Cities and towns stand to make strides in the effectiveness of their emergency management, public safety measures and public relations by embracing social media.
Although social media can be intrusive—when you’re trying to carry on a conversation with someone reading an incoming text, for example —the omnipresence of cell phones, text messages, Twitter and Facebook can also be harnessed as an effective means of reaching large numbers of residents quickly or making contact with sensitive individuals at key moments.
Text-messaging service Nixle allows the Lansing, Eaton Rapids and St. Johns, Mich. police and emergency response departments to alert their residents about emergencies, traffic snarl-ups and other important information, according to social media experts Project Virginia Inc. Nixle adds to the governments’ ability to reach the public, complementing methods like press releases to local media, reverse 911 services and emergency broadcast systems and tornado sirens.
Chris Plack, director of operations for PayProMedia, Inc. of Warsaw, Ind., likens another aspect of municipalities’ use of social media to old-style community and government get-togethers.
“Social media has become the diner. It’s a real time town hall meeting,” Plack said And the price is right for most cities, he added.
“Social Media leverages big tools for low dollars. It’s essentially free to everyone including municipalities and design and function can be integrated for a relatively low cost in many cases. These platforms allow both the public and private sectors to strengthen the local communities, building stronger municipal centers.”
One of the challenges to engaging the community digitally can be finding a capable person to manage a city’s or a department’s social media. Finding an appropriate balance between informing the public and annoying them with a high frequency of messages is also delicate.
When speed is of the essence, text messages, Twitter and Facebook posts can alert residents to breaking news or events even faster than traditional media’s websites. In less than two minutes, for example, police can warn an entire neighbor that a dangerous suspect is in their area, or an emergency management service can start a citywide evacuation after flood waters crumble a levee. In November, Springfield, Ill., communicated via Twitter to update citizens about a potentially panic-inducing rumor that the city’s water supply controls had been hacked.
In addition to broadcasting information, municipal social media veins can sometimes work on other levels as well.
Also last month, a Florida sheriff’s deputy using Facebook to learn about a suspect in a standoff was able to communicate with the suspect through the platform and facilitate a safe ending to the situation.