressively adding the Twitter feeds of citizens to its “following” list. It is something that a lot of government agencies in the emergency area (and actually government agencies in any field) have been hesitant to do. As of this writing, @GOHSEP has 2132 “followers” and is “following” 1892 feeds; by contrast, many governmental feeds have thousands of “followers” but only are “following” a small fraction of that number.
In an interview, GOHSEP press secretary Christina Stephens told me that the agency has found that “following” citizen feeds has become a useful information source on what is happening ‘on the ground’. She says that many of those who reach out to the agency through Twitter are involved (and informed) citizens, activists or bloggers. Not only are those people information resources for GOHSEP as it tries to deal with the quickly changing spill situation, but those same people are the ones likely to be contacting reporters with their concerns — and therefore are influencing mainstream media coverage. So, seeing what these citizens are saying on Twitter helps GOHSEP anticipate what topics reporters will be asking them about. To Stephens, not “following” individual feeds limits Twitter’s potential value to a government agency.
“Twitter is a snapshot of what people are thinking and talking about,” she explains. “People are either talking about you or talking with you. We’d prefer to talk with you.” Stephens says emergency agencies should embrace Twitter to its fullest extent as it offers government a new way of engaging the public. She says she has found that the public appreciates the responsiveness Twitter allows GOHSEP.
Yet, it has been my experience that a lot of government agencies in the emergency area are somewhat gun shy about using Twitter and other social media applications in the interactive way they are designed for and instead they use it as just another one-way, top-down method of distributing the same institutional information (ie. press releases). The hesitancy comes from a lack of expertise, commitment, manpower or confidence.
Stephens recommends that other agencies jump in and use Twitter more extensively. But she does say GOHSEP has had to develop some guidelines on the fly — for example, it will not ‘retweet’ unconfirmed information, and it avoids any kind of political content in its communications with followers.
Another government agency that has taken advantage of Twitter and has been aggressive in adding “followers” is the city of Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management (@PhilaOEM). An official told me that they view the public as a resource during an emergency and see Twitter as a way to begin setting up those two-way relationships with individuals in advance. GOHSEP also has a Facebook page. Stephens said in the event of a disaster evacuation GOHSEP would use Twitter but that – with its greater penetration numbers — would probably be even more useful.