Surviving the Storm: Using archiving tools during social media emergency management
Historic flooding in May 2015 caused enormous destruction across the state of Texas, including the city of San Marcos. San Marcos city leaders, already coping with the fastest population growth in the country, used social media and new technology tools to reach its changing demographic during the emergency — and ever since. These communication channels, along with a new archiving solution, are saving the city time and resources and providing an extra measure of safety for citizens.
San Marcos is located within the metropolitan area that includes Austin, a region currently experiencing the greatest population explosion in the country. San Marcos has officially ranked as the fastest-growing city in the country for the last three years  — but its popularity is nothing new. Archaeology conducted at San Marcos Springs reveals it to be among the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the Americas for as far back as 12,000 years.
Much of San Marcos’ growth can be attributed to Texas State University, which is quickly approaching a student body of 40,000. In a city of approximately 60,000, the total population accordingly skews young. “As a fast-growing community with so many young adults, it’s important we diversify the way we communicate,” says Kristi Wyatt, communications director for the city of San Marcos. “Traditionally, we have done a lot of press releases, newspaper and broadcast, but we really have to utilize every tool and new technology to reach our young audience. A lot of 20 year olds aren’t reading the newspaper on a daily basis or watching newscasts — they’re getting their information online.”
This was underscored in a big way for Wyatt when record rains and flooding descended upon the region during the 2015 Memorial Day weekend — just a few months after taking her new position with the city. As the Blanco River swelled overnight on May 24, 11 residents in the region lost their lives and thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed.
While stuck at home with a bad case of bronchitis, Wyatt began weather-watching and issuing early-warning messages to constituents throughout the weekend via Facebook and Twitter. “Our Emergency Management team — a joint effort between the city of San Marcos and Hays County — warned that neighboring towns were getting massive flooding they’d never seen before and it was coming our way via the river,” Wyatt says. “I was able to push a lot of information out on social media and started telling people early to prepare for emergencies. The city began evacuating people at 2:30 a.m. on May 26 — myself included.”
The two-way conversation of social media allowed residents to post their own flood photos — such as submerged cars and impassable roads — and even a few pleas for help. Wyatt responded by posting flood maps, alternate routes and safety suggestions. “We were able to have some really serious interactions,” Wyatt says. “We did two press conferences a day, press releases and interviews, but the majority
of the effort was spent on social media, because that’s the way we reached the most people.”
Major news organizations, including CNN and NBC Nightly News, barraged Wyatt and followed the city’s social media pages for up-to-the- moment status updates. Social media followers increased six-fold during the flooding, and with too many demands to respond to personally, Wyatt largely depended on social media to disseminate information.
Smart Communication, Critical Compliance
Social media postings are considered official government records — for which all 50 states have regulations — and the response to the San Marcos floods were no different. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), along with other pertinent record-keeping mandates, require such posts and threads to be recorded, archived and made easily accessible for future reference. For San Marcos and other smaller jurisdictions with limited staff, that can be a tall order, which is why an archiving service such as ArchiveSocial can be a game changer.
Once deployed, ArchiveSocial is fully automated, freeing up administrators from constant monitoring. Records are preserved precisely as they appear on social media, with metadata attached for authenticity, and are always available for swift download and export. ArchiveSocial can also reach back in time to access an agency’s first posts — a key differentiator from other archiving services. Such efficiency translates into time and money saved, along with positive public perception.
“There’s no way I could have captured and saved all those social media conversations during the storm,” Wyatt says. “And they’re very important conversations, especially as we prepare for the future and think about how we approach a disaster, put together reports and share information with colleagues about how they can manage disasters themselves.”
New Tools for Deeper Insight and Risk Management
In addition to using ArchiveSocial’s archiving services, San Marcos is using its new analytical tools for sentiment scoring and risk management that provide quick insights into public opinion. The solution displays positive and negative sentiment scoring as peaks and valleys along a timeline; a “Top Commenters” report reveals the most active commenters and influencers within a day, week or year; and an alert system sends messages to administrators when questions, profanity or specific keywords are mentioned from a customizable list.
Wyatt points out the benefits of these features: “This gives us a head’s up when there’s something inappropriate we need to block, or something positive to recognize. But in an emergency, we can put in key words like ‘rescue’ or ‘help’ and immediately get notification. That’s important when you have hundreds of people posting each minute. You can try to get through them all on your own — or you can get an alert when it matters most.”
Now that the storm has passed, the city has returned to its main job of coping with the massive influx and demands of so many new residents. Wyatt thinks good communication can deflect some of the growing pains. “The more we can inform our new residents about what’s going on, our ordinances, laws and how to get involved, we can instill [in them] a love of community and respect for the city — as much as in those who have lived here all their lives. I really think communication can bridge that gap. I’ve seen it in open discussion on social media, which I can track through ArchiveSocial, and that helps us implement change.”