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Responding to disaster 2.0: Haiti’s “wake-up call” for the Red Cross

3 min read

Digital Technology

Social networks are profoundly changing the way we receive and react to news about disasters around the world.

In the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Haiti in January, the response on Twitter provided a “textbook example” of how people use social media as a community to share information about a crisis, provide solutions to help and promote awareness about what is happening on the ground, said Wendy Harman of the American Red Cross at Buzz2010.

Harman, who leads the Red Cross’s social-media efforts, said she  faced tremendous challenges after the earthquake in Haiti. Harman and her team found success in a number of efforts, including a text campaign (“text ‘Haiti’ to 90999“) that allowed donors to give $10 to Red Cross relief efforts by charging the donation to their cell-phone bills. But she said her greatest takeaway from the event was a realization as to how people in affected areas used social media in the midst of a major tragedy.

Unlike during past emergencies, people on the ground in Haiti used Twitter, Facebook, and other social tools to call for help, advertise their location and let friends and loved ones know about their condition and safety. This provided a huge “wake-up call” to the Red Cross, Harman said, because even though the organization could see these messages, it had no means to effectively use the information and act on them.

What changes the game:

  • In a recent Red Cross survey on social media, 74% of the more than 1,000 respondents noted that they would expect cries for help made on social mediums to be answered within an hour. At this time, however, there is no effective means of providing this kind of response.

Next steps for the Red Cross:

For more insight from Harman on the Red Cross and its use of social media in disaster response, check out this video of her talk at Buzz2010:


Wendy spoke on Tuesday, July 20, about social media and risk as part of our Buzz2010 event series in Washington, D.C. The final session of the series is Wednesday, Aug. 18, on social media and return on investment, with Olivier Blanchard. Space is limited, so sign up here.