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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The American Red Cross: Adding Digital Volunteers to Its Ranks 06-10

The American Red Cross: Adding Digital Volunteers to Its Ranks

Wendy Harman describes how the Red Cross expands its reach using social media.
The American Red Cross is part of the world’s largest humanitarian operation. It coordinates staff people, volunteers, other agencies and donors to help people in need, particularly after natural disasters. It coordinates blood donation drives and provides health and safety training in everything from First Aid for babysitters to CPR for first responders.
Before being named director of Red Cross information management and situational awareness in disaster cycle services a year ago, Wendy Harman spent the previous six and a half years as the organization’s director of social engagement and social strategy. During that time, she built up the use of social media to help Red Cross efforts.
“Our mission and philosophy around how social works best at the Red Cross is that we are very tactically valuable with every utterance we make, whether that’s providing emotional support, giving directions to the nearest shelter, providing locations of our nearest blood drive or even telling someone how to do CPR real quick,” says Harman.
She took the job in disaster services, she says, “because I was finding myself much more interested in how to execute our mission by enabling communities to participate in it more, and to really begin to erase the line between what it means to be a Red Crosser and just a regular person. I think that technology has a lot to do with that.”
In a conversation with Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane, an associate professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and guest editor for MIT Sloan Management Review's Social Business Big Idea Initiative, Harman explains how Red Cross is using social media in its work around the three cycles of disaster: preparedness, response and recovery.
You spent over six years as director of Red Cross’ social engagement and social strategy, and now you’ve moved over to disaster services. What was the opportunity you saw?
Social was still sitting in a bubble on the outside of the structure. We were responding to everything and all working very well together, but social wasn’t yet a part of the way we do business. I took this position because I think we have the opportunity to start baking in some of that.
The implications are broader than just how to use social media. In a disaster, it’s really about how do you turn over the entire mission of your organization to the community that’s been affected, and all the advocates surrounding it.
How do you turn over the mission of your organization to the community?
That’s what we are trying to figure out. We’d like to focus our energy on making sure families and communities are prepared, connected and resilient. That way, when the response time comes around, the community will be able to rise to being nearly entirely responsible for organizing that response. The Red Cross will always be there, but we want affected community members and their neighbors and advocates to know exactly how to do Red Cross work, whether or not they have the official Red Cross vest on.
We’ve made a couple of really good tries so far, and we’re on the precipice of doing some more exciting things.
Take us through some of them.
We opened what we call the Digital Operations Center in Washington, DC in 2012, which is an actual physical room. It’s modeled after the Dell Command Center down in Austin [Texas]. Dell actually gave us a grant to build this one.
The room is a social media command center. It’s where we monitor social conversations both in the run up to disasters and during them to help connect people with resources. What we’ve done is figured out a way to gather situational awareness, essentially to analyze top-line trends of social conversations, whenever a disaster happens. We’re stretching the typical use of this software built for commercial purposes to fit our humanitarian purposes.
We run a digital volunteer program out of there, to coordinate trained volunteers in helping members of communities that are affected by a disaster in real time. Red Cross digital volunteers help analyze trends and route actionable incoming information as well as engage with individuals who have questions, need a tip, or emotional support (“digital hug”). The Digital Operations Center gives us the opportunity to track and figure out what the impacts of having digital volunteers is.
We have about 200 trained digital volunteers. We had a pilot program in place for Hurricane Isaac, and then found ourselves doing lots of additional training during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We now have a training process where we teach digital volunteers about the Red Cross, how to offer emotional support, how to correct misinformation, how to ensure correct information is spreading through the social web, and how to use the Digital Operations Center software.
So you’re coordinating digital volunteers to work through the national organization.
So far, yes. Now the social engagement team has recognized the power of decentralizing this program to be run out of our chapter network. Starting with 10 pilot chapters, we’re now equipping them with the tools to recruit their own digital volunteers. These local digital volunteers will “deploy” during disasters as well as during “steady state” times to help with local community engagement.
We want to blur that line about who’s a Red Crosser and who’s not, to say, “actually, this is up to all of us.” The Red Cross is just regular people who choose to help their community. So it’s up to us, people in our own neighborhoods, to talk about preparedness, what we would do to make arrangements with our local grocery stores and restaurants and community centers and figure this out — and have a little bit of fun along the way. When we’re not in a disaster, we like to be positive and optimistic.
We’re starting to figure out how to pilot what I think we’re calling a community mobilizer role. We’ll have some easy-to-use, very directed crowdsourcing mechanisms where people can raise their hand and say, “I want to be a leader of my street,” or “of my apartment building floor,” or “of this county” in rural areas, whatever it might be.
What the community mobilizers will do is agree to serve in a disaster as an information liaison. We’ll push info to them, and they will push info to us about what’s happening in that community, and they’ll be the voices responsible for helping us to figure out our needs assessment. And you’ll be able to use an app and a few other different tools to sign up for that. You can do it on the fly, you can do it well beforehand and participate in our preparedness activities, or not. We’re going to be trying that out pretty soon.
Do you have any early success stories with these digital volunteers?
They’re fairly anecdotal. Like, for example, when a tornado is about to happen, when everybody’s gotten alerts on their phones and the sirens are going off, we start to see an enormous uptick in tweets about it. Almost all of those are singular tweets. People are just saying, “I’m scared,” or “Look, I’m listening to this tornado siren.”
We’ll notice that there will be a thousand things that look just like that, all in the same area. So our digital volunteers start connecting those people together to remind them, “You’re not actually totally alone here. This is a thing that’s happening to a lot of people, and you can feel more connected while this really scary moment is happening.”
