As Hurricane Harvey swept through Houston, leaving devastation in its path, many brands, individuals, and even traditional news outlets turned to social media for information, support and help. Our Operations Manager Nyla Spooner, who formed a Hurricane Harvey relief and recovery Facebook Group, sat down with Bill Tater, Web and Social Media Manager for Cox Media Group, to have a conversation about how social media has fundamentally changed the way we communicate during and after a natural disaster.

Nyla – Hi, welcome to this special edition of Twice Tips. I’m Nyla, I’m Operations Manager and Special Projects Coordinator for Twice Media. Today, I wanted to talk to you about how communication changed before, during and after Hurricane Harvey. This is a special topic to me, not only because I grew up here and I’m a Houstonian, but also because I became really involved in relief and recovery efforts during the storm. I formed a Facebook group that grew to over 600 members, where we were able to exchange information, I was able to create a database where people could go in and look for donation sites, shelters and more, and we were also able to actually help people on the ground, using the Zello app and other recovery tools. So, we reached out to a local social media manager of a brand here in Houston, so we could talk about how social media changes the way we communicate during a disaster. I’d like to introduce you today to Bill Tatar. He’s the web and social manager at Cox Media Group.

Bill – Thank you for having me, I certainly appreciate it. And I think it’s just important for us to talk about the fact that social media and web and all that, we do need to make sure that we are there for people in good times and in bad. I think it’s just going to continue to get bigger and better as we go with the social media. It’s not going away!

Nyla – And we just want to talk about social media, and how brands can navigate disasters. Social media really changed the way we were able to communicate with each other, the way we were able to ask for help, and the way we were able to offer help to other people, and it also changed the way we saw brands, and how they reacted to the disaster. So, Bill.

Bill – So we are a group of three radio stations, The New 93Q, Houston’s Eagle and Country Legends 97.1. And the way we reacted to the storm was we tried to get out as much information as humanly possible. It was really a matter of sitting there and collecting as much information as we could, and trying to get it out. We didn’t go wall to wall. We had music interspersed, because as a whole, while there are a lot of people affected, there was also a good portion that wasn’t completely affected.
Cox Media Radio Stations

– So we kinda had that balance. But it was interesting that we were talking that when we were watching the storm, personally when I was watching the storm, I don’t think I ever turned on broadcast television. Everything I saw was through our friends, through social media, I mean everything was done through social media this time. It seems like even the television stations, they went on social, they did Facebook Lives, more often–

Nyla – Right, they were getting their information from there.

Bill – Correct, they almost did the Facebook Lives more often than I think they almost did newscasts to some degree, because that’s what people were watching. People didn’t have their phone with them. They took their phone with them everywhere. It was, if they had to evacuate, the one thing that you made sure you took was your phone.

– So it was an interesting look at the storm this time on how things really did seem to change.

Nyla – Right, and there are a lot of people talking about how this storm versus Katrina, the differences, we didn’t have half of the technology that we have now.

Bill – Correct.

Nyla – And so, this storm was fundamentally different than that storm was, in terms of how we could help people, where people went for help.

– So I know for me, I was sitting in a totally different city, watching destruction happen to my hometown, wondering how my family was doing and feeling completely helpless. So I just started this Facebook group, and through that, I got connected to a whole bunch of other groups and then I was able to do something to feel less helpless. And I think a lot of people did that same thing, and that’s why they were so engaged via social media, because when you’re just watching TV, you’re watching it happen maybe to someone else.

Harvey Relief Exchange

– But on social media, it’s happening to you, and you’re engaging with it.

Bill – It was, I mean I think everybody posted about where they were with the storm and watching the water come up —

Nyla – Right. – and in front of them, it was pretty interesting to see how it happened.

Bill – Yeah, and you could see how it was affecting your friends, your network, specifically. – And the people needed help, that was the first thing they did. They reached out and said hey, I know someone who could use an evacuation.

– Or they’re sitting and you know, they can’t get out. They put it on Facebook and that was where we were able to at least push out where things were needed.

Nyla – Exactly, exactly. So like I said, one of the major ways social media changed how we handle disasters is changing who you could ask for help. So let’s say back in the days of Katrina, you were waiting on the police to come get you. Now you had your phone and it still had a little charge, and maybe all those numbers they’re putting out for the Coast Guard are busy, so you go to Facebook or Twitter.

– And through applications like Zello, which is walkie-talkie application.

zello app
Bill – Yeah, that was huge.

Nyla – Yeah, that was something that civilians could hop on and help with dispatch, and get civilian boats in, so I know with the group I was working with, they could say hey, I’m on Facebook, I’m gonna put my address, we would go through Facebook, see who needed help and dispatch that through Zello. And that was something, to me, revolutionary. I had never heard of the app before, so social media told me about the app, and then I was able to help people through that. – So we concentrated a lot for operations on Facebook Live, because we saw it was a great opportunity for our talent to sit live and answer people’s questions. So as we were watching people, they were asking questions. Where’s the rain gonna come in our area? How do I do this? How can I take this? You know, what’s an update with this? They were able to sit there and just answer live, you know, all these great questions, where you didn’t have that means to do that.

Bill – Really, a couple years ago. So it was interesting to see how much it’s changed, and I think it was good when I came to you guys, and I thought, this was an interesting opportunity, because the brands that we’ve built, that we’ve spent all this time to build, we needed to make sure that they were trustworthy. They needed to make sure that people are following us, and that they, when we talk about something, that they take it serious, that they know we’re not just blowing wind up their skirt.

– That we have some important stuff to give them, so it was, while we’re in entertainment, but we’re also, we could be a lifeline —

Nyla – Right. – for a lot of people.

Bill – I mean, this is where people went to get information.

Nyla – Yeah, and it was life or death information.

Bill – Right, plus it wasn’t just your traditional news sources that they went to.

– They went to a music source or they got it from, you know, the City of Houston was doing some interesting things as well, so it was just a really weird change of events, and I guess it’s gonna be like that forever now.

Houston OEM Facebook

Nyla – And you know, disaster’s chaos, so you can’t ever be completely prepared, but I do think they set a groundwork and a foundation for going forward.

– Yeah. – What civilians can do in a disaster. And going back to being a trustworthy source, I know it’s really important, I mean, because it’s so chaotic, there’s a lot of information going around, and people, that share button is so easy to hit, and so it is important for brands or you know, you as an individual to make sure what you’re sharing is correct.

Bill – That’s a fantastic point. There were a couple instances during the storm where information was being passed around that just … It wasn’t accurate.

– So when we came up with, when something came across our desks that we wanted to share, we did as much research as we possibly could.

– This was only so much time that you had to do something, but at least we did some quick fact-checking to make sure that we’re not pushing anything that’s not exactly the truth.

– Because goodness, that spreads faster than good news sometimes.

Nyla – Yeah, yeah exactly.

That’s it for part 1. Join us next week for part 2.