FEMA takes open approach to social media
As federal agencies figure out how best to use social media, they are encountering challenges about how to control and interpret information. In this evolving environment, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is focusing less on message control and more on the most effective tools for disseminating information.
"There was a social media gold rush in D.C. Everyone started going out and starting sites, but they didn't have content," John Shea, public information officer at FEMA's Office of External Affairs, said at a June conference in Las Vegas sponsored by two Federal Executive Boards. "It was mostly repurposing press releases, and that doesn't really get the job done."
Shea said it's important for agencies to be flexible using social media so they can provide high-quality information to citizens efficiently. "A lot of these tools, Twitter, Facebook, they may not be around in five years," he said. "They may be entirely different. Don't get stuck on tools. Get stuck on process."
FEMA was the first federal agency to negotiate an agreement with the video-sharing Web site YouTube, a process that involved modifying the user agreement to avoid the implication that FEMA in any way endorsed the company, a violation of federal law. The agency has negotiated similar agreements with social networking companies Facebook and MySpace.
The agency hasn't hesitated to embrace new technology and dissect the results publicly. In January, then-administrator David Paulison held a press conference on Twitter, and FEMA published an online post-mortem of the event that acknowledged the difficulty of answering complex questions in a short format and explaining the deliberative process that went into producing Paulison's answers.
FEMA's use of technology means the agency has had to train its photographers and videographers to produce work that will be useful in different contexts. During a Government Executive visit to FEMA headquarters in June, Shea said that agency was training 10 videographers to shoot for different purposes, ranging from supplemental footage that television producers can use in disaster stories, briefing videos, or broadcasts of employees or disaster victims to communicate FEMA policy to the public.
Shea said in particular vignettes of ordinary citizens explaining the benefits and limitations of federal programs can help "manage expectations" of what FEMA can do in an emergency -- for example, FEMA cannot begin operations in an area until an official disaster is declared -- and help convince Americans to take precautions in emergencies that they might otherwise ignore.
"No one listens to the government when we tell them to do stuff," Shea says. "They listen to celebrities and they listen to their neighbors."
The agency also has changed the type of media it uses to match consumer demands. When Shea started there in 1999, FEMA produced radio spots. Today, it create podcasts for listeners to download and listen to on their iPods or phones.
FEMA's regional offices produce their own press releases and have their own Twitter feeds; the agency also will disseminate material from state or local governments if they have better information.
And agency analysts track news from local observers and reporters to try to assemble a complete picture of events, as they did during wildfires near Boulder, Co., early this year. Sometimes that intelligence even will lead FEMA to take action. If Twitter users in a certain geographic area report that tornadoes are approaching, for example, FEMA might send out suggestions for how to keep safe in tornadoes, an approach that lets the agency communicate useful information without committing resources before a disaster is verified by more reliable sources, Shea said.
That openness, however, can have its drawbacks. During Hurricane Dolly in July 2008, FEMA allowed reporters into a Texas office to see how the agency was managing the response. A reporter repeated unverified information from FEMA that a levy had broken in Brownsville, Texas -- setting off a scramble to determine if the story was true.