On Thursday, August 14th, VCRD’s Vermont Digital Economy Project facilitated a discussion with an impressive group of representatives from several nonprofit organizations that are part of Vermont Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), including the American Red Cross, the Vermont Foodbank, Vermont 2-1-1, and the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund; the Vermont Division of Emergency Management & Homeland Security; SerVermont; and Front Porch Forum.

It was the third meeting in the past year to strategize a deliberate and coordinated social media effort in which all of these groups will use the same social media hashtag — #VTStrong – across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms to encourage volunteerism and disaster preparedness.

“The goal of the discussion was to strategize ways to leverage social media during disaster and facilitate coordination among these and other groups,” said Rob Fish, the Nonprofit Adviser for the Vermont Digital Economy Project, and organizer of the #VTStrong campaign. “By honing in on and curating a specific hashtag during regular activities involving volunteers and preparedness – in this case #VTStrong – we believe we’re enabling social media to be more efficient and cohesive in the event of another disaster.”

Many of the same organizations first met to discuss coordinated social media strategies last year, in a day-long social media workshop donated and facilitated by IBM consultants as part of the company’s Impact Grants Program.

#VTStrong VOAD groupSome of those who met to discuss the #VTStrong strategy on Aug. 14th include (left to right) Doug Bishop, Director of Communications & External Relations, VT & NH Upper Valley Red Cross, JoEllen Calderara, Board Member, Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, Philip Kolling, Executive Director, SerVermont, Mark Bosma, Public Information Officer, Vermont Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, Sharon Combes-Farr, Vermont Digital Economy Project Director, Rob Fish, Vermont Digital Economy Project Nonprofit Adviser, and Michael Wood-Lewis, Co-Founder & CEO, Front Porch Forum.

After a deliberate discussion about the alternatives, the group selected #VTStrong, because “it already has an identity. It cropped up organically in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, so it is a natural choice for us develop and leverage. And, it really speaks to what all of these groups are trying to do,” Rob explained.

In social media and elsewhere “VTStrong” became the rallying cry after Tropical Storm Irene. The website of the same name was a significant part of the State’s recovery efforts after the storm. The site is now managed by Vermont Emergency Management and is still a major source of the on-going recovery from Tropical Storm Irene and other disaster recovery and preparedness information.

The team agreed that the objective of the #VTStrong project is: To have multiple Vermont organizations “working together” by using a specific social media hashtag (#VTStrong) in blue skies (in quiet times), so that it is more likely to be used organically for volunteers and other recovery efforts in the event of another disaster (“grey skies”). 

In a review of a various case studies on the use of social media during disasters, we found that during times of disaster, social media use increases dramatically. We also discovered that having a hashtag decided in advance makes emergency response efforts more efficient, organized, and effective. A great example related to floods in the Philippines, can be found here

How Will the Team Use #VTStrong?

  • Doug Bishop, Director of Communications & External Relations, VT & NH Upper Valley Red Cross, said that he’ll be starting a social media campaign next month using #VTStrong as part of a large communication effort for National Preparedness Month (September).
  • Phil Kolling, Executive Director of SerVermont will begin using it to tag his social media efforts related to training members and in any effort that is specifically related to disasters or preparedness.
  • JoEllen Calderara, Board Member, Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, and MaryEllen Mendl, Director of Vermont 2-1-1, will use the hashtag for communications related to disaster volunteer recruitment for their organizations.
  • Mark Bosma at the VEMHS will use #VTStrong for preparedness messaging and storm warnings. An example might be: “Don’t touch downed power lines #VTStrong.”
  • Judy Stremer and Michelle Barber from the Vermont Foodbank are already using #VTStrong for volunteer coordination on both Twitter and Instagram and will plan to continue using it.
  • The group also agreed to share and re-tweet messages from the other organizations that are tagged with #VTStrong.

How do we want people to use it?

Please Use #VTStrong for:

  • Sharing information about volunteer opportunities around disaster needs and disaster readiness.
  • Sharing information about community resilience.
  • Sharing disaster preparedness information for the general public.
  • Sharing information during times of disaster for consumption by the general public.

Please Do Not Use #VTStrong for:

  • Do not use it to call for help.
  • Do not use it when asking for emergency assistance.
  • Do not use it instead of contacting emergency responders or Vermont 2-1-1 for access to health and human services.
  • Do not use it to report home or property damage without also reporting it to local town officials and 2-1-1.

It is very important that the public continue to use 9-1-1 for an immediate emergency and to use 2-1-1 for access to health and human services.

However, as more and more people turn to social media for up-to-the-minute information in times of disaster, emergency response and recovery groups will increasingly be expected to actively and effectively monitor, participate and correct mistaken information across all social media channels.  #VTStrong is an effort to get ahead of the curve and start integrating social media into disaster response so we’re ready in the event of another Tropical Storm Irene or a more localized or regional event. Let us know if your organization, agency, community, or business is willing to commit to using #VTStrong.