March 2, 2010
When a devastating earthquake struck the impoverished island nation of Haiti on Jan. 12, PR teams across the globe jumped into action to capture news from the scene and educate the public on how they could help. For many organizations, social networks were the first stop for distributing the latest news.
Social media has transformed how many PR teams do their jobs, and for those who work in disaster response and relief, the instant nature of the social Web kicked into high gear after the earthquake. Partners in Health (PIH), a medical services organization that has been active in Haiti since 1985, was able to get information out immediately from colleagues who were based in the country after the disaster.
“We were in the office when the earthquake happened, and we were able to update our Web site instantly and begin mobilizing our online resources,” says Meredith Eves, assistant to the director of communications for PIH.
Having a social media plan in place helped PIH put its network to use quickly after the disaster. It had already begun working to boost the agency’s social media presence, but the earthquake put those efforts into overdrive. PIH’s Facebook group jumped from 4,000 fans before the disaster to nearly 50,000 since, and their Twitter account, @PIH_org, has added nearly 500 followers per day since the quake.
“These tools enable us to have things go viral, so the most recent information we have is getting out to the public,” says Eves. “They encourage people to look at what we are doing and find out how they can help.”
Beyond Facebook and a newly launched Web site, StandWithHaiti.com, PIH has also engaged the public to host and share fundraising events and posted videos of its work to YouTube. When actress Meryl Streep plugged the group’s work in Haiti during this year’s Golden Globes, PIH officials saw an immediate spike in donations and online mentions.
Finding success through engagement
At the federal level, the State Department is one of many agencies involved with responding to needs in Haiti. Katie Jacobs Stanton, director of citizen participation at the State Department, has used her Twitter account @KateAtState, to spread the news of the many ways the U.S. government has been involved with the relief efforts.
Shortly after the earthquake, the State Department activated the same mobile donation program used to respond to humanitarian needs in Pakistan to raise funds for Haiti relief.
“The Secretary [of State Hillary Clinton] was very supportive, and within hours we were able to launch [the text campaign],” Stanton says. She and her colleagues used Twitter to push the text donation information out quickly.
“There wasn’t time for a press release or a communication plan,” she says. “This had to happen fast. We really had the perfect storm of real-time communications and the public’s generosity converge to respond to this disaster,” Stanton adds. “With everyone using Twitter as a communications tool, we were able to raise $1 million within the first day and $30 million within the first week.”
Although Stanton is not part of the public affairs department, she and her colleagues across the organization use social networks because the State Department has engaged teams beyond the public affairs office to share and receive information and ideas.
“Innovation and communication should be a part of everyone’s job,” says Stanton. “These are really important tools for all of us, especially given the global nature of all these platforms, because they allow us to have a global conversation.”
As relief efforts move forward, Stanton has been using Twitter to locate experts in other areas who have expertise on long-term issues such as rebuilding schools.
Letting the public share the message
Wendy Harman, manager of social media for the American Red Cross, agreed that the message of providing instant support to the Haitian people via text messages was part of its success on the Internet. The Red Cross raised more than $21 million through its text message campaign.
“We were spreading the easy message via the social Web that the public could help immediately,” says Harman. “For a lot of people, it was a gut reaction to seeing the devastation and knowing there was a way that they could help.”
Related reading: The story behind President Obama’s first tweet
On Jan. 18, the President and First Lady visited the Disaster Operations Center at the American Red Cross national headquarters to get a firsthand look at the support relief efforts for Haiti.
As the President and First Lady worked their way through the room, a colleague suggested to Wendy Harman, manager of social media for the American Red Cross, that she ask the President to send a tweet on their behalf.
In case the opportunity arose, Harman prepared a tweet announcing the President’s arrival to their more than 70,000 Twitter followers.
“The President came over and asked what we were working on, and I let him know we were sending information out via all the social networks about our service delivery on the ground,” says Harman. Seizing the opportunity, Harman asked if he wanted to send out the message she had written.
“I figured I had nothing to lose, and he was so nice and genuine, when I asked him, he said yes,” Harman says. Obama leaned in and pressed enter, then said that it was the first time he had actually tweeted.
“There you go, how about that,” he said. “I just tweeted. It’s the first time I’ve tweeted,” he added.
As the President and First Lady moved through the room, the press corps descended on Harman to confirm that he had indeed said that was his first personal tweet, and what might have been a short-lived story on a presidential visit to the Red Cross became a hit on the social Web.
The post was retweeted by thousands around the world, helping the Red Cross remain a trending topic on Twitter. USA Today, The Huffington Post, CNN.com, The Washington Post and several other news outlets ran stories about the tweet.
“I don’t think we expected it to be the big deal that it was,” says Harman. — L.S.
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