How to avoid public safety Twitter communication problems

Social media mishaps can easily be avoided if your agency takes the time to properly plan and implement a social media presence in a responsible manner

It recently came to light that the Washington DC Fire EMS temporarily suspended their Twitter account (@DCFireEMS) for 21 days.

The account reportedly stopped activity on August 30 when the employee responsible for its content went on vacation. It returned to activity September 22 after intense scrutiny, including a number of scathing reactions to Communication Director Lon Walls referring to the medium as "…for parties. We ain't givin' parties."

Director Walls apparently didn't even know the department had a Twitter account until recently, which is an entirely different problem.

This situation has a number of issues that can easily be avoided if your agency takes the time to properly plan and implement a social media presence in a responsible manner.

Here are a few things to help avoid making those mistakes:

Include social media accounts in your communications plan
Social media accounts are communication assets to your organization the same way your radio or telephone are. They should be included in asset inventories and in equipment disbursement charts.

It is important to include their usage in both your standard everyday communications plan as well as your emergency communications plans. Failing to include social media in these things can lead to a lack of usage and development as well as being missed when senior staff changes occur

Craft communications guidelines
There should be a set of communications guidelines for what can and cannot be automatically disseminated.

I am an absolute advocate for confirming the information before disseminating it, but the delay of communications for approval by command personnel is not a necessary step in the process. Establishing guidelines for what can and cannot be communicated can help smooth the flow of information.

Guidelines should be developed not for the individual medium, but rather around the entirety of the message whether it is used by traditional media or disseminated in social media channels

Establish a social media team
Vacations, sick days, and personal matters happen. An absent member of your social media team shouldn't cripple your ability to communicate via the social media conduit, just as it shouldn't cripple your ability to respond to calls.
Disbursing the traditional media and social media communication duties among your team will ensure that someone will be ready to deliver the message you need delivered when you need it to be delivered

Practice makes near perfect
Too often, we drill on specific skills for an incident or situation but disregard less obvious "support" skills that would be used for the same type of event, such as the ability to effectively communicate. Integrate those skills into your drills and training events to ensure that all your personnel are prepared to perform

It's important to remember that, as an agency, we need to establish ourselves as a trusted source of information for the community. By forming public information teams, with the right guidelines and time to practice their skills, we are able to give them the best chance for success.

That success will help increase your agencies visibility throughout the community being served and help ensure your team will meet their long-term mission.

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