The Japanese Red Cross Society
learns how actively engaging both traditional and social
media is a critical part of crisis response.
In the days and nights just after the March
2011 tsunami in north-eastern Japan, the Red Cross hospital
was the only major health facility in the city of Ishinomaki
to survive. Its generator-powered lights stood out like a
beacon when night fell on an otherwise darkened landscape.
Although the hospital was overwhelmed with victims who
needed care and shelter, there was a virtual blackout when
it came to news of Ishinomaki. The nearby airport was so
heavily damaged even helicopters could not fly in or out.
Rail lines and roads were cut, and the extensive destruction
in the area meant it took time for reporters to discover
what was going on in Ishinomaki.
It wasn’t until a journalist from Kyodo News came
to the hospital and filed a report that media began flooding
in and the hospital made a critical decision to change hospital
policy that restricted the media to a special press area
during major disasters.
The director of the Planning and Communication Division,
Masaaki Abe, decided to welcome the media as much as possible — over the phone, in person, at
any hour, providing as much information as possible. He wanted to make up for
the lack of news during the first two days and not let the nuclear power plant
accident obscure events in Ishinomaki, so he asked staff members to be as cooperative
as possible with the media.
An important channel for information
It wasn’t always easy. Staff were not used to the cameras, questions and
demands of the media. But with no functioning city government, the media was
crucial in getting out important messages about what the city needed, what the
hospital and medical teams were doing on the scene and what challenges relief
workers were facing.
“The media is not always an obstacle to medical activities,” says
Tadashi Ishii, the hospital’s disaster management coordinator. “Through
this disaster, I’ve learned that the media can be our
Journalists were even allowed to attend the medical team's
daily coordination meeting. So when breaking stories arose — such
as when two people were found alive nine days after the tsunami — the
hospital could respond effectively. After being found at
16:00, the survivors were brought to the hospital for treatment
by 17:00. At 20:00, the hospital held a press conference
together with a family member of the survivors.
Managing misleading tweets
At the same time, the Japanese Red Cross Society took a
very proactive approach to social media. In the days following
the earthquake and tsunami, simple messages with photographs
were tweeted by the organization in order to
convey the urgency of the Red Cross response. Over a four-day
period from 11 to 14 March, tweets from @federation (the
Twitter handle) reached more than 2.2 million people.
not to say that the Japanese Red Cross Society’s post-tsunami
experience with media was always easy. An incorrect assertion,
first posted on a blog and then echoed on Twitter, said that
the Japanese Red Cross was taking a 20 per cent administration
fee on all donations, recalls Saya Matsumoto, a Red Cross
That in turn led to further negative
press and the decision by the Japanese Red Cross Society
to set the record straight. “We had to run a newspaper
advertisement saying that 100 per cent of all donations would
be distributed to the survivors and we did not take any [percentage],” says
Matsumoto, adding that while the amount spent on the ads
was relatively small, it could have been spent on relief
“From this experience, I’ve learned that in
the world of the internet, you have to be very careful what
you say,” says Matsumoto. “Anything
can be tweeted and spread in a way you did not intend. Twitter has
become an important tool, which can influence public opinion.
If you don’t respond
to tweets that are spreading wrong information,
a large number of people can easily be misled.”
For more, see www.redcross.int.
Minutes after the earthquake hit in March
2011, Japanese Red Cross Society spokesperson Saya Matsumoto
began sending ‘tweets’ like this one via
the Twitter social network to subscribers worldwide — including
This Japanese Red Cross Society
video, posted on YouTube, shows how hospital staff reacted
quickly, preparing for mass casualties and converting the
lobby into a triage area.
A woman is rolled into the Ishinomaki
Red Cross hospital after she and her son were found trapped
in the rubble nine days after the tsunami hit, igniting
an international media frenzy.
On the first anniversary of the earthquake
and tsunami, this video, posted on YouTube by the Japanese
Red Cross Society, carries a simple message of thanks.
Dispatches from disaster: A British
Red Cross programme is trying to change the way media
We interrupt this program: When the Australian
Broadcasting Corporation goes into Red Cross reporting
and Twitter have turned mass communication on its head
for Movement: How to use social media to raise humanitarian
When an 8.7-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of
Sumatra, Indonesia on 11 April, IFRC’s Asia Pacific zone office
in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was physically shaken by the tremor.
Fearing a repeat of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the communications
unit immediately tweeted a first-hand account, closely followed
by contact details of Red Cross Red Crescent spokespeople on
the ground. Within minutes, interview requests flooded in from
the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, all of whom were following the
IFRC’s communications manager on Twitter.
In rapid-onset emergencies Twitter has proved to be
a powerful tool in rapidly building media attention around
a crisis. Breaking news emerges on the ‘twittersphere’ before
it makes the TV news headlines. If the Red Cross Red Crescent
is to be considered a credible first responder, it’s
vital that we are seen to be actively tweeting relevant and
useful information within minutes of a disaster striking.
Twitter’s impact can be measured not only by its reach.
Its conversational nature makes it the perfect mechanism
for humanitarian organizations to communicate at a more emotional
and personal level, which in turn generates greater interest
among public supporters.
Social media platforms allow us to explain how we are helping
and how the public can help us. We can share powerful eye-witness
stories, upload near-real-time photographs, advocate on specific
areas of concern, answer questions and correct misinformation.
But in this age of ‘citizen’s journalism’,
what are the potential pitfalls for humanitarian organizations
where we don’t have editorial control? For an organization like
the ICRC, the risks are evident. When operating in sensitive
political environments, misinformation spreading across the ‘blogosphere’ could
have a detrimental impact on operational security and access
to vulnerable populations.
A major concern today is that through repetition in social
media, ‘someone’s truth’ becomes ‘everyone’s
truth’. Managing misinformation and the reputational
risks associated with negative criticism on social media
platforms requires speed, skill and dexterity. Forward planning
in crisis management cannot be neglected and the chain of
command in signing off on public statements must be streamlined
if we are to engage with authority and conviction on issues
where immediate responses are required.
Ultimately the opportunities outweigh the risks. Social
media is here to stay and non-engagement is simply not an
option. By their very nature, Facebook and Twitter break
down hierarchical barriers, enabling volunteers to become
communicators for their National Societies. Leaders in Red
Cross Red Crescent National Societies must embrace this shift
and harness the huge potential inherent in their membership.
By Patrick Fuller
Patrick Fuller is communications manager for the IFRC’s
Asia Pacific zone.