As catastrophe hits Japan, relief groups turn to social media

Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging offer conduits for donations, as well as providing an online forum for concerned people everywhere.

In the chaotic hours following the devastating earthquake that hit Japan on Thursday night, social media channels were pulsing with questions and answers. Luckily, the key question, “How can I help?” was met with a near-immediate response from aid organizations worldwide.

In the spirit of real-time response, many aid organizations turned to prompting Twitter and Facebook followers to send texts that would instantly pledge a small donation—$10 in most cases—to help in the relief effort.

Organizations such as the American Red Cross, Global Giving and Save the Children provided followers with information about the loss of lives and property, along with their pleas for donations. Meanwhile, Twitter and Google’s online Person Finder tool gave aid organizations a method to gather information about the disaster and correct any misinformation on the Web.

Texts and Twitter

The American Red Cross employed a two-pronged communications effort Friday in the hours after the earthquake. As soon as the Japan chapter reached out to the U.S. organization for help late Friday morning, employees, volunteers and people just looking to help took to Twitter. Much of the conversation was about the text-to-donate effort. Through much of the day, “Text REDCROSS” was a trending topic.

“If people want to give a gift, we’ve made it easy for them to help,” says Jackie Mitchell, director of marketing and communications for the Greater Chicago Red Cross. Other agencies, including Global Giving and Save the Children, also promoted text-to-donate initiatives via Twitter.

Tweets from celebrities, including Japanese-American actor George Takei and talk show host Jimmy Fallon, directed followers toward mobile donations and the Red Cross’ online donation form. Mitchell says the Red Cross has a “celebrity cabinet” it can call on to help get out the word about disasters and other efforts, though she doesn’t know whether either Takei or Fallon is officially part of it.

Aid organization ShelterBox, which delivers aid boxes to families hit by disasters, has also spread the word through high-profile Twitter users, such as author Maureen Johnson. “Some supporters are launching their own campaigns for us,” says interim Executive Director Emily Sperling.

Mitchell says the Red Cross is “closely monitoring a few other platforms,” but Twitter was the place to be Friday. “Right now, it’s mostly about breaking news, and Twitter is the platform where a lot of that conversation takes place,” she says.

At World Vision, an evangelical relief agency, international news officer Casey Calamusa automatically receives an e-mail from the U.S. Geological Survey when there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world, and he began tweeting after the temblors shook Japan Thursday evening.

“Most of our team didn’t go to sleep last night,” he said Friday afternoon. “We worked all night.”

They reached World Vision employees in Tokyo and began feeding their comments into the agency’s Twitter feeds, among them WorldVisionNews, which offers tips for news media during disasters. When he learned that the tsunami might threaten the Philippines, he warned staff there and began sharing their information on the website and Twitter.

The goal is both to spread information and help donors respond, particularly because disasters always bring in a new surge of followers.

“If they want to help support disaster responses, that’s what allows us to keeps us going,” Calamusa said. “At the same time we’re pushing out information, we are trying to raise awareness and help people to donate so we can keep doing what we do.”

All social media?

Eileen Burke, director of media and communications for Save the Children, said her agency wasn’t just using tweets and Facebook updates to get the message out. She said they’re sending targeted e-mails and securing Google search ads, among other tactics.

But Global Giving, a relatively new venture that uses a Kickstarter-style approach to charitable giving—that is, donors give to specific projects that have set fundraising goals—has only communicated through Twitter and Facebook, says Kevin Conroy, director of user experience and product development.

“It’s entirely social media driven,” he says.

As of mid-afternoon Friday, Global Giving had raised about $75,000 just through tweets and Facebook “likes.” More than 6,000 people “liked” Global Giving’s Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief fund, which Conroy and his team set up around 6 a.m. Friday after finding out about the earthquake on Twitter.

Funds donated to Global Giving are then funneled toward on-the-ground relief organizations, including local, grass-roots agencies, Conroy says. Donors receive e-mails telling them where their money is going.

Gathering and correcting

The Red Cross’ group of “voluntweeters” also has helped weed out misinformation and quash it, Mitchell says. For instance, the Red Cross community was able to correct an incorrect text-to-donate number for Canada that had been going around, she says.

As the Red Cross has done in the past, they’re using tweets and other information from around the world to gather and disseminate information on what’s going on in the disaster area. For instance, a blog post on the Red Cross website directs anyone looking for a missing family member not only to the International Committee of the Red Cross’ family links website, but also to Google’s Person Finder.

The systems aren’t perfect, though. Twitter was having trouble through most of Friday handling searches about the earthquake. A click on Twitter’s status resulted in the message, “Twitter search servers are responding slowly, which causes some queries to fail. Engineers are working on the issue.”

Ragan staff writer Russell Working contributed to this report.

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