Carroll County Times

Agencies embrace use of social media, not without shortcomings

As the news of a shooting at a Connecticut elementary school broke out, news agencies began making phone calls, searching for information and finding anonymous sources related to the shooting.

Initial reports from CNN suggested the shooter was Ryan Lanza, and not Adam Lanza. CBS reported there was a possible second gunman. The Associated Press reported the mother who was killed, worked at the school and was possibly buzzed into the school. The New York Times reported Lanza used handguns to shoot children and adults alike.

All of the reports were incorrect, and proliferated on and through the use of social media during the initial hours of the shooting.

"The information was coming out and it wasn't verified and a lot of people got slammed for it," said Kasey Parr, the social media coordinator for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

In an emergency situation like an active shooter, getting it right is often more important than getting it first. It's a strategy MEMA has employed for emergency weather situations, such as Superstorm Sandy.

"One disadvantage of running a social media product for a state agency is there's going to be a lag time," Parr said.

Instead, Parr focuses more on being proactive when planning social media for MEMA. For October's Superstorm Sandy, Parr posted regularly about general preparedness information, and ways to stay safe during an emergency. When there isn't an emergency situation, Parr likes to post anyway, by asking people open-ended questions and creating an interaction between the agency and users.

Parr began actively working on the social media presence of MEMA this past year. In the beginning of 2012, MEMA had around 11,000 likes on Facebook, and now have more than 26,000. Facebook has been an especially good platform for MEMA because it is so interactive, Parr said.

"Facebook is the new discussion board," Parr said.

Prior to the takeoff of popular social media websites like Twitter and Facebook, which allow many users to curate conversations about a specific event, NPR's senior product manager for online communities, Andy Carvin, created blogs and discussion boards in the wake of emergency situations. As time evolved, so did the platforms he used.

In 2001, Carvin used Yahoo! Groups in order to create a message board for those affected by the terrorist attack on Sept. 11. By 2006, Carvin created Katrina Aftermath, a blog following Hurricane Katrina allowed users to post multimedia content about their experiences and what they were seeing. And when the uprisings in Tunisia began in 2010, Carvin used Twitter as his main platform for learning about what was happening around the world.

Yet, even in Hurricane Sandy, a proliferation of false news and photos were spread through Twitter by a user with the handle @comfortablysmug. The user, later identified as 29-year-old hedge fund analyst Shashank Tripathi, spread rumors of the electric utility company, Con Edison shutting down all power in Manhattan, and that the New York Stock Exchange was three feet underwater.

The tweet was so widely spread that it prompted response from Con Edison to say it was not shutting down its power. Being responsive to news agencies and other people is part of how Parr uses the power of social media with MEMA. She said if she sees organizations getting news wrong, she'll be quick to respond and let them know.

This goes both ways, Parr said. Part of having an active presence on social media is that people hold the agency or person accountable, Parr said.

"That was one of the biggest things we talked about [when developing a social media plan] - that if we do this, there's going to be expectations and are we going to meet those expectations?" Parr said.

Rob Gould, a media representative from Baltimore Gas & Electric, said BGE is very interactive with its customers who reach out via social media outlets.

"In many times, customers just want to have an outlet to vent," Gould said. "It's no different than [the] traditional customer care function, it's just a new way of doing it."

MEMA has recently added a presence on Pinterest, a visual social media platform, where users like and "re-pin" photos to a board, or collection of photos. Emergency preparedness isn't the most interesting subject, so any time MEMA can try to make it more interesting, they do, Parr said.

BGE is also searching for ways to enhance the multimedia experience, by posting more video and photos, Gould said.

"We fully embrace it," Gould said.