By Anita Foster, Chief Communications Officer, American Red Cross North Texas Region
It’s hard to believe that a whole decade has passed since a little blue Twitter bird flew into our lives and changed everything. Early adopters had a variety of thoughts, fears, opinions when it came to Twitter…What’s a Twitter? Do you tweet or twit? What are you supposed to talk about? Will anyone really use this thing? This will never last.
Based on our first official Tweet in February of 2009, it’s obvious that we (actually, it was me as there was no “we” on our Twitter team until 2011) had no idea what “we” were doing.
It makes me laugh now to see that our first Tweet was about a Facebook post. And there was no hashtag because back then, I didn’t know a hashtag from a hash brown. Oh my. How far we’ve come.
Well, I might not have had a clue what I was doing on Twitter, but I know this now. We were out there before Paris Hilton, Justin Bieber, Oprah or Beyonce’, just to name a few! Who says the Red Cross isn’t cutting edge! (Or we just cut ourselves a lot, but we know first aid so it’s okay).
From the very early days on Twitter, Red Crossers who were exploring possibilities in the social media space had a sense that Twitter could be a very powerful tool during emergencies. With the help of social media greats like Wendy Harman, Gloria Huang, Ike Piggott, Laura Howe, Kristiana Almeida and many more, I was fortunate to have some pretty powerful thought leaders helping to shape our direction. In time, I was able to bring a bright young professional onto my team, Jennifer Jackson, who would take my work on Twitter to whole new levels.
Jennifer understood the power of social media and together, we worked to educate and inform our leaders, colleagues and volunteers about the power of social media. In fact, I’ll never forget learning that Michael Jackson died while I was talking to our board of directors about this new platform. The Twitter feed was in live motion as I was explaining the composition of a Tweet. The feed was moving like a Las Vegas slot machine as word spread that the King of Pop had died. I knew right then that Twitter (and TMZ) would never be the same.
In January of 2010, it was clear that Twitter had truly changed disaster response when word of a devastating earthquake in Haiti raced through the social media space. The Red Cross established our first-ever text campaign, text REDCROSS to 90999, and proliferated that information out on our social media feeds. It was so new that a reporter called me on the phone to verify that the text campaign wasn’t a hoax and that monies generated would support the Red Cross. He found the information on Twitter before I even had time to write a news release and send it out. Twitter had changed everything. And, it let us know where we were falling short.
The Haiti earthquake pointed out a great need to grow the social media base because so many tweets were coming into our feeds asking for help and we simply didn’t have the technology or the expertise to support them. We were no longer the kids playing on Facebook, as my former colleague Laura Howe would say. We were the people receiving the most immediate information during disasters. What an overwhelming responsibility. But one that we embraced.
After the earthquake, Laura Howe and her team worked shoulder to shoulder with Dell to develop our first Digital Disaster Operations Center (DigiDOC) in Washington D.C. which launched in March of 2012.
Texas was the first to challenge the new digital listening center when 17 tornadoes hit the Metroplex mid-day on April 3, less than a month after the launch. Within minutes of the storms hitting, my phone rang. It was national headquarters calling from the DigiDOC seeking information on the situation. The new technology allowed them to know instantly that the Metroplex had been hard-hit. I called them back as soon as I cleared my safe room. #SafetyFirst
We managed our social media feeds around the clock and did good work on this response but there was no question that we would need to build and train a whole new set of digital volunteers who we affectionately refer to today as #digivols.
Later that year, our team was recognized by the White House for using social media to save lives in emergencies. Wow. What an honor! And we later learned that the second DigiDOC would be coming to Dallas! Yes!!! (We opened on April 3, 2014 and our world has never been the same).
We’ve been tested repeatedly since we sent out our first tweet. Just to name a few, we played a role in Superstorm Sandy, the deadly fertilizer plan explosion in West, Texas followed a month later by deadly tornado outbreaks in Granbury, Texas and Moore, Oklahoma. The Van, Texas tornado, statewide floods in the spring and fall and most recently for us, the horrific tornado outbreak of December 26 all required diligence from our digital team. With each response, we aim to be better and faster for disaster victims needing our help.
For all of the complexities of Twitter, it really boils down to the simplest of things. We use Twitter to get and give information, especially during emergencies. And when you receive messages like the ones below, there’s no question that all of the trial and error of the past decade has been worth it. Through Twitter, which we power through the technology donated by Dell, we’ve comforted countless scared people and saved lives. What a great way to spend a day.
Today, I’m happy to report that I’m not a one-man Twitter band anymore. We have 30 digital volunteers that work in some capacity every day, blue skies or spinning skies, and we have a full-time digital communications specialist, Taelor Duckworth, who takes great care of our Twitter feed, our volunteers and the people who reach out to us during their darkest hours. We even have a sister-city social media relationship with our Red Cross team in Philadelphia! #BrotherlyLove
While I mentioned a few names here of folks who helped to grow our social media presence, it’s by no means comprehensive. Staff members, volunteers and our leaders who supported our “trial and error” phase when no one else was out in the space are all deeply appreciated.
It’s been a wild ride, but one that has allowed us to be available 24/7 with guidance, help or a comforting digital hug. Thank you, Twitter. You’ve changed our lives for the better. Happy #10thanniversary from me, @TexTwisters, and from all of us @RedCrossDFW!