News Leadership 3.0

July 15, 2010

Mobile: A Key Part of your Emergency News Strategy

It’s hurricane season—the perfect time for news organizations everywhere to consider how you’d keep reaching your community when facing the most dire communication challenges.

Most news organizations have a plan for their web site during natural disasters and other emergencies (i.e., posting frequent brief text updates; fewer stories, photos, and videos; and stripping out template graphics to make the site faster to load, etc.) But have you specifically considered the role that mobile media should play in your emergency news plan?...

In an emergency such as a hurricane, wildfire, flood, earthquake, or chemical plant explosion, three things can happen that can severely affect your digital publishing efforts:

  1. Your servers will get slammed. Expect your web traffic to shoot up far beyond normal levels soon after the disaster news breaks, and likely remain that way for the duration of the emergency (and possibly for a while beyond). Most news orgs have plans in place to increase bandwidth or to mirror or colocate their sites as needed in response to traffic surges. But even so, it’s likely that at times the public’s demand for your web site will exceed your ability to serve pages to browsers. Frustrated web users may turn to your mobile site.
  2. Mobile traffic will spike. And that surge could bear bigger than ever before. Mobile web access has gone mainstream. According to Pew’s recent Mobile Access 2010 report, in the past year 40% of US cell phone users accessed the internet from their phones—and more than half of them do so daily. This is a sharp jump: last year, only 25% of cell users reported mobile internet access. Since about 80% of cell phones currently in use in the US are not smartphones with full-featured browsers, it’s likely that in an emergency the vast majority of your mobile traffic will come from cheaper feature phones with simple browsers. So make sure your WAP site (wireless application protocol), which is optimized to display well on a small simple mobile browser, can deliver emergency news and information.
  3. Telecommunications can get unreliable. In many emergencies, phone service can get overwhelmed, or there can be physical damage to cell towers, phone lines, fiberoptic cables, or the electric grid. For mobile phones, signal availability generally gets spotty (rather than knocked out entirely for days). This means that usually some data or messaging traffic generally can still get through—at least intermittently. Text messages and WAP sites require less bandwidth and power than voice calls, so they’re often the channels of choice in an emergency.

What can this mean for your mobile emergency news strategy?

David Herrold was online operations manager for the Houston Chronicle during Hurricane Ike in 2008—when that paper’s mobile site proved to be an information lifeline for many stranded people whose only media access was their phone.

“Having a mobile-friendly site during any emergency where a community’s utilities are affected (power, water, etc) can be an incredibly useful tool to get information to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the web,” he said. “You have to boil down the information of a WAP site to the bare essentials. It’s all nut-graph. Information such as which grocery stores are open, which gas stations have gas/power, which streets are flooded, etc, became pretty important info when the only device you have available is a mobile phone.”

Too often, mobile news sites provide little more than headline shovelware. In an emergency, that’s generally not very useful or usable. Instead Herrold recommends posting useful updates and information (rather than stories) on your mobile site during an emergency. “We also updated our mobile site with weather updates, important phone numbers, etc. during the storm.”

While you can put photos on your mobile site, Herrold cautions that your mobile site should use photos sparingly during an emergency. Make sure they’re cropped to display well on a small screen, and choose a lower resolution to yield a smaller file size for the default download.

It’s tempting to set up an SMS text-alert service for emergency mobile publishing, but Herrold cautions that this can get unexpectedly costly if you get slammed with sudden demand.

“SMS isn’t cheap. There are free SMS services out there, but usually they carry advertising,” said Herrold, noting that SMS ads can be especially inappropriate during an emergency. However, a news organization could publish phone numbers to which people can send text or photo messages to the news org (field reports, questions, or requests).

Twitter also can be a useful part of your emergency mobile news strategy—especially because it integrates nicely with text messaging for both sending and receiving tweets. It helps to set up a special Twitter account for occasional, high-priority alerts and resources. That way, people who may be stranded with no power can subscribe to get text alerts only from your emergency news Twitter account—thus making efficient use of their phone’s batteries, and avoiding a flood of texts.

Including Twitter in your emergency mobile news strategy does depend on Twitter being up and running—which is a risk. Also, keep in mind that text subscribers might not receive your emergency news tweets immediately. Put a time notation in each emergency news tweet, to clarify when it was sent. Be sure to tweet appropriate numbers where people can text for help. And make sure Twitter is not your sole mobile-friendly emergency news channel.

Herrold also notes that mobile can be an important part of your emergency newsgathering strategy. “Crowdsourcing information during and after a disaster is pretty effective,” he said. “After a disaster, people want to help. If that can be made simple and easy, they will help. For instance, they could entering their zip code into a database (via text message or mobile web site) and report whether they currently have power or water, or to share neighborhood resources. During Hurricane Ike, Houston Chronicle content director Dean Betz and his team used several databases to gather that type of info, and they filled up quickly.”


Mobile technologies are very important to any emergency communication strategy, and this was an interesting take on how to best prepare both a news organization and the general community. Although I have to say I think you may have under sold the value of SMS or text messaging technology. SMS can be both time and cost efficient for mobile communication in an emergency if set-up and managed properly. Additionally, because SMS operates on a different channel than voice calls, it is much less likely to get jammed up in an emergency, meaning you have a better reach, whether it is internally or reaching out to the community. At Globaltel Media, we’ve seen great interest in using SMS technology to provide bulk alerts. Though when considering these types of alert systems, it is important to remember that those receiving the message are also a valuable resource for crisis resolution. When a system can recognize and accept incoming messages regardless of the message content, dispatchers can have an extra pair of eyes on the ground. Real-time feedback can be a very important key to a timely solution.
I agree with all your suggestions, but believe SMS can also play a much more important role than it was given credit for. Thank you for the article!

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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