City’s social media ‘storm team’ ready for action

There was a time not long ago in Florida when hurricanes meant hours of fixedly watching local news crews standing in gales reporting from their stations’ entire broadcast areas, eagerly awaiting any mention of events close to home.

That’s helpful news during a large storm, but thanks to emerging features on websites and social media, the City of Port St. Lucie has brought that same kind of immediate and repeating coverage down to the block on people’s computers, tablets and smartphones.

The benefit was especially seen just last year with Hurricane Irma. “News stations just couldn’t get up here – they didn’t have the reporters,” said Sarah Prohoska, the city’s public information officer.

She explained that the city’s communications team was not only able to fill a gap in television coverage, but to add immediate interactivity to it.

“We had our staff monitoring our Facebook, Twitter and Nextdoor,” Prohoska said. “We were responding very quickly to questions.”

The 2018 North Atlantic hurricane season is here. It started on June 1 and will continue until Nov. 30. Hurricane seasons can and do go with no storms hitting Florida. That’s what everybody hopes for. But in recent years, no such luck.

“We had two storms within a year of each other,” Kristina Ciuperger, the communications director at the city, said.

Those storms were, of course, hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017. Ciuperger said the city learned much from both about using emerging features on social-media to keep people informed before, during and after large storms hit.

“We actually won some awards for our communications practices,” she said. Among them are the Association of Marketing and Communications’ Hermes Creative gold and platinum awards.

Ciuperger and Prohoska said several at the city have backgrounds in television and other media and turned that experience loose on emergent technology, such as Facebook Live, the steaming video feature which existed for only about a year before Matthew.

During that storm, the communications team filed live, television-like reports on Facebook.

“We tried to capture video whenever possible,” Ciuperger said. “We started to do our own new stories.”

Those videos and other updates were also on Twitter and the lesser-known Nextdoor, a social network for specific neighborhoods. About 16,000 residents in Port St. Lucie are on that social network. Users have to give verifiable addresses to ensure they’re in the neighborhoods they claim.

Ciuperger said during Irma as the communications team got word from other city departments about, say, downed trees blocking roadways, it tapped Nextdoor to tell the people nearby.

“It’s set up by communities,” she explained. “We can just send that immediately to that neighborhood.”

Social media wasn’t the only place people were seeing the city’s live reporting during Matthew and Irma.

“The news stations were picking up those videos and replaying them, because they didn’t have reporters to get out here,” Ciuperger said.

Additionally, the city recently updated its website to make it more easily accessible to mobile phones. When storms approach, the city creates a page at the site to post updates. That’s proven to have a much farther reach than perhaps expected.

“We had a great story happen about a gentleman in New Jersey who was looking at the city’s website and he was able to give his parents information and get them to a shelter,” Ciuperger said.

Prohoska and Ciuperger said the city’s communication team has even more tools for getting word out and answering more questions during hurricanes than it did during Matthew and Irma. Both also recommended registering with the county’s Alert St. Lucie program, which allows people to get alerts issued by the county’s Division of Emergency Management by phone, email and text messages.

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