Social media lessons from Lac-Mégantic

Police photo of Lac-Mégantic derailment

Social media lessons from Lac-Mégantic

The recent handling of communications following the train crash at Lac-Mégantic, where social media was informing the friends and family of victims (often erroneously) of the unfolding disaster and even naming individuals involved, highlights how social media can easily escape the official channels during a crisis situation.

For the people of Lac-Mégantic, the absence of official news, facts and information drove them into hastily-formed online communities where hard facts were served up in equal measure alongside rumours and hearsay…all leading to confusion and panic in an already fraught situation.

“The people in Lac-Mégantic, or who had family there, were in distress,” said Frédéric Gamache, one of eight volunteers moderating a Support Lac-Mégantic Facebook page in an interview with the Montreal Gazette. “They needed to know what was happening, minute-to-minute, and we had to be the social media that was verifiable.”

As events rolled out on that fateful night, Twitter told the story of the disaster in real time. Facebook communities appeared in droves, and charities began fundraising online before the night was through. Sadly, unauthorized lists of missing persons started to appear on websites and blogs.

The police force, Sûreté du Québec (SQ), was also actively engaging in social media. SQ spokesman Sgt. Gregory Gomez del Prado, told the Montreal Gazette that online activity did help in cross-checking information. But the challenge was to “adapt using the social media world to be as efficient as possible without compromising the investigation or emergency procedures.”

Lac-Mégantic held many hard lessons for first responders and emergency services. One of the most important is that, in disaster situations, social media is crucial in engaging with the community and managing crisis communications.

Emergency responders need to establish immediately a viable social media presence, and have a clear idea what is being said and who is saying it on behalf of the service. They also need to be able to easily monitor social media chatter across social networks. The focus should be on getting up-to-the-minute news and facts out while engaging with the community to offer advice and seek information. All this can be carried out via a reliable, secure software solution.

One of many social media management software options is CrowdControlHQ which has a strong track record in fire and rescue service deployments.  It centralizes communications for a distributed workforce, provides monitoring tools, an audit trail along with moderation and search facilities. In addition, it provides the in-depth analytics that help in understanding community conversations and engagement levels.

In short, it strips out the complexities and risks of managing real time communications during dynamic, high-stress situations to provide a cohesive voice–a resource that people can turn to and trust.

An example of YouTube video content published by residents of Lac-Mégantic.

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