Social media strategy playing a role in IT disaster recovery planning

Social media has helped save lives in wide-scale disasters, prompting organizations to build a social media strategy into their IT DR plans, but experts say IT should first understand what social media is and how it works.

Experts recommend that large organizations include a social media strategy as part of their disaster recovery planning. But while using social media has clear benefits, it also comes with challenges that IT staffs need to be aware of.

There have been clear cases of how using social media has saved lives during recent large-scale disasters. When a massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti last January, Twitter posts helped the State Department locate and save an individual trapped under a building. And during the Colorado wildfires in September, evacuees connected with each other through social media to get more information than they could get from local mainstream media. People in Colorado distributed photos, phone numbers for volunteer organizations, and maps of evacuation zones and damage. The city of Boulder aggregated this information and provided updates on its Facebook page.

The term " social media" or "social networking" refers to any Internet-based medium created through social interaction where individuals primarily produce (rather than consume) the content. An estimated two-thirds of Internet users visit social networking or blogging sites, according to a Nielsen report. Facebook claims more than 400 million active users, and other social media sites Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, LinkedIn, Google, and Twitter all have significant and rapidly growing audiences.

So, can your organization harness social media tools as part of a formal IT disaster recovery planning methodology? Several leading experts think so.

Disaster recovery consultant Paul Kirvan, secretary of the Business Continuity Institute's U.S. chapter, maintains that larger organizations are more likely to benefit from social media than smaller firms in a disaster. "For small businesses, standard email, cell phones and/or texting may be sufficient for contacting people quickly about an incident," Kirvan wrote in an email to SearchDisasterRecovery.com. "Nothing else may be needed. For large, multi-location and perhaps multi-national organizations, social media may be a primary or alternate channel for disseminating information about an incident."

But he added, "A crisis communication strategy should be in place to provide information to all employees as well as external stakeholders, emergency response organizations, government agencies, etc. A crisis communication strategy should include a process for rapidly notifying all stakeholders quickly. Social media can be a part of that strategy and associated notification process."

Kirvan recommends organizations run a pilot test to see how quickly messages can be sent and to evaluate the security and speed of response.

Social media still misunderstood by most organizations

John Orlando, program director, Norwich University in Norwich, VT, agrees that social networks are increasingly being used as a powerful method to aid disaster response, but many companies do not take advantage. He writes in the paper Turning Disaster Response on its Head, "One of the reasons is a widespread misunderstanding about social media itself."

"Social media is not a way of talking, it's a way of listening," Orlando wrote in the paper. "For the first time ever, the public can feed information back to one another or responders, what is known 'crowd-sourcing.' A social media plan begins when the power of crowd-sourcing is used to harness information."

Put another way, Orlando maintains "people see [social media] as another way to send information when it's really a way to gather information."

He also cautions that IT's natural tendencies to want to control information can hamper the flow of social media. "You don't have to control every interaction," he said. "Some interactions do need control, but there are other situations where that doesn't have to be the case." He cites the Haitian Crisis Camps as an example.

During the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, ordinary citizens were looking for ways to help. People came with computers and brainstormed ideas. He also wrote of an iPhone app that was developed to translate Creole into English and back again. That allowed English-speaking rescuers to talk to Haitian earthquake victims.

Rescue workers also created a software program called OpenStreetMap, which allowed volunteers to code information on a Google map of the affected area. They added sites of damaged buildings, where hospitals had been set up, which streets were blocked, and other critical information for rescuers. The hand-coded information was converted into a format to display on GPS units.

Challenges of using social media to aid disaster recovery planning

Even though many disaster recovery planners agree that social media has a place in disaster recovery and business continuity, they have different views on where/when it belongs in the process.

Harvey Betan, a business continuity planning consultant, said, "The unfortunate part about this [disaster recovery planning and social media] is that using social media in this way would only be after an event takes place."

As with implementing any new technology into your disaster recovery strategy, there are a lot of potential hazards. Said Betan: "The main issue as I see it is the same issue that makes this beneficial. Open access. One would want open access for anyone to post messages yet there are folks out there that could potentially use this channel for their own selfish interests."

Kirvan added, "The message to be disseminated must be carefully crafted so as not to divulge any corporate secrets or other competitive information. Social media outlets are designed for rapid dissemination of messages to a huge audience. An improperly [e.g., not validated and approved by lawyers and other authorities] written message could generate adverse responses and negative media coverage, which will have to be addressed in addition to any other disaster-related issues."

Orlando said we're just starting to "scratch the surface of a distributed disaster response." He said the real challenge of using social media as part of a disaster response is to "find a way to aggregate and harness all of the information available."

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