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How Digital Led the Narrative amid Hurricane Sandy

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Hurricane Sandy was one of the most devastating natural disasters to hit the northeast on record. Along the entire corridor (and elsewhere), the storm impacted an unprecedented number of people.

There’s no doubt that the flow of information last night was owned by digital outlets – even despite widespread power outages across the region. This tweet about New York Daily news staffers writing and filing stories by the light of their computer screens is perhaps the best illustration of this point.

We’ve seen the impact of social during large live events – most recently the debates of the 2012 presidential election – but social activity during Hurricane Sandy had a distinctly different feel given the gravity of the situation. The snarky social commentary that seems to dominate conversations during live events was almost entirely replaced by real-time news and a powerful, though imperfect, exchange of up-to-the-second information. And, as New York Magazine puts it, beyond the utility of the medium, social media also created a “virtual campfire,” in which friends and strangers banned together.

This news event was not a story for brands or marketers, but rather communities and people. Still, the narrative that unfolded does underscore the immense power of the digital medium and its profound influence on culture.

Here are five key learnings, appropriately illustrated through Twitter updates.

Second screen trumps the first

As expected, news broke much earlier and faster across digital channels than it did on traditional outlets. Many people remarked that they were following Twitter updates as a first screen, with television playing in backdrop to fill in the blanks. Real-time social was the first stop for people looking for news and information. In fact, Digiday editor Brian Morrissey remarked that he first learned he would need to evacuate his building via Twitter. This is not a statement about the shortcomings of traditional media, but rather the pervasiveness of the digital medium. Reporters can’t be everywhere at every time, but digital, quite simply, is. This continues to be an important lesson for marketers as search, social and mobile continues to shape the way people engage with their brands.

Nimbleness was king

 


When the primary websites for major news outlets like BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Gawker went dark, they relied on other platforms to share news and information. Even beyond Twitter – the usual suspect for real-time updates – it was fascinating to see pubs essentially rebuild themselves of pre-existing platforms, like Tumblr. An excellent example of this was BuzzFeed, which shifted all coverage from BuzzFeed.com to buzzfeed.tumblr.com after experiencing an outage. Gawker also moved to a makeshift site, updates.gawker.com, to sidestep domain issues. One Twitter user commented that this was the “best Gawker redesign in years.”

Cultural relevance: a risk and an opportunity

American Apparel was lambasted for a “hurricane sale” email blast that was sent amid great chaos and tragedy in the hardly hit areas. This is a hard lesson for brands, but one that should have been avoided. If brands are to act like humans, they should also act “human” in crisis situations. As the New York Times’ David Carr stated, “Sandy slapped the snark out of Twitter.” American Apparel should have done the same. Many brands took a safer and smarter route, and offered simple (and non-self-serving) updates to extend their condolences to those affected. For example, the Atlantic City Marathon – an organization within a community that was deeply impacted by Sandy – shared a compelling photo of mile 16 of its course with a note for people to “stay safe.” This New York Rangers’ status update demonstrates another example of a brand that got it right.

Power to the people

 


News outlets relied on citizen journalists for many of the most powerful shots of the scene. The effect of this was that reporters were able to disseminate media from an immense stockpile – elevating hyper-local events to a huge audience. Beyond media outlets, pop-up websites like Instacane.com curated images from the storm, though not all of the content there proved legitimate. Pando Daily pondered if Sandy was “Instagram’s big citizen journalism moment.”

While citizen journalism granted media outlets widespread access to areas where they could not be, it also created an environment where rumors ran rampant and misinformation (and misrepresentations, a la photoshopped images) was everywhere. Still, Twitter functioned as a “truth machine,” as citizen fact-checkers quickly shot down unconfirmed rumors and lies. Sites like Mashable and Gawker – and organizations like the MTA and the FDNY – were also quick to denounce phony images and information.

Tech does good


Finally, it was refreshing and quite amazing to see some of the biggest digital properties around step up to the plate and put their powerful technology to work to help people during a time of crisis. Google was a prime example of this, mobilizing quickly to use its incredible maps technology to alert and inform people about the impending storm. Twitter also provided the NYC Mayor’s Office with free promoted tweets to ensure that New Yorkers were seeing the best, most up-to-the-minute information from local government.

Traditional media outlets, like The New York Times and WNYC used data visualization to tell the story of Sandy’s impact through interactive maps. Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal also lifted their pay walls for the duration of the storm.

Our thoughts are with everyone impacted by the storm and we wish everyone a safe and speedy recovery.