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November 9, 2017

In Crisis and Disaster, Social Media Used as Beacon for Help

Harvey, Irma, Maria and now Nate.

Major hurricanes have ripped through the United States and Caribbean these past months, leaving thousands of people homeless and millions of lives disrupted. Though the full extent of the damage is still unknown, social media has shed light on how victims have been affected and has acted as a mechanism to help those impacted by these tropical storms.

In late August when Hurricane Harvey’s destruction was at its height, real-time updates about the storm and calls for help filled social streams. Stranded Houston residents tweeted their address to emergency officials. Citizens organized rescue missions through Facebook groups. Friends and family were uploading heart-wrenching photos to emphasize how fast the flood waters were rising. Relief organizations posted information about resources they were providing by using identifying hashtags such as #harveyrelief and #harveySOS. News outlets offered minute-by-minute updates in 140-characters or less on Twitter.

As hurricane season continues, people will increasingly turn to their phones to get news quickly or ask for help through a convenient click of an app. Social platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, are becoming the new 911.

Social media has assisted with emergency response in other countries previously, but never in the United States on this scale. In 2011 when a massive earthquake rocked Turkey, a local TV station tweeted to its followers asking for help in finding housing for quake victims who had been left homeless. Followers were asked to email the station with temporary housing opportunities. Within seven hours, the station received more than 17,000 emails from people willing to house displaced families.

The power of social networks goes beyond emergency response in natural disasters. It can also play a role in a crisis relating to the food and agriculture industry. Many times, consumers do not bother contacting their local health department when they start feeling ill from food they ate. Instead, they will turn to the internet and post comments on Yelp, Twitter or Facebook about what they consumed and what symptoms they are experiencing. In fact, some health departments are starting to comb through Yelp reviews to identify outbreaks of food poisoning and leverage Twitter to track foodborne illness.

Take, for example, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s contamination incident in 2015 where the food giant faced repeated outbreaks of norovirus, E. coli and salmonella within months of each other. Crowdsourcing, a social sharing model where information is obtained from large groups of people via the internet, was used to identify the start of Chipotle’s norovirus outbreak. Crowdsourcing website allows users to anonymously report their own cases of illness tied to restaurants, and the site received 70 reports from customers who were sick from eating at Chipotle’s Simi Valley location.

Though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the outbreak officially over in February 2016, Chipotle’s sales are still plummeting. Why? Because consumers are still speaking about the contamination event—which resulted in a total of 55 people in 11 states being infected with E. coli—and everything previously reported about the outbreak still lives online. In an era of social media, the history of the E. coli scandal will indefinitely loom over Chipotle, and it will be increasingly more difficult for food operators to overcome foodborne illness outbreaks.

For better or worse, social sharing has changed the game for disasters, crises and emergency response. Food and ag-related companies can take this opportunity to leverage the influence of social media to bolster their positive online presence before an incident occurs.

This can include activities including the following:

•   Sign Up: Make a company account on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. Please keep in mind a company does not have to join all these sites. The target audience and company goals will dictate which social media platform is appropriate.

•   Update Consistently: Post content regularly, including videos from the farm, photos of team members working and articles relating the ag industry. Having a social page that is outdated is just as bad as having no social media presence at all.

•   Build a Following: Posting engaging content will help brands build a loyal fan base. These brand ambassadors will not only help promote your organization, but will be your key supporters when a disaster hits.

Additionally, in the case of a crisis, organizations can use social sites to help rebuild their brand. One such way would be to incorporate social media into risk and crisis planning.

Some tips on effectively integrating social media into the company’s crisis management plan are as follows:

•   Identify all Possible Incidents: Food and ag-related companies should identify all potential events that can be harmful to the brand, as well as develop responses beforehand that can be posted when the crisis hits. Catastrophic events can include food contamination/poisoning/illness, a sudden death of an executive or a natural disaster that destroys a food production facility.

•   Create a Team: Prior to a crisis, organizations should identify the person(s) who will be handling all social media communications. This person must be available 24/7 to respond to inquiries from the public and post continuous updates from the company about the event.

•   Be Responsive: The social media crisis team should consistently monitor websites and answer any questions about the incident that may arise. The more responsive and transparent a company is about an incident, the easier it is to bounce back.