A Joplin, Mo., resident sits with her remaining possessions
Perhaps no single event did more damage to the reputation of
a federal agency than Hurricane Katrina did to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the summer of 2005. Due
to FEMA's lackluster response to the devastation in the Gulf Coast, its four-letter acronym came
to stand for bureaucratic ineptitude and an almost comical inability to
effectively handle the only type of situation it is ever asked to handle: a
In the years since, FEMA has taken a more proactive
approach to communicating with the public, particularly via social media, and
if the reaction to recent disasters in Missouri
and Alabama are any indication people
have begun to take notice.
FEMA maintains an active presence on Twitter, as does its administrator, Craig Fugate, and both have been pumping out messages since deadly
tornadoes ripped through Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., in recent weeks.
According to OhMyGov Media Monitoring, FEMA's main Twitter feed is
currently the tenth most popular account among large federal agencies, with nearly 48,000 followers as of today.
But those numbers tell only part of the story. Agency head
Craig Fugate has another 9,400 followers of his own. Meanwhile FEMA's
jurisdiction is broken up into ten regions, each one of which has its
own Twitter feed, with followers numbering in the thousands.
Once all of these disparate Twitter feeds are accounted for,
FEMA boasts a total of 86,250 followers. Yet it is not just the existence of these social media outlets
that has taken FEMA into the 21st century, but also the fact that
the agency is actively using them to communicate with disaster victims seeking
information and assistance.
According to OhMyGov's metrics, on May 23, the
day after deadly tornadoes leveled much of Joplin,
FEMA was mentioned in 3,196 on Twitter, while putting out 49 tweets of their
own. That same day, the agency's tweets were "retweeted" 173 times.
Many of the retweets focused on tornado safety tips and contact information
for the regional Red Cross. The number of retweets, while substantial, pales
in comparison to those generated in the wake of the Tuscaloosa tornado a few
weeks earlier (217 retweets) and the Japan tsunami in March (266). For the
month of May, FEMA was the second most popular large federal agency in terms of
retweets, further indicating the agency's growing social media profile.
Retweets of FEMA messages by day, since Jan. 31, 2011
Source: OhMyGov Media Monitoring
While these retweets do not show whether citizens are
satisfied with FEMA's performance, they are certainly an indicator that people are looking to the agency as a source
of updated information during a time of crisis. For the past month, FEMA ranked #3 among all federal agencies in the number of retweets of its posts, a clear sign that its messages are relevant. The high number of retweets is itself a boon to the agency's outreach, as the followers of FEMA's followers get exposure to the information feed and can become direct followers themselves. This viral spread really only happens when the underlying content is worthwhile. When retweets and follower counts are going up in tandem, as they have been for FEMA over the last month, the communications and public affairs officials are doing something right.
For the past month, FEMA also ranks 4th among all federal agencies in the number of mentions they've received on Twitter, and 2nd in the number of outgoing tweets.
FEMA has also made moves on Facebook, boasting over 40,000
fans... nearly 12,000 of who have started following the agency's official account
after the Japan
disaster in March. FEMA is still only the 21st most popular federal
agency on Facebook (NASA, by comparison, has over 421,000 fans), but it has
been growing at a steady and noticeable rate over the past several months. As an example, just during the month of May, it was #8 among all federal agencies in the average daily increase in Facebook fans.
FEMA ranking well in many social media metrics during May 2011
Source: OhMyGov Media Monitoring
Ultimately, FEMA will be judged on the quality of its
response to disasters such as the one that befell Missouri,
and not on the amount of Twitter followers or retweets it amasses. But at a
time when the agency's reputation had still not recovered from the utter
boondoggle of Katrina, social media is proving to be a invaluable tool in
reintroducing this major agency to the public and perhaps repairing its image as an agency worthy of its name.
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