Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Communicating After A Disaster

Photo: copyright 2008 Britney Jackson

Does your small business or nonprofit have a disaster communication plan? This is more than a way to find out if the office is closed due to inclement weather. This type of plan is activated when the office may be inaccessible (or worse) due to a major disaster. You may need to use it in the event your server room overheats this summer and shuts down email, phone and internet access for everyone.

By now, everyone has at least heard of, the set of websites published by Homeland Security. There are plenty of useful tips and tools there. One of the tips in the pages is a Crisis Communication Plan. As expected, it recommends essentially a phone tree plan:

Set up a telephone call tree, password-protected page on the company website, an email alert or a call-in voice recording to communicate with employees in an emergency.
But why make this so hard? In the excitement of a disaster-in-progress or the immediate aftermath, your office voicemail and self-hosted website may be inaccessible. You may not even have electricity or internet access to be able to update a web page. Most people, however, will have mobile phones (and amazingly find ways to re-charge them).

A simple solution that has been crisis-tested over the past few major disasters around the world is Twitter.* Yes, that strange web site where people seem to post weird or coded messages about everything from lattes to boring meetings. Even its creators had no idea that Twitter would one day become what it has. Here is a nice write up about how Twitterers covered the Mumbai terrorist attacks late last year.

Setting up a basic, Emergency Communication system on Twitter is very easy:

1. Begin with a “private”** Twitter account. You can set Twitter to only allow people you approve to read the postings. Keep the profile private, also.

2. Now, tell everyone in your emergency contact list the twitter account name and ask them to “follow” you there. You will need to approve each request in a private Twitter list.

3. Recommend that everyone set up their PDA Phones and mobile phones to work with Twitter. Software and services such as BrightKite and Orangatame's TwitterBerry are popular tools to help people “tweet” from mobile devices.

4. Once you have your emergency contacts approved as followers, send out a test message. Like the Office of Emergency Preparedness and the National Weather Service, it is a good idea to send out a test message every few months to remind everyone about the system.

Now you have an external emergency communication system. In another post, I will talk comment on how some have taken this to an entirely new level in past disasters and how you can, too. (If you want to manage multiple Twitter accounts in one screen, try a tool like TweetVisor (which is still in Beta release version, by the way).)

* This example uses Twitter and related tools. There are similar options using mobile phone software that works with Facebook and other social media sites. I have no financial interest in any particular system.

** The "private" part is important. Tweets on Twitter are public unless shielded. See "The Dark Side of Twitter" for some examples of how Tweets can cause headaches and train your staff to communicate carefully, even in the "private" posts.

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