Another example: there was a babysitter tweeting in Maryland when we had a tornado. She was babysitting for three kids, and she tweeted something like, “This alarm is going off and I have no idea what to do with these kids.” And we stepped in — we have established guidance that’s been approved by a panel of scientists. We used their tips and shared them with the babysitter, tweeting, “If you do these three things, you’re going to be making all the best decisions you possibly can make in this particular moment.” So we’re talking her and others through that moment, and also saying, “We’ll be here on the other side when it’s over, just stay safe for now.”
There are other examples where people have tweeted things like, “Okay, I have this room that is not the innermost room, it doesn’t have any windows” or “I’ve got my garage or this other place, which one of these should I pick?” And like, it would be nice if you had thought about that before, but —
This is not the time to nag.
Right. But we’ll quickly do a little research on that answer and give those more nuanced, one-on-one answers. We’ve got hundreds of examples like those.
When people are sending out these tweets, are they tweeting directly to Red Cross or are they just tweeting in general and you guys are picking up on them and responding?
It can be either one. In Sandy, there were so many. We probably responded more to the ones that were specifically calling out to the Red Cross.
Those are great examples of digital volunteers helping out during a crisis. How about directly after?
Well Hurricane Sandy, for instance, was a huge response — I mean, the numbers of people affected are just kind of staggering. The thing that we did an awful lot of was just trying to get information about where resources and services were taking place, and matching them up with how close people were. Because New York is a vertical place, and people might not have seen the Red Cross truck even though it was only a block away.
So we did really, really fast dynamic work. We set up what we called the “human app system,” where we called all of our response vehicle drivers once an hour and asked them where they were going to be, what they had on the truck. And we tweeted that, all that information, as soon as we got it. We also published it on our Disaster Newsroom. And then whenever we were seeing tweets of people saying that they needed help or services, we would find the nearest aid station or Emergency Response Vehicle and give the person in need a nearby address where they could find help. If we didn’t see resources nearby, we would route the request to our operation on the ground as a sort of ticket item for action.
You’ve probably done social for about as long as anybody we’ve talked to. You had one of those early social media jobs. What have been the biggest changes over the last seven years?
Oh, Lord. Everything has changed.
Okay. Can we be a little more specific there?
Of course. I mean, volume, right? That’s one of the bigger — it’s not a struggle, but the pure volume of conversation and finding needles in the haystack of things that have to be addressed, from that customer service or brand standpoint. I think it gets harder and harder, and there’s not a perfect software system to satisfy every social engagement need.
I think social connections were simple and very authentic back in the day. I don’t want to be too dramatic about that. But the tone of the people participating on the social Web at that time was so focused on community — open source, in the big-picture idea of what open source is, which is that we’re all in this together, helping one another. I’ll link to your blog, you’ll link to mine, and we are sharing what one another is saying and commenting on it. There was a moment of thoughtfulness there. I think it’s still there, I don’t think it’s gone away, but I think it’s harder to find in the noise.
People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. You see that on the social Web, with memes and everything else, all the time. Almost everything that gets popular on Facebook — sometimes it can be a funny story, it can be a sad story, it can be a really cute video — the reason that it takes off is that there’s an opportunity to contribute your little voice into the overall picture of what this is. That part is still there. I think it’s not as full of critical thinking as it was back in the long-form blog days. But that’s okay.
Before I let you go, I heard you tell a story at a South by Southwest panel about what happened after someone from Red Cross accidentally sent a personal tweet on the official Red Cross Twitter feed. Can you tell that story?
Sure. “#Gettngslizzerd” happened pretty late at night when my colleague accidentally tweeted from the Red Cross Twitter handle when she meant to tweet from her personal account. She tweeted something about finding a four-pack of Midas Touch beer, which is a Dogfish Head brand, and she added, “when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzerd.”
She teaches Zumba, and she’d just made a routine to a Like a G6 song where the lyrics are, “When we drink, we do it right, we’re getting slizzered.” And so that was on her brain.
What happened after it went out was that there were thousands and thousands of tweets in response saying, “The Red Cross is drunk.” Lots of people loved it. On the other hand, it was kind of scary for some people, too.
I was in bed asleep when it happened and I was awakened by a colleague in Chicago who saw it — since this time I’ve shared my real live phone number with a lot of my social media counterparts at other big nonprofit organizations, and we sort of pledged to take care of one another if something like this should ever happen.
I saw a lot of activity and I didn’t know what was going on. I was still a little groggy. I deleted the tweet, and then I woke up a little more and I remembered how a week earlier I was on a Facebook group for nonprofits talking about how much I love it when there are these mis-tweets. I thought they show a sort of window into the soul of an organization. I had never seen any institution that this has happened to where they just said, “Look, we did it, this was a mistake.” I figured we’d try that, and I thought that it would work with a little bit of humor.
I called my friend in Chicago back, because I knew she was watching it and was awake. And we brainstormed the tweet that we’d put out in response.
What did you write?
I ended up writing, “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” And it hit the right note. It’s sort of that meme-ology thing. Everybody wants to pile on and be a part of this thing that’s bigger than themselves. I think that they were delighted that we could be in on it too, and they thought that that was really fun.
So this was big. How big are we talking about?
Big. Our blog got crashed, and it didn’t even get crashed during Haiti or any of the other huge disasters that we’ve had. It was a higher-trafficked event than most anything we’ve ever done. People donated a good amount of money that day, too. We also coordinated with Dogfish Head and set up a donation site. And restaurants all over the country jumped on it, too. They said, “If you come in and you prove that you’ve given blood today, we’ll give you a pint of beer.”
We just decided to go for it for a few days and say, this is all okay. We can have fun with this.
Reproduced from MIT Sloan Management Review