By Dr Rajib Subba

Twitter handle of Nepal Police got quick public attention as it started bringing results based on citizens’ crisis information reporting

Every crisis is a learning experience; one needs to adapt with emergent situations and act accordingly

Roman poet Horace asks in his book Odes not to worry about the future but carpe diem, seize the day. This philosophy is relevant in crisis management when a society is reeling under a large scale disaster. This article will shed light on how government organizations, in spite of resource crunches, can work effectively when faced with a large scale disaster by using social media network.

Managing crisis has always been a challenge for people involved in disaster management and humanitarian assistance. This is because the broken social order during crises hinders search, rescue and relief operations, as well as impedes restoration of normal life. When crisis prevails panic reigns in the lack of information. Traditional media like telephone service, radio and television transmissions gets hit the hardest. It takes hours to update news for print media. However, people utilize Internet and social media which is helpful particularly when traditional media is not able to function. Many government organizations, including Nepal Police, made use of social media after the April 25 earthquake. Twitter handle of Nepal Police got quick public attention as it started to bring results based on citizens’ crisis information reporting.

One of the primary factors is crisis leadership which is defined as practice of anticipating, recognizing, and responding effectively to the elements of crisis by influencing others which involves clarity of vision, courage, and decisiveness. The crisis situation was demanding Nepal Police to go beyond their routine jobs. Therefore, with the instruction from Police Chief Upendrakant Aryal several initiatives for public service through crowd sourcing crisis information were taken. Consolidation work was quickly mobilized with existing Facebook page along with newly started SMS and twitter services (@NepalPoliceHQ) to minimize the risks. In addition, Nepal Police utilized these channels not as tools for public affairs but a gateway to public engagement for crisis management as time passes. “Risk goes up as time runs down” prescribes Lt. Gen. Dan “Fig” Leaf, Director of APCSS. In addition, Nepal Police utilized these channels not as tools for public affairs but as a gateway to public engagement for crisis management.

A team of 10 officers consolidated their social media and SMS engagement in a makeshift shelter. Most importantly they were put together with Regional Control Offices (RCO) in the same premises. This helped us to exchange information quickly. Thus the team became a speedy node for physical–virtual convergence of crisis management. People sent hundreds of crisis related information through these three channels. When the social media (SM) team received information they immediately passed it on to CC or field police office through RCOs network. For example, the SM team instructed police in Tanahun district through radio communication network to provide police service immediately when a twitter user complained about absence of service in Turture. The twitter user later praised local police for doing the job. When the SM team received an SOS through Facebook they swiftly informed Dolakha police who immediately went to the landslide site in Bojh. Similarly the SM team immediately informed CC about the tweets asking to rescue an earthquake survivor child from Tipine in Sindhupalchowk. Survivors were rescued in both cases. Effectiveness of such collaboration is apparent when government agencies and public work together.

Social media engagement not only helped to provide service but also helped Nepal Police to be more accountable and transparent. Some transport service providers were taking undue advantage by charging travelers higher than normal fee. Nepal Police immediately swung into action when a twitter user informed us about license numbers of such vehicles. Interestingly the information was given by twitter users before local police could report back to CC.

These publicly posted interactions between police and public is a reminder of how organizations can be more accountable and transparent. The SM engagement enabled citizens to have a say about issues that matter to them and gave a chance to influence decision-making. Moreover with such publicly available information government employees bound to feel answerable for their actions and realize that there is redress when responsibilities are neglected.

Responses by government employees are considered as “respect of right to information” as tweeted by a twitter user after receiving a quick response. Commitment during crisis is hard to keep but action speaks louder. Even though the ground was shaking @nepalpolicehq was tweeting! Several national and international media gave space for its tweets including CNN’s breaking news which aired a tweet tweeted from the ground when May 12th earthquake was occurring.

Speed and trust are two vital constituents in communication during and after a crisis. The crisis communication process becomes more complex during large scale crisis. Lack of right information, rumors, and emotions like fear, anxiety, insecurity and anger could spoil crisis management initiatives. However, experiences suggest effective crisis communication is possible if your responses are based on five Cs—concern, clarity, control, confidence and competence.  The social media team should be “performing professionally, responsibly and precisely”.

Social media initiative of Nepal Police was successful during and after the crisis because it handled the whole process with a strategic crisis communication approach. The five layers of communication pyramid were fulfilled from awareness creation to sharing information to knowledge creation. Advocacy level and action or behavioral changes were achieved in the process once citizens started to retweet, journalists wrote, and users got engaged with the twitter handle. Things were made easy when we could control rumors and exploitation in social media after the earthquake. Controlling rumors is one of the biggest challenges as the news cycle has been significantly altered by social media. Realizing that first six hours are critical Nepal Police acted within this time frame to quash rumors which are potential to break down the already fragile social order.

Every crisis is a learning experience. But one needs to adapt with emergent situations and act accordingly. One needs to have understanding of crises at the strategic level, formulate measures accordingly, and collaborate inclusively not only with agencies but also with public by leveraging social media, for effective crisis communications resulting in a successful crisis management. With this note one can conclude that Nepal Police was able to “carpe diem” when Nepal was reeling under the massive crisis. Nepal Police’s contribution in crisis response with the help of social media was exemplary in Nepal’s context.

The author, alumnus of Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, US, works with Nepal Police

(Source: Republica daily, 13 July 2015)