Haiti earthquake: The Red Cross Red Crescent social media response

To say that the last days were“intense” would be an understatement. From the minute the earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement pulled out all stops to help the people on the ground.

Communications is only a small part of that response and social media an even smaller part. Nevertheless – here are my observations:

Convergence is already happening


As soon as the extend of the destruction became clear, American Red Cross asked the public to donate 10 USD through text messages for the Haiti response. Within the first day AmCross collected 800,000 USD. After six days they had collected 21 million USD. Since the appeal was not only spread through social media but also through mass media, it is difficult to measure how big a part social media played. But I think that the effect was significant. Because unlike when seeing the message on tv or reading it in the paper, many users didn’t have to switch device to take action.

What I mean is this: Since many people in the US use Twitter on their mobile phones, and since the donations happened through text messages, very little effort was needed on their part. They received the call to action on the same device they needed to take action.

Ease of use taps donors’ wallets

Other Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies had similar text messaging programmes. But while these also raised money, none of them were as successful as AmCross’s. I’m convinced that the reason is primarily that mobile phone technology and internet use have converged more in the US than in other countries. (I’d be really interested in insights from Japan on this point)

NGOs and non-profits should take note of this development and design a mobile phone strategy as soon as possible, no matter where they are. (see also: “Time to get mobile“)  In the US it is already necessary, because donors will soon expect this level of ease of use when making a donation. And outside the US, organizations have a chance to be slightly ahead of the curve when convergence comes to their country.

Content rules

Investing in photography and videos pays off. The public and the media have an immense hunger of exclusive footage from the ground. In the first few days quality is not that important, but that quickly changes and the higher the quality to start with, the better. Because we had good content, we were able to pitch our photos to media and got noticed online.

1 million views on Flickr

Not the best photo in the world – but seen 70,000 times.

All photos in our Flickr set about the Haiti Earthquake combined generated over 1 million page views within 24 hours on January 14th. It was highlighted by Yahoo! (which contributed the majority of impressions) but other media paid attention as well. In the first few days, BBC Online mentioned it on their live blog every time, we uploaded new images. We also got a substantial number of requests from media who wanted high-resolution versions of our Flickr photos.

Return on investment

As far as ROI is concerned I should mention that most visitors stayed within that set and did not click on other photos or through to our site. So while this was very successful to generate awareness, it did not generate substantial funds for us. However, since Flickr’s community guidelines  forbid actively asking for donations, there was no call to action under these pictures either – merely “Find out more at http://www.ifrc.org/haiti/ ”. And besides, our role as a Secretariat is primarily to highlight the work of National Societies – so for us that still is a success.

Quick and easy tools to help spread the message

We’ve also made our Flickr set available as an embeddable slide show and share the code on Facebook and with National Societies. I have no information whether this is being used a lot, but since it only took two minutes to set up I think it was worth it.

CNNireport: From online to on-air

Finally, we uploaded the photos to CNNireport, CNN‘s “citizen journalist“ portal. While this did not generate a lot of views online, CNN used a lot of these images on air.

Video: be creative

Video was – and is – much more challenging. Not only are videos more difficult to produce, there are also bandwidth issues. While photos could be sent from Haiti by mobile phone, there simply was no bandwidth to send high quality videos in the first few days. However, AmCross showed that simply having someone on camera who can talk intelligently about the situation on the ground can be enough – even if that person is far away: Tracy Reines, director of international response operations, did short video messages in the first few days in which she explained what the Red Cross was doing. Her first video was seen more than 200,000 times on YouTube. Unfortunately there was also an incredible amount of extremely racist and obnoxious comments which makes me believe that it might make sense to pre-censor comments.

3. Facebook, Digg and Reddit

We routinely post new content to our Facebook page, to Reddit and to Digg. We have never been able to generate much attention for our content on either Reddit or Digg, Facebook however was a surprise to me. It was surprising to me how little impact it had. Our stories on Haiti got pretty much the same amount of “likes”, comments and shares that most of our day to day stories get. I would have expected much more. Something I didn’t do – and maybe that was a mistake – is create an album with photos on Facebook, similar to what we did on Flickr. Maybe that would have worked better.

Ushahidi - Crowdsourced mapping for Haiti

Crowdsourced mapping for Haiti.

4. Crowdsourced mapping

I actually want to do a separate post about this topic, because I find the crowdsourced maps that are available about Haiti extremely impressive. We haven’t been actively involved in this ourselves, but I think we have to find a way to include these resources at an operational level.

5. What did your organization do / learn?

These are my first thoughts and experiences from a social media perspective. I’m currently on my way to Panama to assist our regional office with supporting our teams in Haiti. This will be general communications support – not social media specific – and I’m sure I’ll be too busy to blog once we have landed. But I’d love to hear from you: what your organization has done or learned about social media in emergencies. And even if I don’t have time to write, I’ll find the time to approve comments. So please share your knowledge!

P.s.: Actually I’ve been to Panama for four days now – but didn’t get around to posting this before today. It’s great to see how the Red Cross Red Crescent is doing everything to help the people in Haiti. And it’s a real privilege to be part of that team.


  1. Vincent Fabris February 2, 2010
    • Timo February 2, 2010
      • Timoluege February 2, 2010
  2. Vincent Fabris February 24, 2010

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.