Communicating with Employees During an Emergency
By Tori Garten
Over the past few years, government agencies have become more and more comfortable with communicating with citizens and other stakeholders via “traditional” social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. But are we taking advantage of it to communicate with employees? What are the pros and cons to using social media to keep in touch with staff?
Several natural disasters in the past year have shown the power of social media and text messaging for communicating with friends and family. During the earthquake last year, I was on vacation in NYC, and within minutes of the earthquake started receiving text messages from staff who had evacuated from our building, from remote staff in another state, as well as family members and concerned friends from around the country.
The recent Derecho in the DC/Mid-Atlantic area proved an opportune time to experiment with different outreach methods to communicate with employees regarding the status of facilities affected by the mass power outages. OPM announced the government was open, but with many buildings without power it was necessary to reach out to staff to communicate that many buildings were closed and what the options were for staff to work.
In the past we’ve used a variety of methods to try to reach employees when there are power outages or other facility issues. The past few events we’ve used:
- staff-wide email announcements,
- a page on the public web site and internal intranet site,
- an 800 number and local number with recorded updates
- a voice mail distribution tool to distribute a message to staff at whatever devices they have identified as the best to reach them.
All of these announcement tools require coordination of message and access to the tools. And access requires a certain amount or type of energy/power and passwords.
Our options for quickly and easily communicating with employees are growing thanks to the rise of social media and mobile devices. As the number of options grows, we’ll have to consider how many tools we should be using, and how many tools we need to use to meet the communications needs and styles of our employee populations. With a diverse workforce with varying levels of comfort and varying expectations, we may need to accept that we’ll be using a variety of tools.
One of the greatest benefits of using social media tools to communicate is the ease of updating through a mobile device. A mobile device can be charged on a car charger or solar charger and not rely on home-based or office-based internet access to be up and running. With my iPhone, I can update a Facebook page, send a Tweet, and update the Enterprise Social Networking site quickly and easily – and in the dark (and heat and humidity).
Updating the public web site and internal website page require logging into an internal network, that at this time I can not do on my mobile device, and navigating a content management system to the correct page, updating the text, and waiting for the content to deploy to the live server with the next content deployment cycle. Since I was without power, I had to contact my staff, using email and text messaging on my iPhone to find out who had power – and the proper level of access that could log in and update the website. Luckily I had some staff who had power, and some that live 2 hours away who were able to update the websites.
In the past we have not used our public facing Facebook page to communicate facility or employee related issues.
However I knew that many staff were followers of our page, and that if they received the message they could spread it to their staff and coworkers as well. We took the chance and posted an update to our public facing Facebook page. No one un-followed us, and we got several “likes” from employees. I wonder too if it helps followers see us as people and not just a nameless, faceless government entity.
The Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) that we are currently piloting has a group that was set up for traffic and emergency announcements. Over 110 employees joined the network the day that group was formed. Since there is a mobile app for the tool, and it is very easy to use, I was able to update that group with the same announcement. Users can set their notifications to notify them immediately, daily and even by text message if they so choose.
While we didn’t use Twitter this time, we are planning to consider it for the next emergency event. We’ll consider whether to use our regular account that we use for all our outreach or whether to set one up specifically for emergency communications.
So what are some of the challenges of using all these different tools? Do we need to use all of them? Can we drop a few? Will it depend on the situation and the mix of staff you are communicating with?
We have a mix of staff with varying levels of comfort with social media or text messaging. Some staff do not have smartphones, others do not have txt message plans, and many are not comfortable or familiar with social media tools or even have accounts.
But many do - and expect communications using these tools.
Other challenges are that all of the tools do rely on a technology framework that is dependent in many ways on power.
With this last round of power outages several cell towers were knocked out, some people couldn’t make calls but could send text messages. I could reach the internet with my IPhone but not my IPAD as two different carriers support my mobile devices. We could update our local emergency info number but not the 800 number for a period of time. We couldn’t use the voice mail delivery tool as we had in the past due to licensing issues with the tool. There are also challenges in that the individuals involved in deciding and clearing the communications can also be affected by the power outages on an individual level, dealing with their particular situation, moving locations, checking into hotels, coming back from vacation. Phone calls, emails and text messages played a large role in an asynchronous communications and the decision process.
How are you communicating with staff during emergency events?
|Tori Garten is Chief, New Media and Web Policy Branch in the Office of Communications and Government Relations at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The full office location acronym is HHS/NIH/NIAID/OCGR/NMWPB.|
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