The City of Courtenay’s new social media team was christened in the most critical of ways last week, and it came away with a top-notch effort.
“The word ‘team’ kind of makes me giggle a little bit,” said Anne Guillo, whose full-time job is as the communications officer for the City of Courtenay. “It’s a small team. There are really only two of us – myself and my colleague, Lisa Zervakis.”
Zervakis also has other responsibilities with the City, when not on social media “duty”. She is the community services clerk.
“We have been using Facebook and Twitter since September – we launched (those accounts) along with the new website (www.courtenay.ca), so we have both been working on it for all that time – but this [storm] was the first crisis communication using social media,” said Guillo.
Team; pair; duo – whatever term is used, they did a commendable job keeping the community informed during the Dec. 8-10 storms that put the city of Courtenay into a state of emergency.
Guillo and Zervakis were responsible for getting the information from “ground zero” to the masses. As roads and trails closed, as flooding increased and as evacuation notices were issued, it was the city social media team’s responsibility to get the word out to the community.
“You never can predict when something like this is going to happen,” said Guillo. “Our goal was to just provide the best information, as quickly as we could, using the information (sources) that we had.”
Those sources included the likes of GIS (mapping) technician Julia Machin.
“(She) was so helpful and quick with creating updated road closure maps, evacuation zones, etc,” said Guillo. “These maps were a great visual tool, which we posted both on social media and on the website.”
The photography postings to the internet were also helpful in keeping people informed.
City of Courtenay CAO David Allen said that was a major improvement from communication efforts in past storms.
“One difference from previous floods is we were given the opportunity by the RCMP to do aerial reconnaissance and photographs with their helicopter during the flooding on both Tuesday and Wednesday,” said Allen. “We will use this data to compare the two days’ floods, and prepare an updated flood response plan.”
Guillo said she has yet to tally up the man hours put in by the social media team, but suffice it to say, there was not much rest for either of the two.
“Oh, we put in long hours, but that’s just what happens in an emergency,” said Guillo. “There were many, many people who put in long hours last week. What you see on the net is just part of what happens in that kind of crisis.
“At least I was nice and dry inside. There were an awful lot of people who were not so comfortable during all of it. Wet and cold. Every city worker available was being used in some capacity. It was all hands on deck. We had staff displaced from recreation, the LINC was closed, the Lewis Centre was closed, so all those staff were helping out.”
Guillo was based right inside the Emergency Operations Centre (at city hall).
“We tried to centralize everything through the senior team at the centre,” said Guillo. “So we were all receiving updates from workers at the trails, out on the street and so on. Then we would get the updates posted.”
Guillo said among the most stressful parts of the week was the announcement of the evacuation order.
“I had Lisa right beside me and we were going through everything together, making sure that everything was being reviewed and (proofed) before it was posted. And she was so calm throughout it, which was quite nice.”
“It wasn’t just another day at the office, that’s for sure,” said Zervakis. “Just trying to stay on top of making sure that if someone needed to know something, or needed to get somewhere, that we were able to answer their questions.”
Guillo said one of the big advantages of the social media era is that if they had posted anything that was not quite clear, people could question them immediately, be it on a Facebook thread, a tweet or even on the city website.
As opposed to the flood of 2010, this time, communication between the city and the residents was instant.
“Previously, we wouldn’t know if something wasn’t clear until they emailed, or called,” said Guillo. “This time, they’d just post a comment that said ‘I don’t understand’ and we could go over it with them.”
If Guillo and Zervakis could not answer the question themselves, quite often there was someone else right in the EOC that could address the concern.
“We felt very connected (with the residents),” said Zervakis, saying there were times that she was wishing she could be of more help. “It was hard to hear people who were stressed out, concerned about their businesses and such.
“But I think we were a bit of a calming factor for people… that they could get, if not all the answers, at least some answers right away.”
Guillo added that the residents were also helpful in relieving some of the stress at the Emergency Operations Centre, and that the positive feedback did not go unnoticed.
“When there were momentary breaks in the action in the Emergency Operations Centre we’d read out some of the comments from the public posted on Facebook. It was a nice pick-me-up for the EOC team.”
Guillo said now that the immediate emergency has passed, the City has time to look back on how everything was handled, and where improvements could be made in preparation for the next crisis.
“That’s what we will do this week,” she said. “I will be looking at where there may have been breakdowns in the communication, and figure out how we could do a better job next time. The more ways we can communicate with the public, the better.”
“There is always room for improvement,” added Allen. “All staff participating in the Emergency Operations Centre will be going through a debrief this week. Further, all other City staff involved in the flood emergency response have been asked to provide their feedback on what worked well, and potential areas for improvement, while the event is fresh in their minds. We hope the lessons learned from this flood emergency will serve to better prepare us for the next flood event.”
Guillo said that if any residents have any suggestions for improvement, the team can be reached via email.
“We would welcome any feedback. They can contact firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s our general inbox … there is also a feedback form on our website, under contact, where they can provide feedback.”