How social media can improve organisational resilience when disaster strikes

Blog post   •   Sep 17, 2014 12:30 BST

The devastating earthquakes that hit the South Island of New Zealand in 2010 and 2011 and over 4000 bigger aftershocks rattling Christchurch and Canterbury have caused an estimated $40 billion damage to the city, including wide parts of the CBD and around 100,000 homes. While there are parts of the city ‘red-zoned’ and will not be rebuilt, the rebuild of the rest is expected to take at least 15 years. The whole inner city is going to be re-arranged and while this is still undergoing, a lot of local businesses have moved out of the centre to somewhere else.

Christchurch, like New Zealand as a whole, has first-world ICT infrastructure and high rates of technology uptake across all sectors of society. This technology uptake and the rising importance of social media in society made the earthquakes one of the first natural disasters, where social media played a major role in direct response but also the long-term recovery. In the immediate aftermath of the major quakes in September 2010 and February 2011, social media services including Twitter provided crucial communication channels for individuals, communities and organizations. With a disrupted electricity supply, and unreliable SMS services, Twitter was an up to date and reliable source for eyewitness accounts and crucial public information.

During the recovery phase social media stayed an important part of people’s lives. While the CBD was corded and totally locked down, people didn’t know if businesses moved somewhere else, what the opening hours under these special circumstances were or which alternatives there were to purchase a certain product, service or simply going out for dinner. Social media enabled people to connect with each other for emotional support, information, calls to action or organizational purposes.

Various online communities developed around the central problems of the earthquakes, from neighbourhood groups helping with insurance claims, to forums and message boards where people posted pictures of lost and found pets or pages where people discussed, how the city should look like after the rebuild, to the Facebook page of the Student Volunteer Army, a student group who organised and coordinated volunteers through a Facebook page.

Apart from the examples mentioned above, I also encountered a couple of business uses in my research. With an online social media platform an organisation or group gains a channel to interact with the community, but also with customers and staff, enhancing business resilience as well.

In the case of Mainland Press, a Christchurch based newspaper business, print production was not possible immediately after the earthquakes. Through a newly found social media site, the Mainland Press reporters were still able to communicate their local news and information until the newspaper went back to normal production. But even after that, their Facebook page ‘Rise Up Christchurch’ remained an important platform for information exchange and discussion with a huge amount of followers.

For other businesses, social media became important a bit later on. To bring life back into the city centre, a transitional mall with shops in shipping containers was build up and re-opened. To spread the news about what was happening there and to keep people up to date about special offers in this new mall, a Facebook page was created and a community was built.

I could go on describing different examples of businesses and other people using social media in the aftermath of the earthquake for different purposes but you probably get what I am aiming for already. All communities are very different and tailored specifically for and through the people engaging, who are interested in the issue, be it earthquake updates, help or the latest news about what is happening in the inner city. Anyway, social media is a great way to keep in touch with your customers, serving as a two-way channel, which enables communication and can help a business or community to reach out and make it more resilient. In most cases, social media was not something organisations or businesses had used before the earthquakes, nor was there a strategy in place for how to deal with the new tool. Even though your social media presence isn’t a core feature in your marketing strategy, it doesn’t hurt to learn these skills and build up a community before a crisis happens.

Martina Wengenmeir is a PhD candidate at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her research interests lie in cross-medial information flow and online communities and publics.