Wendy Harman, director of social strategy at America Red Cross, shared how the future of her organization’s social media involvement could shape its delivery of aid. Photo by: Geoff Livingston / CC BY-SA

Maximizing social media’s benefits doesn’t come naturally to the American Red Cross, concedes Wendy Harman, the disaster relief organization’s director of social strategy. The ARC has been responding to disaster relief and emergency crises since 1881 and, by now, has its set ways of going about business and reaching the general public.

But the Washington, D.C.-based organization is increasingly placing social media strategies as a centerfold of its public outreach and disaster response work, guided in part by the strategy that Harman developed.

The organization has had its share of public faux pas along the way, but its online persona — now with more than 763,000 Twitter followers — also appears to be paying off. In 2010, it raised $3 million for Haiti relief efforts in a 48-hour block, supported by 2.3 million Twitter messages its supporters posted. And the American Red Cross is now mentioned on Twitter about 4,000 times daily, a number that jumps exponentially when a disaster strikes, Harman said Sunday during the Mashable Social Good Summit, one of several events in the lead-up to the U.N. General Assembly this week.

She spoke with Devex about the future of American Red Cross’ digital and social media involvement, and how this stands to shape the delivery of aid.

There have been a series of large-scale natural disasters over the past few years: 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2010 Pakistan flooding, 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan, and the current drought and food security crises in the Sahel region of West Africa. What do you think the international aid community is doing wrong when it comes to disaster risk reduction and preparedness, especially with how it is trying to harness social media?

I don’t know if this is doing it wrong — I just think that we are still evolving to adapt to the way that people use technology these days so it is a huge culture shift for the American Red Cross, for the [International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies], for every aid organization to go from saying, “We have been doing this for 100-however many years and we have all these processes that are proven to work.” And now the way that people organize themselves using tools like this is sort of changing everything about the way that original process worked.

We are still in the time of this era when we are figuring out how to mix this time-honored procedural way of providing aid and responding with a new way of doing it, and we don’t know exactly what it looks like on the other end yet.

Can you look back at any of these crises and say, “I wish we had done things differently, to have made responses flowed more efficiently?”

This whole thing is not so much about even technology. It’s about people, and so it’s hard to pinpoint one tool that would have helped better, because we just weren’t necessarily there as a culture to be able to take advantage of all of the wealth of knowledge and community preparedness that could have happened because of it.

So, there are certainly times when I felt like I wished we could have taken action on this and I made a first responder head to a place where I just saw a person tweet that they were under the rubble, but it didn’t happen as much as we would have wanted it to. That is never going to be in my real house, or even in the American Red Cross’ real house, so what we are just trying to do is focus on what we can do and where we see neighborhoods that haven’t had water and that is our real house. We are just trying to get our own systems in place so that we are able to be more efficient, more responsive, better organization than we were without social media.

Are there new social media or technology tools or campaigns you are planning on rolling out within the next few months or year to further that goal?

We launched the digital operations center in March. Now what we are doing is training every person who works or volunteers with the Red Cross to be able to use social tools in their jobs, so that is our next big thing. And then we are also training digital volunteers to help for when we need to scale up during big disasters to help us be responsive to people.

How do you think all of these projects can help change aid delivery, if at all?

We think we can make people much better informed just from our own communications. We can be much more relevant to them, because we know what their concerns are. And in the bigger picture, I think what my ultimate goal is, and what the Red Cross’ ultimate goal is, is that we can build this fabric of community throughout the United States, so wherever an area begins to hurt they already are connected. They already have systems in place — sort of like a social web, to be able to verify their own information and to reach out for help.

And what can be done to make sure that people are using Twitter to tweet at the Red Cross when there really is a crisis, and not just when there is strong wind, for example, as you said during your speech?

I think that is a big challenge. One of the things that we haven’t done yet … is to say publicly, “If you use these terms, or this hashtag, or you put something on this map, we will respond.” We haven’t made that promise to the American public yet. We are still doing it reactively. We have to sort of figure at what threshold we would respond to. Is it 20 people who are tweeting from Atlanta about a specific issue, is it 50, is it two? So we just haven’t worked out all those details yet … I think the first way we will do it is with damage reports.

Stay tuned for more coverage from this year’s Social Good Summit, and check out our conversations with other global development luminaries attending the event.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.