Climatology Warnings by Citizen Reporters can be dangerous

There was chaos the past week in Johannesburg.

On Monday afternoon it took me 3 hours to get home from the Airport. During the bumper to bumper traffic journey I got frantic calls from my family asking me where I was and how long it would be before I get home. Apparently they had heard on the radio and via friends that a massive storm would be breaking in Johannesburg.

I personally was not that worried having seen the warning in the paper in the morning, because recently we have had a fair amount of rain and accompanying thunderstorms, with some areas more hit than others. But these new developments were scary.

However it later turned out that the panic seemed to have been caused by a hoax e-mail that did the rounds. Apparently a prankster or  "citizen journalist" added to the news. An employee of a respected company received a hoax e-mail about an impending storm (expected tornado) that would hit the area. Immediately this person forwarded the message to some friends who did the same.

The hoax emails stated that Gauteng was in the path of hurricanes and tornadoes. Soon the rumours were spreading, the message was picked up by traditional media and soon city buildings were evacuated and government departments sent staff home early to escape the weather.

The emails, some bearing the signature of a Netcare employee or altered Netcare logos, warned residents not to underestimate the South African Weather Service’s standard thunderstorm warnings.

Netcare has confirmed that an employee did send an email warning to five close friends about impending bad weather on Monday morning but said the email was embellished before being forwarded. Calling the incident an embarrassment, the company said it was inundated with phone calls within an hour of the original email being sent.

Disaster management, emergency services, metro police and firefighters were put on alert in Johannesburg and Pretoria. The South African Revenue Service also issued a memo warning employees about the impending storms after speaking to the national weather service, spokesperson Adrian Lackay said.

For the emergency services provider ER24, Monday’s email joke proved to be costly. "Our controllers were flooded with calls from distressed community members wondering what they should do," said Werner Vermaak, ER24’s public information officer. "We even had calls asking us to help take children out of school."

Lines to the South African Weather Service were jammed solid for hours on Monday afternoon, as the public clamoured for answers. "We had issued a forecast for rain and the possibility of severe thunderstorms but it is not unlike the warnings we’ve issued in the past couple of weeks," said senior service meteorologist, Lee-ann Clark.

While tornadoes have been known in South Africa, hurricanes are unlikely to hit landlocked Gauteng anytime soon.

This event has some learnings for organizations:

  1. Have you informed, educated, instructed and trained your employees in the clever use of the Internet? Like what? This – resource checking, double checking of facts, not just relying on one source..The importance of using Web 2.0 technologies such as RSS newsreaders?
  2. Have you made it clear to employees that they should refrain from sending on messages, without consultation and forethought? I receive countless rumours, humour and innuendos daily, but seldom send anything on.
  3. Have you built into your Media Policy and Reputation Risk Management framework, safeguards against the potential harm and impact that citizen journalists can bring to the table?
  4. How quickly can you communicate with your target audiences should there be a crisis?

What organizations need to understand is that the role of citizen reporters are escalating and that the potential for negative publicity is on the increase. As long as a person has a mobile phone, laptop or PC , a modem they can post information anywhere, any time – to blogs, and other channels.

However technology also provides us with tools to communicate faster, more elegantly and effectively. I would deem it important that organizations have as part of their Crisis Management plans, technologies such as bulk e-mail and SMS software so that they can send out messages quickly if there is a crisis.Provided databases are kept up to date.Again you may want to explore the use of software such as Palxo to assist you with this mammoth task.

Others even have "dark websites" – websites that can be up and running and on the Net in a couple of minutes.

Again it is about preperation, forethought and creative solutions to problems.

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