Tweeting in the Dark: How San Diego County Used Social Media During the 2011 Blackout

Shortly before 4 pm on Sept. 8, 2011, the power went out throughout Southern California, western Arizona and northern Mexico, affecting more than 7 million people and bringing metropolitan San Diego to a standstill.

Officials with San Diego County used social media to communicate with residents during the outage and have since been lauded for their ability to effectively disseminate information  — efforts that helped make San Diego County one of the ten most-followed municipalities on Twitter. Indeed, users turned to the the social media service during the outage to share and gather information about the blackout and the response.

Tom Christensen, a communications specialist with San Diego County, coordinates social media activities for several County departments and oversaw the county’s social media communications during the power outage. Christensen, who has been with the county six years, took a few minutes to discuss his experience with Communia.

When did the county first become interested in social media?

The County of San Diego began its social media effort to highlight county programs and services in early 2009. Once that was established, we rolled out Twitter and Facebook accounts for individual county departments and now have 12 Facebook pages and ten Twitter accounts.

In terms of emergency management, we utilize the main county account (@sandiegocounty) and a ReadySanDiego (@readysandiego) account assigned to our Office of Emergency Services. Depending on the emergency situation, we also use our Health and Human Services Agency (@sdcountyhhsa) account and Department of Public Works (@sdcountydpw) account.

How has San Diego County used social media for crisis response?

Our two major crises . . . during our Twitter usage have been the H1N1 pandemic and the September 2011 blackout. Our usage during both events was very different for a couple of reasons.

The County’s use of social media was in its infancy during H1N1, and our Health and Human Services Agency accounts hadn’t even been established when the outbreak was first discovered in San Diego County. H1N1 was a slow-moving event with a lot of unknowns, in the sense that there wasn’t breaking news most hours of the day.

We had daily press conferences and scheduled updates where we included social media messaging. We also used social media to send reminders to get H1N1 vaccinations and to report significant news, such as deaths and [the establishment of] mass vaccination clinics. However, H1N1 was also more of a traditional emergency where we had all the local media outlets (and national outlets at the beginning) covering the story and information flowed through traditional news sources.

The next emergency situation we had was the blackout on Sept. 8, 2011, where nearly seven million residents in Southern California, western Arizona and northern Mexico lost power for anywhere from eight to 24 hours. This emergency unfolded quickly and because it was a power outage, traditional media wasn’t able to operate normally – no one could watch TV and most couldn’t listen to the radio. The three Twitter accounts (@SanDiegoCounty, @ReadySanDiego, and @SDCountyHHSA) gained more than 2,400 followers during the power outage incident.

How did the county government use social media during the power outages?

Social media merely supplemented our public outreach of news conferences and press releases during H1N1. During the power outage, it became the main source of information. Traditional media outreach wasn’t really an option.

We used Twitter – and to a lesser extent Facebook – to get out virtually every type of information possible. We sent out tweets about traffic conditions, [retweeted] updates from the power company, and tweeted advice on keeping food safe and other related information. It allowed us to interact directly with the public. Without TV coverage, Twitter became the main source of information and was more immediate than Facebook or the County website. We received many tweets from the public asking for specific information related to the power outage and we were able to directly answer questions via Twitter.

One of the most practical uses of Twitter that evening was when we announced we were going to have a press conference with County officials and representatives from the power utility. People began tweeting us back, asking how they could get the information with no television coverage. The answer? We “live tweeted” the press conference. We sent out all the information from the press conference in 140-character messages as it was happening.

Prior to the Sept. 8 blackout, had you thought about how you might use Twitter during an emergency like a blackout?

Social media has been a part of our emergency communications plan since 2009. Prior to the Sept. 8 blackout we had considered social media as a valued component of our communications plan, but as a complement to traditional media outreach. The blackout showed that you have to be prepared for any type of emergency situation and in one where power is affected, social media became the primary news medium. It really highlighted the power of social media.

What should other officials keep in mind while tweeting during an emergency? What information is most useful? What should be avoided?

People really look to the government for authoritative, accurate, and helpful news. Whether it’s through traditional media or social media, you become the go-to source for information.

People primarily wanted to know what happened and how long they would be without power. Although no one knew for certain when power would be restored, we were able (with the cooperation of the power company) to assure people that the outage was being worked on and provide estimated updates when power would be restored.

Another question that came up frequently as the event wore on was what to do with your frozen and refrigerated food. This allowed us to tap into our Public Health Officer and Department of Environmental Health and position them as experts on this issue – sending facts and tips about how long food could safely remain stored cold with the power out.

The information you send out can be directly tailored to the immediate feedback you are getting from the public via social media. That’s one of the greatest benefits of social media – it’s immediate. No waiting around for days for a letter to the editor to appear or even waiting to hear “citizen comments” on the nightly news. You can immediately address legitimate concerns and diffuse inaccurate information or rumors.

This might be hard for government managers to hear, but the one thing you should avoid during an emergency situation is having a long chain of command for approvals of social media messages. Since things evolve rapidly on social media, you need to have someone you trust with the messaging in charge of sending your tweets and posting your Facebook updates. Or, you at least shouldn’t have more than one layer of approval necessary – or you’re going to fall behind in getting information out and answering feedback and what you say will lose relevancy.

Did the county find any of the incoming information on social media helpful?

Yes, we certainly did. Twitter users become like a whole legion of eyes and ears out there during an emergency situation – almost like field reporters. Oftentimes you hear actual developments first through eyewitness accounts and even though you need to verify the information it can give you a good head start on “flash” problems.

How do you and other officials separate potentially actionable information from background noise?

In San Diego County, we operate a Joint Information Center (JIC) inside our Emergency Operations Center during any emergency situation. The communications person responsible for social media messages is located inside the JIC and has access to all the personnel working the situation and can verify information that is legitimate and what is merely background noise.

Another important facet that is sometimes unknown is that social media networks by their nature are very self-policing. Users have a very low tolerance for shenanigans and they aren’t afraid to call someone on it. So if someone is purposely putting out false information or doing something inappropriate, they will usually get flagged by others in the social media community.

What where the overarching lessons learned from the power outage with respect to social media?

Both during and after the power outage, we received dozens of tweets from the public acknowledging us for providing them with constant information. If anyone had doubts about the power of social media, they were erased during the power outage.

Once you have established yourself as a reliable source of information on a day-to-day basis, people will continue to turn to you in a crisis. Social media allows you to get your message out directly to the public and allows them to help you spread that message even further. In an emergency situation, it makes a great partner with traditional media to get your message quickly to as many people as possible.


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