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The tweets heard
around the world


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 partners.”

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 IFRC’s Twitter handle) reached more than 2.2 million people.

But that’s 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 communications officer.

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 activities.

“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

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 many journalists.

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.




Web extra!

Dispatches from disaster: A British Red Cross programme is trying to change the way media cover emergencies.
We interrupt this program: When the Australian Broadcasting Corporation goes into Red Cross reporting mode.

Facebook and Twitter have turned mass communication on its head

Question for Movement: How to use social media to raise humanitarian consciousness?

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.


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