“Volunteers bring risk that is hard to manage.” This recent tweet, made by someone with purported emergency management experience, was made in response to my asking the question about several tweets they posted discounting the concept of using volunteers for social media crisis communications. Instead, they believe using a mutual aid network of public agency professionals would be much easier to control (yep, there is that nasty word again…”control”), and would bring more legitimacy to the response. The tweets raised the ire of my fine colleague Patrice Cloutier, a champion in the virtual operations support team (VOST) concept. You can read his passionate point by point response here.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and asking the hard questions can be a good thing. It forces you to look introspectively about what you are doing to make sure you are on the right path. I believe the VOST concept is solid. Why?
• The larger the disaster, the less available adjacent “legitimate” resources will be. They will be too busy dealing with their own issues.
• Monitoring and engaging on social media is a HUGE undertaking in high visibility events. Public agencies are struggling with fulfilling basic missions on a daily basis, so expecting they will be able to effectively ramp up to handle social media communications during crisis is a bad bet.
• Many of the folks attracted to volunteer social media crisis teams are experienced digital communicators with emergency response backgrounds (active or retired). This invaluable experience lends itself well to interpreting data and relying it through the proper channels for action.
• Being a public sector official or agency doesn’t make you legit, or give you a leg up on knowing what is going on. Case in point; During the recent Ottawa, Canada Parliament shooting, the Government Operations Centre distributed the wrong situation status information, causing undue alarm and confusion. I attribute this mistake to a lack of coordination and engagement with the operational command agencies.
• A cadre of legit volunteers can be a SM force multiplier and megaphone on a daily basis for an agency, sharing routine agency messages and monitoring comments and opinions for impact, and relaying information and concerns to the agency.
Engaging digital volunteers before an event can help build trust on both sides, and help build confidence in their ability to respect the incident management system and use their talents to enhance the credibility and success of the agency. Make no mistake about it, managing volunteers can be like herding cats. But ignoring them as a legit emergency response resource is ignoring the new reality in the public’s role in crisis, and guarantees they won’t be managed when bad stuff happens.