Tweeting to save humanity is a pretty lofty goal, but it’s not beyond reach for Jackie Mitchell, Marketing/Communications Director of the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. Mitchell (@Your_MsSunshine) had amazingly vivid and attention-grabbing stories about how the volunteer-driven (90% volunteers) Red Cross is using Twitter to literally try to save people when disaster strikes. She recently shared her account with digital PR professionals attending the 4th Annual Ragan Communications Conference for Social Media PR and Corporate Communications.
The Great Groundhog Day Blizzard in Chicago, Feb 1, 2011 pounded the metropolitan area with nearly 2 feet of snow in a matter of hours. Snowfall measuring 20.2 inches (officially at O’hare Airport) and heavy winds stranded hundreds of commuters in their cars on Chicago’s heavily traveled roadway, Lake Shore Drive.
All lanes were jammed with vehicles that were either stopped for or involved in accidents or had simply run out of gas. As they waited in their lanes, blowing snow turned cars into giant snow drifts and left people stranded for more than 10 hours in some cases without food or water. The city urged drivers to stay in their cars, but offered little information about when and what kind of help would be coming.
Research by the Red Cross shows that 74% of those surveyed believe an emergency responder would hear an SOS tweet. “They believe you would respond within an hour –the public thinks your listening. People think if they tweet about an emergency, than someone will come with help. The Red Cross is continually looking for ways to do things differently so we can respond.” Mitchell said Twitter just happened to be the right tool at the right time.
“Chicago Red Cross started preparing for the blizzard because we knew everyone would be talking about it. By following popular hashtags such as #snOMG, #ChicagoBlizzard, @snowmageddon, #snowpocalypse and #snoprah – we immediately saw what people were talking about and then began engaging with them. Mitchell says the Red Cross has learned early on in their own Twitter presence that “to mobilize or move someone to act or donate, you have to understand what their shared value is. Our “voluntweeters” know that too and they began tweeting the dire situation to their followers. We soon caught media attention. In some cases, reporters found the Red Cross tweets more timely than information coming from official sources.
“We found ourselves functioning like a news source, and later learned how many media outlets were referring to us,” Mitchell said. “When disaster strikes, it’s common for our social media conversation to drive the traditional media conversation.”
Providing information remained secondary to its main mission – helping those in need. Volunteers, many of whom were identified through Twitter crowdsourcing, converged on Lake Shore Drive, distributing water and food to those stranded in cars until warming buses arrives to take them to Red Cross shelters. More than 360 commuters were taken to shelters that night.
Mitchell says search and rescue during a disaster isn’t something the Red Cross typically does (most local aid goes to helping families displaced by house fires). But Mitchell says that matching people who wanted to help with people who could help was the right thing to do to “honor” their community.
“It wasn’t our niche, but it was our community. We honored community and they responded afterwards with gratitude by making donations, giving blood and offering to volunteer,” she said.
There are many lessons from the Chicago Red Cross’ Blizzard response. Donations and volunteers are the lifeblood of the Red Cross — without either the Red Cross would cease to exist. She says the Blizzard of 2011 proved once again, that finding those who need your help, mobilizing followers to act, and genuinely engaging with all audiences leads to real results. The proof? Mitchell says Red Cross tweets, news and updates generated so much good will and credibility among the community, that offers of cash, blood donations and volunteer assistance immediately followed the snow storm.
You can also go to the Chicago Red Cross Flickr stream or YouTube Channel to see volunteers in action on and following the Great Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011! Here’s a YouTube video interview of a Lake Shore Driver rescued by the Red Cross. He’s a teacher at Clara Barton Elementary School — an amazingly funny coincidence, since Clara Barton is the founder of the American Red Cross!