Learning How to Tweet From the Boston Marathon Bombing

An interesting paper came our way, which studied the Twitter messages sent after the  Boston Marathon bombing last year.  It’s a bit dry, so here are some highlights if you don’t want to read for yourself. 

They studied over 1,000 messages sent by various authorities and developed an approach to categorizing them.

I’ve quoted some passage below.  But here’s an interesting point:  despite the fact that research has concluded that messages should fit into 4 key groups (warning, provide instructions to reduce damage, get public assistance and increase social cohesion, resilience and confidence in authorities) only 25% of the messages sent actually fit into those groups.

And there was no consistent use of hashtags to make it easy for people to follow and repeat messaging.

Our take on this paper is that emergency management folks should decide IN ADVANCE the kind of messages they need to send under different scenarios and how they want those messages presented, including how to come up with consistent use of hashtags and other methods for insuring that everyone who wants to follow an issue can do so effectively.

Messages that use directive and instructional sentence style, are organized along an identifiable hashtag channel, and include content about the impact of the hazard and protective action guidance will receive considerably more retweets than those that do not (Sutton et al., 2013).

…the leading recommendation stated that a “a primary goal of IED risk communication is to inoculate people against, or counteract, the social and economic messages that terrorists intend to convey” (p 14), which can be accomplished through four key messages: (1) Warn citizens of imminent attack; (2) provide instructions to reduce potential injuries, casualties, and disruption; (3) gain the assistance of citizens in identifying suspicious activities or indicators of terrorist activities; and (4) enhance social cohesion, social resilience, and confidence in authorities (p. 15). These communication strategies, while not unique to risk communication, are novel when they are delivered in real time, via terse messaging channels, over the course of a disaster event.

Pre-event coordination for utilizing social media platforms during future events should not be limited only to who leads, but also to who amplifies messages and who serves in a supporting role. Our findings suggest that messages generated at the local level are amplified at the local level, but also distributed more broadly by State agencies. In contrast, Federal agencies, while not promoting messages from local agencies, offer a supporting role by posting information relevant to the broader public. Such coordination could be included as part of future strategic planning. In addition, pre-planning must include strategies to develop and converge around event specific channels via Twitter hashtags (or other kinds of metadata/tags) in order to coordinate terse messaging across a distributed and remote audience facilitating both searching and dissemination of relevant information.  Such efforts will benefit those who follow a disaster event and serve to validate the effective coordination of public information and response functions.