Social Media to the Rescue: The American Red Cross Story
Jo Ellen Warner

Haiti Changes Everything

In the weeks leading up to the Haiti earthquake of January 12, 2010, Wendy Harman, the Director of Social Strategies for the American Red Cross, was beginning to doubt whether social media could have a meaningful role in assisting disaster victims. The Red Cross had been monitoring the social web and engaging in public conversations since the early 2000s, leveraging Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and WordPress to build relationships and raise funds. Now Harman asked herself,  “So we are facile with social channels, but what good does it really do?”When the earthquake ruptured the Caribbean nation, Harman led the Red Cross emergency operations team into the Twittersphere and launched a $10 text message donation initiative (text “Haiti” to 90999) to help earthquake victims. Over the next 48 hours the Red Cross call for aid was retweeted 2.3 million times. The campaign raised a stunning $32 million dollars with 42% of donations coming from people like Harman, under age 34.

“It was really something to see,” Harman said, “We pushed out the initial information and the community did the rest.”

The “community” included First Lady Michelle Obama who reached out to the Red Cross to collaborate on a public service announcement for the text Haiti campaign.  (President Obama and the First Lady visited the Red Cross Emergency Operations Center where Harman helped the President send his first tweet about the earthquake.)Historically, the Red Cross does not lead rescue missions, but provides shelter, food, emotional support, and access to services to enable communities to recover from disasters. Social media tore down those traditional boundaries by giving earthquake victims a voice that could not be ignored.

Within a few hours of the quake, a man trapped with 20 other people under a collapsed building managed to send a photo of the jumbled scene from his phone to a cousin who was working at Morton’s Steak House in Chicago. The cousin at Morton’s immediately called the injured man who asked that his plight be tweeted to “@RedCross”. Harman intercepted the tweet in Washington D.C. and relayed the man’s location to first responders in Haiti. The relay continued as eyewitness accounts and pleas for rescue streamed in over social networks in the days and even weeks to come.

Public Expectations for the Next Disaster

No longer doubtful of social media’s disaster applications, Harman concerned herself with scaling the Red Cross’s social media operations to “listen” and respond in future emergencies. Would public expectations of the Red Cross shift because of the Haiti response? In July 2010, Harman’s colleagues conducted a public survey, which found that 69% of those surveyed (n=1000) said that emergency response agencies should now use social media to monitor and respond within four hours to requests for help.

Red Cross Next Gen, Powered by Dell

Seeking to increase its customer service capacity, Dell Computer has long been operating a ‘social listening command center’ to engage with customers on social media networks. The company volunteered to build the Red Cross its own Digital Operations Centers—dubbed the “DigiDoc” by Harman and her team—which opened in March 2012.

The DigiDoc consists of six large display screens and three computers and runs on Radian6 software, which monitors social media conversations worldwide, 24/7. Any mention of emergency-related terms—earthquake, flood, tornado, and hurricane—instantly appears on a brilliant heat map of the world. The system calculates the frequency of the mentions, shows clusters of activity, creates charts listing the contents of messages, and other data visualizations. Red Cross staff can send information to response agencies, alert and begin to mobilize local Red Cross chapters, and post safety information on Twitter, Facebook, and other social spaces, all in real time.

The DigiDoc was in full swing during the 2012 Midwest Tornadoes, responding to thousands of tweets. Here’s an example: “There are tornado warnings all around my house.  I’m scared and alone.  SAVE ME.” Red Cross responded, “Head to basement or a bottom floor, inner closet/windowless room to take shelter!  Stay safe and ((hugs)) from us @RedCross.” To which the Twitterer replied, “Thanks! To the basement!  Click here to watch the DigiDoc on YouTube!

You Can Be a Digital Volunteer

The American Red Cross has always relied on volunteers to execute its mission and it’s no different in the digital era. The organization is now looking for caring social network users to participate in an online training to become Disaster Digital Volunteers. Find out more at American Red Cross University Disaster Digital Volunteering Training.

A Haunting Tweet

Heartbreak still overcomes Wendy Harman when she recalls the first tweet asking the American Red Cross to rescue a man from the crushing weight of fallen debris. Neither he nor his fellow captives survived. But since that day, Harman knows she is extending the reach of human conversation to relieve the pain of others.

Jo Ellen Warner is a communications and digital/social media strategist engaged by the World Health Organization to promote educational opportunities for people living in vulnerable and remote regions of the Asia Pacific and across the globe. As a senior program analyst for the National Association of County and City Health Officials, she is the policy, planning, and communications lead for a collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Nurse Triage Line Project, and oversees the development of a mobile health/texting service to promote behavior change.