In Crisis, Public Officials Embrace Social Media

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With Hurricane Sandy, public officials and government agencies have embraced social media to a greater degree than ever. For proof, look no further than the Twitter feed of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York: 400 messages on Tuesday, 300 on Wednesday and well over 100 on Thursday, featuring everything from photos of storm surge damage to updates on power restoration.

It is usually Mr. Cuomo's aides, not the governor, typing the messages. But he and his staff recognize that social media "is a highly effective method of communicating information in a time of crisis," said Joshua Vlasto, Mr. Cuomo's deputy communications director. The governor's followers have increased to 50,000 from 20,000 last Friday

Although phone service has been spotty in some places across the Northeast, people with working signals have been reliant on texting and social networking to a degree not seen during previous disasters.

In turn, governors, mayors and emergency workers from North Carolina to Maine have fully embraced Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, knowing that constituents unable to watch television can still receive texts and Twitter messages.

Political leaders are still having "Voice of God" news conferences, of course, but aides now tend to post their words on Twitter at the same time, trying to spread accurate information and convey a sense of control amid the chaos and confusion.

"Twitter makes it possible for a public official to create a round-the-clock press conference, simultaneously informing their staff, the public and the press," said Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the Personal Democracy Forum. Praising the effectiveness of the Web during the recovery from the storm, he said, "We can now separate public officials' embrace of social media as either pre- or post-Sandy."

Even before the storm, states showed newfound creativity in getting the word out. Maryland's emergency management office promoted a Pinterest page with resources and photos of past floods to prod people to get ready. On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a county manager posted videos to YouTube about preparations before the storm passed by, and videos of damage afterward.

Political campaigns big and small started realizing the effectiveness of these tools several years ago -- and now the lessons learned are being applied by the winning candidates.

"Social media is an integral part of an emergency communication plan," said J. Tucker Martin, the director of communications for Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who was elected in 2009. "I think a few years ago, it would have been considered a nicety, where it is now considered essential."

Shortly after Connecticut's governor, Dannel P. Malloy, was inaugurated in 2011, a couple of big snowstorms quickly showed how useful social media could be in delivering emergency information, said David Bednarz, a deputy communications manager who operates Mr. Malloy's Twitter account.

Then came Hurricane Irene in August of last year, followed by a freakish October snowstorm. As more and more citizens lost power, the number of Mr. Malloy's Twitter followers soared.

"Perhaps a sign of the times, we have found that many people do not own battery-operated radios anymore and can't listen to the governor's live news briefings," Mr. Bednarz said. "Using their cellphones, Twitter was the last resource they had available to them to find out what was happening while they were stuck in their homes with no power."

Across Manhattan's powerless areas this week, people with smartphones tended to huddle around the few remaining Wi-Fi hot spots rather than battery-operated televisions or radios.

Some agencies have also used the Web to correct news outlets that provided misleading information. On Wednesday, when The New York Post reported on its Web site that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg planned to ban all passenger cars in Manhattan, the mayor's press secretary posted a Twitter response in capital letters, "NOT CORRECT."

The Post deleted the story, which overstated the car restrictions that were announced an hour later.

Social media styles vary. Power utilities tend to be matter-of-fact, keeping emotion to a minimum. Mr. Cuomo is data-driven; Mr. Vlasto said the staff treats his Twitter page "very much like a news operation."

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, on the other hand, is oftentimes personal. ("The rides I took my kids on this summer are in the Atlantic Ocean," he wrote Tuesday night.)

Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, a pioneer of Twitter politicking, replies to more people than most public officials. When a woman who lives around the corner from Mr. Booker asked on Thursday morning, "Why don't we have our power back?" he replied that he did not know.

But he added that anyone in the neighborhood "can come to my house" to warm up and charge their cellphones. A few hours later, the woman said on Twitter, she was at his home, charging her phone and watching the movie "Happy Feet."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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