Are You Prepared? What PR and IR Must Know About GIS, Social Networks and Disaster Communications
In the communications business, the ultimate professional challenge is to effectively communicate accurate and reliable information. This challenge often becomes extreme during a crisis such as a natural disaster where vast geographic areas may be significantly impacted on timescales from minutes to days. In these situations, the role of the communications specialist becomes essential as people look for information to understand, respond and recover from disaster. To effectively meet this challenge, specialists are turning more and more to the use of geographic information systems (GIS) that combine social networking applications as communications tools for gathering and disseminating vital information at all stages through a natural disaster.
The upshot: GIS paired with personal mass communications helps deliver messages, raise awareness, strategically gather information, and coordinate response efforts.
Natural disasters are a fact of life and, becoming more common. Over the last two decades, the insurance industry has tracked the frequency and severity of natural disasters and has found a strongly increasing trend. Munich Re, a large reinsurer (essentially a company that sells insurance against loss to major insurance companies) has published figures showing that the number of storms, floods, extreme temperatures, drought, and forest fires in the U.S. came close to tripling between 1980 and 2010. A similar pattern appears in Asia. Another reinsurer, Swiss Re, estimates that 2011 saw $350 billion in economic losses because of catastrophes. That compared with $226 billion in 2010.
To bring this into perspective, consider that in the last 12 months, we saw Hurricane Irene march its way up to the heart of New England, killing dozens, wiping out roads, literally moving rivers, and causing more than $10 billion in damage. Just two days of tornadoes in the South caused 40 deaths. There were major floods in Manitoba, Canada; along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers; and throughout Europe. And yet, none of those events could touch the terror or the economic damage of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, killed close to 16,000 people, and brought entire parts of the automotive and consumer electronics industries to a halt.
Such events are widespread and have an impact many individuals and businesses at the same time. They create challenges for communications professionals who represent affected cities, towns, countries, companies both large and small that do business in them, or government agencies and NGOs that are charged with responding to human and economic need.
Because natural disasters destroy infrastructure, they complicate their effects by interrupting normal communications and the ability to both gather and disseminate information. In the past, there was little that anyone could do. Although we don’t typically teach mass communications at American Sentinel University, our experience with such technologies as wireless communications, social networks, and GIS show that they can and do play a crucial role in responding to natural disasters. People in public relations (PR), industry/investor relations (IR), and corporate communications could employ these technologies to better do their jobs when the conditions are difficult and the stakes are at their highest.
A natural disaster with a widespread impact creates a set of tasks for communications professionals to help their organizations adequately cope. Those tasks include the following:
- Communicate with those on the ground, whether victims or relief workers, to better understand the conditions and what is needed.
- Get information to better help repair crews and emergency workers to do their jobs.
- Formulate an organization’s response to the situation and communicate it to important stakeholders.
- Put a human face on the problem.
- Coherently respond to media requests.
The combination of social networks, for tapping into direct person-to-person communications, and GIS, which permits analysis of information based on location, can help fulfill all these tasks and more with a degree of efficiency and effectiveness that would have been impossible just a few years ago.
According to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, the agency is moving toward a greater use of both technologies because they are well suited to disaster response. As he told a House Homeland Security Committee last fall, social media can let the agency gather information from the public in affected areas and local media. Feeding the data into a GIS allows emergency response managers to map events in real time.
During a conference hosted by GIS software vendor Esri, Fugate said that while the 7.0 2010 earthquake in Haiti, along with 52 powerful aftershocks, killed as estimated 316,000 and affected three million more, things could have been much worse without GIS and social media. The technologies let victims and relief workers report what was happening on the ground. Emergency personnel could then assemble the data, tagged with locations by social media tools, into maps that helped intelligently guide relief efforts.
When Japan was literally rocked by the earthquake and tsunami last year, Esri quickly created a GIS-driven social media map to track event updates. People in the path of the disaster and its aftermath could get updated information that could have a profound effect on their decisions and lives. Google built a people finder that combined social media and GIS to help victims find loved ones.
It does not require an Olympic-qualifying leap to see how communication professionals could use such tools and techniques in a disaster. Unlike a crisis, which is typically a problem for an organization by itself, disasters have major impacts on surrounding areas. Facilities may be inoperable and staff unable to reach them. Public infrastructure could put physical impediments in the way of supply chains. Damaged factories or storage containers could leak dangerous materials into the surrounding area, compounding the problem.
By using GIS and social media, marketers, corporation communications representatives, and public relations practitioners can get a picture of what is happening around an organization’s various locations. They can pass that information onto the management team so it can devise appropriate strategy and tactics.
The communications professionals now have solid data to inform them when they discuss the situation with the press, shareholders, employees in other locations, families of employees who may be traveling in the area, and government officials. Knowing what locations are affected and the relative condition around them helps these people to determine where to set up emergency communications posts and how to direct staff and customers to safety.
Furthermore, IR professionals can monitor not just general social networks but specialty investor ones like StockTwits to gauge investor and analyst assumptions, attitudes, and even misperceptions and develop an influence map (location having a much broader interpretation than geographic position) to determine where to best focus communications efforts. Then they can bring details to light that help people empathize with the problem, changing their reactions.
Over time, using additional information sources from government, industry, and scientists, communications professionals can build GIS systems that can help predict where disasters might be more likely to occur. They can then overlay their locations and monitor social media in real time for advance warning that something might be happening. After all, the faster and more certain the response, the more effective efforts will likely be.
As experience has shown, combining GIS and social media can have a positive effect on how the world handles disasters. Although facing such a situation is never pleasant, at least communications professionals can rest assured that the same tools can improve their own efforts and make their work more effective when it is most important.
About Devon A. Cancilla, Ph.D.: Devon is the dean, business and technology, for American Sentinel University, which offers accredited online associate and bachelor’s degrees in geographic information systems. Previously, he served as executive director and campus dean at New York Institute of Technology. He has authored numerous research papers, books and academic reports, and his work has appeared in journals such as Environmental Science and Technology, The American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education and The Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks.