Crisis communication: learning from Hurricane Sandy

New York subway closed due to Hurricane Sandy

New York subway closed due to Hurricane Sandy

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.

SLooking for power and an internet connectionocial 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.

  1. Convey clear and credible messages
  2. Update information regularly
  3. Ensure coordination between different actors
  4. Adapt communication to different channels and audiences
  5. 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?

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4 Comments

Filed under Digital media, USA

4 responses to “Crisis communication: learning from Hurricane Sandy

  1. Five principles wonderfully summarized here. Even more noteworthy considering you were in the middle of Sandy 🙂
    Just one small add to explicit what is implicit in your #1: “Be honest and say the true”.

  2. Hello. My aunt is in Brooklyn and looking to get into and out of Queens, where her home has suffered a lot of damage. Is there a site where she can hook up with people who have access to gas and cars that can get into and out of this area more easily than she can? She’s just got a tiny car and a half tank of gas. I’ve been googling, but I can’t find anything. She’s been getting help from neighbours and such, but I was wondering if there is anything more centralised?

    • Hi Linda Margaret. Very sorry to hear about your aunt in Brooklyn. Earlier in the week, police were limiting car access to Manhattan to vehicles carrying 3 or more people. This restriction was lifted on Friday evening. The main problem now is access to gas (huge lines at the pumps …). I’m not aware of any official system for organising car sharing, but you could try asking the City of New York Department of Transportation via Twitter – they are @NYC_DOT. Good luck!

  3. I think that is great that social media was used in such a positive aspect in this situation. It seems that a lot of times people use social media in such a negative way. It is nice to see that people were actually using it to help other people out in time of need

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