Social Media Changes How We Cover, Recover from Disaster

Lora Bentley

It's been just over a month since Haiti was rocked by a 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. The quake leveled the capital city of Port au Prince, and with it the country's government. But according to American Red Cross Louisville Area Chapter CEO Keith Alvey, technology, particularly social media, has played a huge role in focusing the world's attention on the great need there, and in raising funds for the relief effort.


In a brief conversation Tuesday morning, Alvey told me the combination of social and mainstream media was instrumental in informing the world about what was happening in Haiti in very near real time. He said:

"We weren't just getting reports from one reporter with a camera. We got footage from cell phone cameras.

People were posting to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube to get the word out, and the entire world was aware of what was happening within minutes.


For instance, ABC News reporter Kate Snow posted pictures and comments to her Twitter feed as she crossed the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti, as she reported from the epicenter site, and other areas. She was the first to report, via Twitter, that relief worker Dan Woolley had been found alive in the rubble of the Hotel Montana after 60-some hours. (If you'll remember, tech journalists were all over Woolley's story not long ago because he used an iPhone app to treat his wounds while he waited.)


But Alvey also noted that the combination of social and traditional broadcast media has revolutionized fund raising. "With text-to-give, the Red Cross alone has raised $32 million," he told me. And the most interesting thing about that is the donors are not the typical large, stable donors who give substantial amounts regularly. The donations are small, and they're coming from many, many average joes. That's a donor pool non-profits have not had easy access to before, and Alvey says they certainly will need to look at how they can maintain contact with those donors going forward.


Though this isn't the first time organizations like the Red Cross have used text-to-give, Alvey said it's the first time it has worked so well. And it's because traditional media outlets and social media are combined and working together for the relief effort. Among other things, he said:

It's the crawlers across the bottom of the screen during the news that say 'Text HAITI to 90999' to help.

In 10 seconds or less, the people who take advantage of that option can contribute to the effort and feel good about it.

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