21st century comms bring opportunities, pitfalls

When disaster strikes, communication is key. Getting the right information to the right people is not only useful for keeping organizations afloat, but can be critical to physical safety.

Two technologies that have made a big difference in how key team members communicate in recent disasters are mobility and social media.

“They provide alternative ways to communicate, which is especially useful when traditional methods aren’t available,” says Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst for Enterprise Strategy Group. “Anything that helps enable collaboration or sharing information in times of crisis is positive.”

Smartphones, of course, provide an alternative means of voice communications, which is important. But just as important, they can be used for texting, email, and accessing access social networks.

They can also be used to find out what locations are operational and where employees are directed to go, and what applications and services are still functional. What’s more, smartphones and tablets are a good place to store a copy of the organization’s business continuity plan and emergency contacts, which may not be accessible via normal means during a disaster. With that in mind, it’s important to ensure that the devices are kept up to date and backed up periodically.

Mobility also fosters productivity. If your files or applications are stored in the cloud, for example, you’ll still have access to them and can conduct some level of business. The same is true if you store critical apps and/or files in a service like Evernote or Dropbox.

Social media also can be a lifesaver during emergencies. In fact, Gartner, a market research and consulting firm predicts that by 2015, 75 percent of organizations with business continuity management programs will include social media services in their crisis communications plans.

There are many benefits to using social media in times of crisis. Not only can organizations use social media to keep employees or citizens up to date, but it can be used to collaborate with other agencies or divisions providing relief or trying to bring a data center back up.

In fact, it has been used successfully in many emergencies. For example, when a gunman opened fire at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November of 2009, soldiers, as well as the public, got updates via Twitter.

After a 2010 earthquake in Haiti, social media helped connect healthcare workers who needed supplies with those who had them. During that crisis, related tools such as text messaging, interactive online maps and crowdsourcing also played a big role.

And during a 2012 tornado in Joplin, Mo., state officials asked for help by sending this tweet: “We’re looking for photos of damage & recovery efforts in #Joplin. Submit them to us on Twitter or on Flickr at http://on.mo.gov/finIKJP.”

strong> Use with caution

As useful as these technologies are, Laliberte recommends caution.

“You don’t want someone sending a message on Twitter saying that the data center was just flooded,” he notes. “You have to have policies around the use of social media in particular or you can do as much harm as good.”

The best uses of social media in a disaster situation are to dispel rumors, announce important information such as closures and weather warnings and provide guidance. On the other hand, it’s probably not a good idea to use social media when the message is meant for a specific group, when it contains confidential information, or when you need a response back.

The Information Systems Audit and Control Association, a global association for IT governance professionals, recommends that business continuity plans include policies and procedures defining the proper use of social networks during a crisis, including a list of approved sites and approved spokespeople. Taking this step in advance of a crisis will help ensure that they don’t create panic in a tough situation.

Gartner, in its most recent advisory, also recommends determining which social media platforms are most often used by employees and citizens and sticking to those when disaster strikes.