As social media becomes an increasingly important way for emergency managers to distribute disaster preparedness information to the public, officials are facing communications issues they have not dealt with before. One such issue — should FEMA be sending information in Spanish as well as English to the feed it sends its ‘fans’ on Facebook? – has stimulated a bit of a debate online this week among those FEMA fans.
Over the past few days as Bonnie has been forming in the Atlantic, FEMA decided to send out preparedness information on its Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/FEMA) for the first time in Spanish as well as English. The appearance of a bilingual announcements sparked some surprise and concern from a few commenters on the page and has launched a spirited discussion online with the balance of the posts were supportive of the approach.
For example, FEMA’s 14,022 ‘fans’ received these two posts on their feed back-to-back:
The addition of a Spanish post provoked reaction from commenters. A sample pro/con:
Chris Bartus: “…I understand it’s important to communicate but I don’t want to read the Spanish posting anymore than I want to read the German or French posting. It won’t help me.”
Michelle O’Leary: “Clear communication is essential when it comes to disaster preparedness and response and this is great, especially for those who haven’t quite mastered the (American) English language. Thanks, FEMA!”
I can understand that it was a little surprising for some of FEMA’s Facebook ‘fans’ to see a Spanish posting on their pages. But I do think it makes sense for the agency to use the full potential of social media to distribute information to specific populations. In fact, one commenter, Terry Akins, raised a bigger question that FEMA and all emergency management agencies will be wrestling with going forward:
“…I am curious how many fans does FEMA have that use Spanish as a primary language? Are you truly having effective outreach through the use of Facebook to minority communities? If so,that’s great! But I wonder how truly effective this medium is to ESOL populations…..I’d enjoy the feedback on this please.”
What I thought was particularly interesting and refreshing about the online debate was less the issue itself but that it gave the public a chance to weigh in directly with government officials in developing policy dealing with the public. It also led to discussions on other Facebook pages, including an independent Facebook site managed by Citizen Corps volunteers, which posed this further question to its users: ”To continue on the discussion about the power of FB and communication in multiple languages. What about emergency alert systems, should/shouldn’t they be communicated in multiple languages?”
I spoke to Jason Lindesmith from FEMA New Media this morning about the language debate. He said that the agency decided to disseminate Spanish versions of the preparedness information this week on Facebook since the storm was over Puerto Rico and was headed to South Florida, both areas with large Hispanic populations. Lindesmith says that the agency’s Facebook presence is still a “work in progress,” and that it will be developing ways for users to tailor their own access to various languages in the future.
Ironically, Lindesmith’s boss, Administrator Craig Fugate, could have used some Russian translation today for his Twitter feed. He tweeted (below) only in English that he is in Moscow today signing an agreement with his Ministry of the Russian Federation for Affairs of Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief (EMERCOM).