In a disaster event, one group that is often overlooked is the communicators on the ground. In the Army, they are called public affairs specialists, who worked quickly to begin communicating storm related information according to pre-established guidance and plans.
One focus of the Charleston District’s Florence communication plan was to leverage the power and reach of social media platforms to keep key audiences informed of the actions being taken by USACE to help mitigate the risk of flooding during and after the storm made landfall. At the same time, significant effort was made to actively engage traditional media outlets, like radio, television and newspapers, in order to keep the general public informed of potential hazards and real-time, or near real-time, actions being taken by USACE, in coordination with FEMA, state and local partners to mitigate the risk of flooding.
“During a flood event like the one brought on by Hurricane Florence, it’s critically important for leaders at all levels to engage the media early and often,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey S. Palazzini, Charleston District commander. “Doing so helps provide those impacted by a storm a better understanding of what steps are being taken to help their communities and what they should do individually to remain safe during an emergency.”
To that end, USACE officials on the ground in the South Carolina counties of Horry and Georgetown took part in 44 media engagements in three weeks. Of that number, Palazzini was personally involved in 26 interviews with local, state and national media outlets.
“Our public affairs professionals were standing ready to help subject matter experts and emergency management leaders prepare for media engagement opportunities throughout the crisis,” said Palazzini. “Of course, like other key competencies, media relations preparation is something that should always be included in pre-emergency exercises and training so that we are ready to effectively engage the media when the need occurs.”
The District’s Public Affairs Office, augmented by a PAO brought in from another district to assist during the crisis, took a deliberate and aggressive approach to social media communications.
“Today, social media is the main way we tell the District’s story, especially during an emergency situation,” said Sean McBride, Charleston District’s social media specialist. “It’s important to show our audience the work we’re doing in their area to minimize risk to their community and keep them informed. Allowing our audience to see what we’re doing is part of our mission to be a transparent organization. Social media lets people interact with us and ask questions about critical issues in real time, giving them immediate answers and results.”
By any measure, that is precisely what happened throughout the flood, as the District set all-time viewership records across numerous social media platforms, including gaining 902 followers on Facebook during the flood event, a 33 percent increase.
One post, using Facebook’s live video feature to broadcast an aerial reconnaissance of areas impacted by the flood from a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, reached more 127,000 people with 38,000 views, 377 shares, 1,392 likes and 430 comments. The most viewed storm-related message consisted of an aerial photo of U.S. Highway 501, depicting measures being taken to keep the highway clear of flood water and open to traffic. That post alone reached 119,553 people, garnering 2,839 likes, 438 comments and 1,558 shares.
“Twitter was our best resource for sharing information from partner agencies during Florence,” added McBride. “We were able to retweet their messages and add information specific to our mission.
McBride added that partner agencies were able to reciprocate by retweeting USACE messaging as well.
“We have such impactful stories to tell and it was an honor to be able to share what our leadership, the flood fighting subject matter experts and the many other partner emergency management staff were contributing to aid the city, counties and state,” said Glenn Jeffries, Charleston District’s public affairs chief. “Our partnership with communication offices from other responding agencies was key to successfully reaching the public and we could not have done it without their support.”