Expert's Corner: Social Media Tools for Manufacturers in Times of Disaster

In his latest Expert's Corner, Michael Keating outlines social media resources that manufacturers can rely on after a disaster. This is Keating's third installment of a series on disaster planning and recovery. Keating discussed preserving the supply chain here. Future installments in his disaster series will cover helpful manufacturing consortiums and document recovery. 

Manufacturers and other businesses are still getting up to speed in taking advantage of the real-time benefits of social media in their disaster planning and response efforts. A recent survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 57 percent of respondents do not have formal usage of social media as a crisis management resource.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents are modestly leveraging social media as a tool, but not necessarily seeing improvements in their capabilities. Just 8 percent of respondents believe that social media has enabled their organizations to identify and respond to crisis events. The survey attracted 300 respondents, including business continuity practitioners.

One company that has found social media to be indispensable in emergencies is Atlas Oil Emergency Fuel Solutions (EFS), a division of Atlas Oil Co.

"Social media channels are now the connective tools that allow us to communicate when other means are compromised during natural disasters," said Bob Kenyon, Atlas Oil's executive vice president. "Atlas Oil EFS used social media strategically to announce and update outreach efforts during Superstorm Sandy. It was really the only way to get the word out to employees and clients due to the extensive power outages, and weather severity on the ground was changing drastically by the hour."

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As Sandy ravaged the Atlantic coast and the Northeast last year, Atlas Oil EFS used all of its social media channels, including the Atlas blog, to update employees, clients, and communities on the firm's status and aid programs. The company also explained its outreach programs in the social media feeds, Kenyon said.

"Emergency communications are an essential and oft-overlooked component of any business continuity and crisis management program," he said. "Established lines of communication through social media networks like Twitter or Facebook are good for conveying information to the general public."

For a manufacturer trying to find out what's going on in the midst of a disaster, social media can augment or replace traditional news sources. "Twitter and weather feeds are well-suited for manufacturers because they provide real-time updates," said Jaime Ellertson, CEO of Everbridge, a California company that supplies software for mass notifications in emergency incidents. The firm also offers the Interactive Visibility program for crisis communications.

"News on Twitter oftentimes breaks before traditional news outlets," Ellertson said. "This offers manufacturers improved awareness on developing or current events that could impact their business, employees, supply chain, or clients. Because geo-aware feeds offer quick and easy identification of affected locations, manufacturers can easily identify potential impact to their operations and expedite response."

Phil Harris, CEO of Chicago-based GeoFeedia, which offers tools that allow users to search and monitor social media by location in real time, agreed that manufacturers no longer need to rely on mainstream media for news.

"Real-time data, in the form of social media pictures, videos, and text, typically posted by people at these locations from their smartphones, is publicly available and is an ideal information tool to [gain] situational awareness to respond to disasters," Harris said.

Social media can help emergency managers right after a disaster strikes, said Russ Johnson, industry manager at Esri, a Redlands, Calif., company that makes mapping software. "Understanding the impact of a large-scale or complex emergency in the initial phases is always difficult to ascertain," he said. "Social media has begun to close that gap."

The observations and photos taken by witnesses to disasters on social channels can help decision-makers allocate resources to high-priority problems, Johnson said.

Besides reverse 911 systems, first responders are relying more on Twitter and text messaging for emergency alerting, said Karen Hamel, a technical specialist at New Pig, a company in Tipton, Pa., that manufactures spill containment and cleanup products.

"One of our biggest hazards is flooding. We have started to see the public, especially, using social media sources to let their relatives know they are fine," Hamel told IMT. "And we have also started to see emergency responders rely on social media to get messages out to the public if the bridge is closed or there is a fire in the area and the roads are blocked."

In particular, the chemical industry is at the forefront of social media use, according to Hamel. "I've really seen them lead the marketplace in notification for employees through social media -- more so with text messages than, say, Twitter," she said of chemical companies.

Roche Pharmaceuticals, the world's largest biotech company, with plants in eight states in the U.S., recently shifted to a single system for emergency communications and mass notifications. Before implementing the system, from Everbridge, Roche used a call tree system that was time-consuming and took a lot of employee effort.

For Roche, it can see a vast range of emergencies that spans from chemical fires to ice storms. The Everbridge setup integrates recipient feedback, data feeds, and social media in a single communications console. It creates automated alerts for key terms or phrases when they appear in social media. The system also has a feature that dispenses weather alerts.

Manufacturers can protect their brand and customer base by publicizing that they use social media in preparation of an impending weather event and to provide company status information after a disaster strikes, according to Barry Buchman and Emily Grim of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Gilbert LLP.

In addition, manufacturers can follow their insurers on social media to obtain and provide essential claims information, they said.

The legal experts urge manufacturers to formulate a social media strategy for disaster events. In particular, manufacturers should have protocols in place for legal counsel to vet communications made on social media in order to prevent inadvertent characterizations regarding the nature or cause of losses, they said.

Social media tools used in emergency preparedness and response will continue to evolve, said Sherri Maxson, senior manager of social media at Grainger, the distributor of industrial supplies, MRO equipment, tools, and materials.

"Social, mobile, and video are natural, integrated tools to help prepare, listen, and respond to a disaster," she said. "I believe we'll see more collaborative, community-based apps and social media applications emerge that will support everyone's efforts in preparing for disasters and responding in times of need."

As an example, Maxson pointed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) recent update of its smartphone app. The app now features a disaster reporter that allows citizens to report incidents and damages.

Keating's series on disaster recovery for manufacturers returns in two weeks.

Read part one of this series, What Manufacturers Need to Do About Data Recovery After a Disaster.

Read part two of this series, How Manufacturers Can Preserve the Supply Chain After a Disaster.

Read part four of this series, Manufacturers Join Consortiums to Help Each Other After a Disaster. 

Michael Keating is senior editor for Government Product News and a contributing editor for American City and County, both published by Penton Media. Read his mid-year 2013 government budget and spending forecast at the Government Product News site. Go here for his IMT 2012 report on how to land government business. His most recent item for IMT was about Mid-year 2013 Update on the Government Market for Manufacturers. Keating has written articles on the government market for more than 100 publications, including USA Today, Sanitary Maintenance, IndustryWeek, and the Costco Connection. Michael can be reached through his website, 

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