Home » When Disaster Strikes, Social Media Connects With Your Customers
Feature National

When Disaster Strikes, Social Media Connects With Your Customers

Disaster Feature

Last updated on June 13th, 2024 at 12:01 pm

by Rick Rusch, Thought-Tech
Special to The Shelby Report

Social media is an integral part of every day life for millions of people. For many, social media has become indispensable.

Social media channels are no longer only sources of entertainment and interaction. Increasingly, social media has become a critical channel for communication. As a result, businesses today cannot afford to ignore social media or stand on the sidelines. In fact, social media is playing a key role in many grocers’ disaster preparedness and responsiveness.

An appreciation of social media is the first step for ­integrating social media into disaster planning and ­response. Statistics from social media documentation are jaw-dropping illustrations of just how social media has woven itself into your customers’ routine.

  • Each Facebook user spends on average 15.5 hours a month on the site
  • 30 billion pieces of content is shared on Facebook each month
  • YouTube has 490 million unique users who visit every month (as of February 2011)
  • Twitter is adding nearly 500,000 users a day
  • Google+ was the fastest social network to reach 10 ­million users at 16 days (Twitter took 780 days and Facebook 852 days)
  • 38,000,000 people in the U.S. age 13-80 said their purchasing decisions are influenced by social media, a 14 percent increase in the past six months.

These numbers illustrate the pervasiveness of social media today. If those statistics are not enough to convince the skeptical grocer, consider this: If the power goes out at your stores, the cellular network continues to work independently. Without power, communicating via mobile devices may be your only option. When Hurricane Irene battered the East Coast of the United States in late August 2011, many communities and businesses found tweeting and texting to be the most reliable way to share important and time-sensitive information.

According to Mike Siemienas, national media manager at Minneapolis-based Supervalu Inc., “We learned a lot about using social media during Hurricane Irene.”

According to Siemienas, store directors were able to use Twitter and Facebook to share information with the com­munity on which stores had power, what hours they planned on being open, and even what kind of supplies they had on hand, such as water, batteries and canned goods.

Siemienas adds, “Social media also gave us an effective communication channel with employees.”

This has obvious implications for store operations and ­employee safety.

Supervalu and other grocers are being joined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in integrating social media into its disaster response toolbox. FEMA ­administrator Craig Fugate told the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications, “Cell phones are data centers, capable of quickly accessing and storing a large amount of information. One of the major lessons we learned from the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti was that even if the physical infrastructure of an area is completely ­destroyed, the cellular infrastructure may be able to bounce back quickly, allowing emergency managers to relay important disaster-related information and enabling the public to request help from local first responders. This new, free public safety system allows customers with an enabled mobile ­device to receive geographically targeted messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area whether nearby cell phone towers are jammed or not.

“We are also expanding our use of social media tools. Social media is an important part of the ‘whole community’ approach because it helps facilitate the vital two-way communication between emergency management agencies and the public, and it allows us to quickly and specifically share information with state, local, territorial and tribal governments as well as the public. FEMA uses multiple social media technologies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to reach the public.”

One of the most interesting points Fugate makes is that “rather than asking the public to change the way they communicate to fit our system, we are adapting the way we do business to fit the way the public ­already communicates. We value social media tools not only because they allow us to send important disaster-related information to the people who need it, but also because they allow us to incorporate critical ­updates from the individuals who experience the on-the-ground reality of a disaster.”

Supervalu’s Siemienas echoes that sentiment: “Our goal is to reach our customers how they want to be reached.”

Supervalu uses that philosophy for disaster preparedness/response as well as its overall marketing strategy.

Hy-Vee, based in West Des Moines, Iowa, has become more involved with social media in the last couple of years.

Ruth Comer, assistant VP of media relations at Hy-Vee, says, “We’re a 24/7 operation. Things happen around the clock. We’re using social media to reach people where they are at.”

That goes for customers, emergency personnel or first-­responders and employees.

Comer says that Hy-Vee monitors social media, for a variety of reasons, during “waking hours.”

And, at Hy-Vee, the social media effort is a cross-functional responsibility. Hy-Vee’s communications, marketing, technology and customer service departments all share in monitoring, creating and managing the grocers’ social media.

Comer adds, “We’ve had a couple situations occurring in store parking lots” that were not ­disasters, but incidents “where we’ve heard it first on social media. Once the store manager has been reached they ­typically say they haven’t had time to call in” while managing the situation on-site. Social media assists Hy-Vee in a response to disasters and incidents in real time.

For grocers to maximize social media in the scope of ­disaster preparedness and response, a simple two-stage ­approach works well.

First, create a plan before a disaster strikes. As obvious as it sounds, it is frequently overlooked. Take care of three ­essentials beforehand:

  • Create a Social Media Disaster Contributor Team. Social media can go a long way in providing the media, bloggers and the public with factual and ­pertinent information relating to the situation. Connect with bloggers and the media with the intention of enabling them, in case of a disaster, with the ability to share or re-tweet your messages.
  • Identify a social media disaster leader or leaders to ­manage the team’s work once a disaster occurs.
  • Train the contributor team before the disaster. Hy-Vee’s cross-functional social media monitoring team is trained, prepared and ready for a range of situations.

Second, during the disaster, have a checklist to accomplish these basics:

  • Create a media center on your website to feature press releases, announcements, images and links back to your social media sites.
  • Consistently provide updates to all social media channels. During a disaster, the volume of communication can skyrocket. As a result, it can be easy for your customers to miss notices from you.
  • Monitor other social media. Other sources in the area may have pertinent or timely information that may be of value to your customers and, as a result, be worthy of re-tweeting.
  • Keep employees informed of operational status so they can plan accordingly.
  • Update key constituents such as executives, human ­resources and operations on an hourly basis, or more frequently if the situation calls for it.
  • If possible, document the disaster with images. They may not be necessary for social media communication but could be invaluable after the event for insurance or legal purposes.

Like most things, success comes from preparation. Utilizing social media for disaster preparedness and/or response is no different. That’s why it is important to develop your social media strategy now. When asked for advice on how a grocer should get into social media, Hy-Vee’s Comer offers solid advice: “You just have to start. Your customers will lead you to where you need to go.”

Both Hy-Vee and Supervalu have seen benefits from integrating social media into their disaster preparedness and response. And, while their social media strategies continue to evolve, both believe social media will remain critical to their com­munication toolboxes.

“Social media is absolutely a part of our disaster preparedness,” says Siemienas. “It’s the best way to connect.”

Rick Rusch is the managing partner of Minneapolis-based Thought-Tech LLC, a brand communications firm. Thought-Tech guides clients in branding, online connection strategies, social media, product launches, business and marketing plans as well as expert competitive analysis. Rusch can be reached at [email protected]


About the author

Shelby Team

The Shelby Report delivers complete grocery news and supermarket insights nationwide through the distribution of five monthly regional print and digital editions. Serving the retail food trade since 1967, The Shelby Report is “Region Wise. Nationwide.”

Featured Photos

Featured Photo ROFDA Spring Conference
Renaissance Esmeralda
Indian Wells, CA