Emergency Comms | Emerging Trends | Infrastructure
October 11, 2017

How organizations can use social media to better serve crisis affected people

By Tina Bouffet

A new guide by the ICRC, IFRC and OCHA offers practical tips and advice on how to make the best of Facebook and Twitter to talk to – and not just about – people.

In 2016, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria doubled the amount of food contained in its emergency food parcels. The aim was to make each parcel last longer, as the security situation, as well as lack of access to certain areas, were spacing out food distributions.

To explain these changes, the delegation published a short video on its Facebook page, and asked viewers to please provide feedback on parcel contents. The results weren’t disappointing: the under 2-minute reel racked up 51,000 views, near 1,500 likes, and over 250 shares.

The video also received hundreds of comments, covering everything from food options (“Add yeast and flour so that people can make their own bread”), to the quality of the carton box (“some materials are being damaged during transportation and distribution”), and the potential impact of parcel contents on the black market (“Alternate between lentils and beans each month, to avoid price manipulation”).

The use of social media to communicate with crises-affected populations is hardly new.

As far back as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, all the way to the ongoing series of hurricanes striking the US & Caribbean, Facebook and Twitter have played an important role in helping those affected people capable of being online to  coordinate amongst themselves. Social media can also allow local and international actors to better organize relief efforts, disseminate lifesaving messages, and maintain open feedback and communication channels with people in need.

For now, those people have far surpassed humanitarian organisations at using social media platforms to self-organize. However, this might change, as the past few years have witnessed an ongoing increase in affected individuals’ demands and expectations for engagement with, and accountability from, aid groups – including online.

Yet, while many organizations have a wide array of tools on communication about affected people (ranging from entire guides on social media use, to specific tips on measuring key social media metrics), specific guidance on communication with affected people during humanitarian crises is limited.

Where good pointers do exist (see the 101 Seminar Report: Social Media in Emergencies), they often focus on natural disasters, and not armed conflict situations, where circumstances might require a more cautious approach online. For example, geo-located tweets might be a great way to inform a hurricane response – but they can pose a significant threat to individuals stuck in a warzone.

In an effort to address this gap, the ICRC and IFRC, with support from UNOCHA – who pioneered ‘Hashtag Standards for Emergencies’, back in 2014 – have developed How to Use Social Media to Better Engage People Affected by Crises: A brief guide for those using social media in humanitarian organizations.

The user-friendly 20-pager provides practical tips, advice, and 10 short case studies, like UNHCR’s use of social media listening to document and counter smuggler narratives in Europe, or the ICRC’s creation of a mobile-friendly map to help Aleppo residents locate their nearest water point.

Currently, over three billion people use social media. That number is growing at a rate of one million new users per day. For those trapped in emergency situations, these online platforms can be real-world lifelines, providing information on how to access food, shelter, medical assistance, family reunification procedures, and other services that directly influence how they, and humanitarian organisations, prepare for, respond to, and recover from crises.

However, this growing, online phenomenon – compounded by the increasing ubiquity of smartphones – does not mean that communication technologies are accessible to everyone, everywhere.

Beyond data privacy and protection concerns, technology can also perpetuate existing inequalities, or trigger new cleavages along digital, age and gender divides. As much as this guide wants to help humanitarian organisations get better at serving people online, it’s important not to forget that many of the most vulnerable might remain, or abruptly find themselves, offline.

For more resources on Community Engagement and Accountability (CEA), including the Red Cross Red Crescent Guide to CEA, please visit the IFRC CEA webpage.

Tina Bouffet
Community Engagement Associate, ICRC
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