When we left on a family holiday to New York a week ago, we had no idea that we would end up in the middle of the most serious crisis to hit the city since 9-11.
Within a couple of days of our arrival, Hurricane Sandy had brought New York to a virtual standstill. The subway was flooded, businesses were closed and an explosion in a power station had left Lower Manhattan without electricity.
Observing and speaking with New Yorkers as they dealt with Sandy and its aftermath, we were impressed by their resilience, resourcefulness and good humour. Sandy also demonstrated the importance of communication in the context of a crisis.
When the storm hit land on Monday evening, people on the US East Coast and across the world relied heavily on social media for real-time information about events as they unfolded. There were over 4 million tweets featuring the #Sandy hashtag. Instagram reported that 10 images per second were being uploaded. Thousands of videos were shared on Youtube. Google set up a crisis map to track the impact of the storm, as well as providing practical information on shelters and other resources.
New York styles itself as “the world’s leading digital city“. It was no surprise that social media played an important role in official communications by the office of New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, before, during and after the storm.
Twitter was used to relay safety information and advice from a range of official accounts, including @nycgov, @nycmayorsoffice and @fdny (Fire Department of New York). This included updates on the re-establishment of transport, electricity and other services during the days after the storm had passed. Twitter Government created a list of government, political, public safety and weather accounts related to Hurricane #Sandy.
In addition to Twitter, the City of New York Facebook page and Tumblr blog were used to share details of the recovery effort, as well as opportunities for people to volunteer and provide donations and assistance. Official statements and information, including webstreaming of the Mayor’s regular press conferences, were made available on the main nyc.gov website.
Social media also provided residents and visitors with a vital lifeline to reassure friends and relatives that they were safe. This became problematic after Lower Manhattan and other parts of New York lost power, because hundreds of thousands of people no longer had access to electricity, mobile phone coverage and the internet. “Wifi refugees” began to congregate in cafes, banks, shops and anywhere else they could find to charge their mobile devices and get internet access. Lower Manhattan residents told us that they were falling back on battery powered radios to keep themselves informed.
The hundreds of journalists covering Hurricane Sandy in New York also relied on social media to crowdsource images and stories for their reporting. For example, the first pictures of a wind-damaged crane dangling precariously from the top of the tallest residential building in New York were provided by eyewitnesses. Twitter also spread some rumours that subsequently proved to be untrue, such as reports of flooding of the New York Stock Exchange, but these were quickly exposed as fakes by other social media users.
Based on what we saw and experienced in New York this week, I noted five main principles for effective crisis communication.
- Convey clear and credible messages
- Update information regularly
- Ensure coordination between different actors
- Adapt communication to different channels and audiences
- Provide opportunities for feedback and networking
Were you in the USA during Hurricane Sandy, or following events from elsewhere? What do you think we can learn from the communication of this and other major crises?