HOW TO: organize your tweeting staff in a natural disaster

Based on our experiences in Samoa and Haiti, I’m trying to come up with best practice for how to organize tweeting staff in a disaster context so that there is a maximum benefit for the organization. These are my thoughts:

The organizational approach

After the Tsunami in Samoa we gave one of the IFRC communicators on the ground access to the @Federation Twitter account through Hootsuite. She preceded every post with “From Samoa:” and then wrote about what she saw.

Advantage: 1. People might already be aware of your organization and might have followed you even before the disaster happened. Even if not: if someone associates your organization with a specific disaster, then he will find you quickly through the Twitter search. 2. The organization benefits directly from any growth in followers. 3. You can use that growth to create awareness for other issues that aren’t in the spotlight.

Disadvantage: 1. Not very personal, even if the person signs off with initials. 2. Completely unrelated stuff might be part of the Twitter feed, i.e. a tweet about Haiti can be followed by something about Mongolia. 

"Suck's Restaurant and Bar"

What's in a name? Photo: TaranRampersad

The personal approach

After the Earthquake in Haiti a number of our communicators went to Port-au-Prince and used personal Twitter accounts to talk about their experiences. We used @IFRC to promote these accounts and re-tweeted most of their tweets.

Advantage: 1. Personally, I’d rather follow a person than an organization. Social media is all about personal interactions and being genuine;  a personal account is simply better suited for that. 2. On topic: If someone is in the middle of a disaster then all his tweets will be related to that experience.

Disadvantage: 1. People have to find and follow these accounts, whereas they might already be aware of your organization’s Twitter account (see above). In other words, extra work is needed to promote these accounts, something you’ll have to do every time your staff rotates. 2. The organization does not benefit directly from the growth in followers. 3. Seen from the perspective of the account holder: As soon as your employer promotes your Twitter account, you have to watch what you are saying. Anything you write might be taken as the position of the organization. All of a sudden you have to ask yourself: Can you still share that slightly dirty joke or that funny photo? What about a link to a politically controversial site? 4. Followers might stay with the account, even when the account holder leaves  the organization.

The CNN approach

A large number of CNN reporters use “CNN” as part of the Twitter name. Examples: RosemaryCNN or WolfBlitzerCNN.

Advantages: 1. While this method retains a “personal” touch, this is clearly a work account and there is a clear identification with the employer. 2. Followers “belong” to the employer.

Disadvantages: Anybody can add a few letters to their name. This might give imposters more credibility as long as Twitter doesn’t have a good complaints mechanism in place.

I’m also wondering why CNN is not using this method consistently. AndersonCooper or Soledad_Brien for example do not use CNN in their names.

The List approach


Lists could be part of the solution. Photo: koalazymonkey

I’m increasingly starting to ask myself whether this could be what lists are for:

You could create a Twitter-list, e.g. “Red Cross workers in Haiti”, with everyone who is there and then promote that list. Then, as staff rotates in and out, you add and remove names from the list. You promote the list – not the accounts – in all communications.

Advantages: 1. It is personal because it will carry the voices of the people in the field. 2. Since lists are curated, the content is mostly topical. 3. You can add and remove names without having to promote new account names. 

Disadvantages: 1. Twitter’s own web interface does not feed the content of lists into you regular Twitter stream. That means that this approach assumes that your followers are using advanced Twitter clients that display list content in addition to your regular Twitter stream. 2. Since the list will be new, you will still have to promote that list. This is less work than promoting individual accounts, but it’s still an extra step. 3.The organization does not benefit directly from the new followers since people follow the list, not your organization’s account. 4. What happens with the list after the disaster?

My conclusion

I’m tempted to vote for a combination of lists and the CNN approach. I.e.:

  • Get your staff to use “corporate” Twitter accounts for their work related activities
  • Add accounts to lists when appropriate, no matter whether they are using corporate or personal accounts
  • Retweet selected tweets from the list
  • Promote the list in all communications

What do you think? What is the best approach?


  1. @stillOrange February 28, 2010
    • Timo February 28, 2010
  2. b bl September 16, 2011

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