Crisis communication and social media: What The Netherlands can learn from Australia

The quality of public services not only depends on the product itself, but very much also on the information about it. Recently we saw that the Dutch railways had trouble running trains in bad weather. Compared to other countries we didn’t perform that bad. But the biggest annoyance was lack of up to date travel information. The same problem arose again in the chemical plant fire at Moerdijk last week. The fire brigade did a good job, but the information about pollution was grossly inadequate. Interested parties had to rely on the old media, which in the absence of real information widely speculated about to risks. Unfortunately the national website was off line because of to much traffic. While a Twitter avalanche was running on the hashtag #Moerdijk, public authorities were manifestly absent.

How different is the situation in Australia, where during disasters people get online information from government via Facebook and Twitter. The city of Brisbane uses social media for alerts and notifications during the present floods. One can also download topical maps of the flooded area. The police of the State of Queensland maintains a Twitter stream on roadblocks, victims, volunteer calls, etc. The hashtag #thebigwet combines the information of many Twitter users. Other organizations anticipate this, for example, providers of temporary shelter for those in need. During the bush fires in the State of Victoria late last year, the same thing happened.

All of those government departments maintain websites for ordinary services. But social networking sites can be of extra help during crisis situations. First of all they provide interaction, not only transmitting but also receiving information. Feedback is specifically needed to complete data about victims. Furthermore, citizens do not need to address government for information, but they get right away. And not only in the place where they dwell, but in a form appropriate to the situation, i.e. mobile. When evacuation is imminent, people are probably not waiting behind a computer, but checking their cell phone.

Public sector information in the Netherlands is rather based on traditional digital communication channels. Although our country ranks top of the list in broadband penetration, internet usage and time devoted to social networking, the public sector is reluctant to embrace social media. With the exception of a number of good examples, structural use  is still limited. One of our strengths, cooperation between different government departments in one national portal for crisis information, turns into its opposite when its offline when needed most. Now disasters like the fires and floods in Australia are in general more violent, but the Netherlands can learn from clever use of social media elsewhere. Not only because social media are a hype, but because they have added value as noted above. It is high time that we adapt our contingency planning to the new opportunities. If not, then the next disaster will be the communication crisis itself.

Matt Poelmans visited Australia several times over the past two years as a keynote speaker at eGovernment conferences