It feels like a lifetime ago when Hurricane Sandy was rushing toward New Jersey, especially since life became incredibly busy in the days that followed. We all were working long hours from our newspaper partners’ reporters and editors to my boss who slept in his office to a coworker who worked from a shelter in Hoboken.
But what I learned also is social media, especially Twitter, became a lifeline for so many people before, during and after Hurricane Sandy, especially after the power was out for so many people. There may still be a few people without power in New Jersey.
If people had questions, they came to us on Twitter. “Can you tell me what’s open?” “Where can I find open gas stations?” “Where can I volunteer?” “Do you know when my power will come back on?” “What does it look like in Seaside?”
I spent hours answering questions where I could. The night Gov. Chris Christie introduced gas rationing, I spent two hours answering questions because people were confused. We pointed people to photo galleries of places down the Shore when they asked what things were like there. It was frustrating to tell people “I don’t know specifics” about the power being restored, but I tried to direct them places to get the information, including on our site.
But often there was no way I knew all of the answers. This is when crowdsourcing and hashtagging became important to us. When people asked us where they could help and donate, we would direct them to the general volunteer hotline and the charities on the ground. But we also retweeted those questions so if there were other, local efforts people could be in touch with the people who wanted to help.
But people more often wanted to know where they could find open businesses that had heat, charging stations, Internet access, hot meals and supplies like water and ice. Quickly people wanted to know where open gas stations were so they could fill their generator tanks. Many stations were without power.
We answered this task by creating hashtags — #njopen was for businesses that were open and #njgas was for gas station reports. In fact, #njopen came at the suggestion of a follower. Both took off quickly to the point lots of other news agencies, businesses and even the government agencies were using the hashtags.
But we didn’t just let the information stay on social media. We integrated it where we could onto the website with Twitter widgets. Gas stories had a #njgas widget at the bottom of it. We had standing articles with the widgets so people could find the information if they weren’t on Twitter. It was something we also did after Hurricane Irene when lots of roads were closed and blocked. We created and embedded widgets with our standing #njcommute hashtag.
One of the biggest lessons from Hurricane Sandy is to listen to your followers. If you’re just pushing links, you’re not going to see their news reports, their questions and the information they share. If you listen to them, you can make sure you’re sharing the right information with them. Our followers wanted information gas and power outages, and I knew that based on the questions we received. Whenever we had updates, they immediately went onto our social media accounts (with many retweets and clicks to follow). Plus listening to questions and comments helped us determine what hashtags we needed to create and lead.
Listening to your followers, though, is a good practice even when there isn’t a major disaster. If you listen to the questions and reaction (in addition to looking at the retweets and clicks), you know what information your followers want most.
The work we did during Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath was some of the most fulfilling I’ve done in social media. It’s not often you hear thank you or get told you’re doing a great job, but we heard it at least once per day. People told us without the work we were doing on social media and on NJ.com they’d be lost. To know we helped in some small way for people makes all of the work worth it.