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Tweeted disaster photos more impactful than words

Crisis communications experts say show; don’t tell

If there is ever a time when a picture is really worth more than a thousand words, it’s probably during a disaster.

That’s the lesson that Georgia Power and Alabama Power learned this year when bad weather tore through their states, leaving thousands of people stranded for days.

Social media proved to be an invaluable communications tool for both companies at a time when customers are more likely to turn to their smartphones for information than to the radio.

The two power companies adopted Twitter as their front line of communication, but the photos they tweeted proved to be even more impactful than the 140-characters in the tweets.

“Communicating in a crisis is different,” said Alabama Power’s media spokesman Isaac Pigott during a presentation to the Atlanta chapter of Public Relations Society of America in which he and his Georgia Power counterpart, John Kraft, shared their experiences in using social media during recent disasters.

“You have to show, not tell,” Pigott emphasized several times to an audience of about 90 professional communicators. “Don’t just tell people to watch for downed power lines. Show them what a downed power line looks like.”

He mentioned a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) crisis communications course, which indicates that during a disaster the brain functions differently and people tend to rely more on images than words.

“People wanted to know why it was taking so long to restore power,” Kraft said of his experience during the January 2011 ice storm that paralyzed Atlanta for one week.  “We used photos to show our side of the story and expand people’s views of what goes on in power restoration.”

Georgia Power tweeted photos of the damage, the mobile command center, and the deployment of hundreds of employees from other areas in the region to help with the restoration.

Pigott, who led the communications effort during the April 27 tornadoes that tore through Birmingham, Ala., kept a steady drumbeat of tweets during the several days it took to restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers in his state.

“We proactively scheduled tweets every three, four, or five minutes. In the absence of news, you allow detractors and the uninformed to spread rumors and misinformation.”

By tweeting photos he was able to dispel rumors, such as the one that suggested the widespread power outages were due to Alabama Power using wooden poles instead of concrete poles.

“We posted eight pictures of broken concrete poles to dispel that rumor,” Pigott said, repeating his mantra, “Show, don’t tell.”

Alabama Power also asked customers to take a picture of a power crew if they saw one nearby and tweet it.

“When people who had been without power for three, four, five, or six days got a tweet from another customer showing that a power crew was nearby, they began to believe,” said Pigott.  “It was ‘The cavalry is here!’  It was third-party endorsement.  We were not saying we’re there; customers were saying we were there.”

“Twitter is a media relations tool that the public is able to eavesdrop on,” said Pigott.  “Just because it has a silly name, it does not mean you can’t use it strategically.”

“Social media conversations are happening whether we join or not,” Kraft said, adding that by engaging in the conversation, Georgia Power is able to tell its side of the story and keep misinformation at bay.

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