How a Smart City (Chattanooga) Used Social Media in a Crisis

March 10, 2011
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Social media is changing the way the people access local information. Before social media, we had to watch the 11 o’clock news, wait for the arrival of the morning paper or tune the radio dial at the top of the hour to catch local updates. In the digital era, people receive updates and interact with others regarding breaking news via platforms such as Twitter; not only as it breaks, but, more importantly, before it hits traditional media outlets.

Our appetite for national and international news has been fed with cable news networks and websites, but even that is changing. Breaking news becomes accessible via social media, and spreads like wildfire on channels such as Twitter before showing up on traditional media outlets.

Worldwide, it’s becoming more common for citizens to break news via social media outlets as it unfolds before them. This phenomenon has increased with the proliferation of smart phones and the adoption of social media as a norm.

Some local news providers, which have long been the initial source of public information when it comes to a community crisis such as inclement weather, traffic/road obstructions and environmental changes, are starting to experiment with social media as a fountainhead of information.

“You could say Twitter is the new police/fire scanner for news….especially local news.”


Our company is headquartered in Chattanooga, Tenn. and we see this play out often since a few local news organizations have adopted social media reporting as an additional way to connect with their audiences. These forward thinkers realize social media isn’t just another avenue to increase readers, listeners, or viewers, but a medium to engage with their audience in real-time and extend their reach. Pushing the envelope further are those who approach the social media stream as a new source for breaking news.

This all played out last week when stormy weather roared through the Tennessee Valley. As conditions deteriorated, news outlets got the word out that tornado watches were being issued in the area. Watch advisories were upgraded to  warnings, and local radio and TV stations broke in to regular programming to issue warnings for people to get off the roads, stay inside and most importantly be smart and stay safe.


Let the Tweeting Begin

Local news outlets, like ABC affiliate WTVC, NBC affiliate WRCB and the Chattanooga Times Free Press, besides having corporate Twitter accounts have a number of producers, editors, anchors, reporters, camera operators and photographers set up with personal accounts. Not all are actively engaged with the community, but some are and that’s where things start to get interesting.

As Chattanoogans started tweeting about the storm (#CHAwx), some local media outlets were tuned into Twitter. Then a local tweeted:

This post generated a lot of chatter and retweeting because the building, built in 1899, is located in a historic district. The flutter of activity caught the eye of a TV journalist monitoring from Twitter from his newsroom who in turn asked if his news organization could use the photograph.

Another person posted that they saw the collapse. Tweets went out that the media should seek out this person out for an eye witness account. Later on he’s interviewed on a local newscast. Reporters were dispatched to the collapse, and started Twitcasting from the site.

Several weather-related incidents were unfolding around town and the news media responded by dispatching reporters and camera crews. Those packing smart phones were able to not only get footage for the evening broadcast, but also send out pictures and live video from the event for those in the Twittersphere.

National media outlets, like The Weather Channel and CNN, picked up the story and used images that were tweeted by locals too. Empowered by social media, viewers can be real time contributors.

In the event of a catastrophe, social media could turn from a novelty (as it is viewed by some) to a vital link for those who are cut off.  Keep in mind, at this point there were over 20,000 people with out electricity so these reports sent via social media were the only source of information for those unable to access radio or television.

Smart City

Here’s where I brag on my city. EPB, the city-owned electricity provider, has deployed smart grid technology running fiber to every home in the city. Chattanooga has the distinction of being the first city in the United States to provide Gigabit Internet speed (#theGig) to all its residents, and is in the running for Most Intelligent Community of 2011 by the Intelligent Community Forum (#ChattICF).

As smart meter usage increases, the power company will be able to pinpoint problems and re-route power to reduce outage times. EPB’s use of SM is also impressive. They are the @ComcastCares of public utilities in terms of customer service.  I can attest to this from personal experience.


Not to be left out, the Chattanooga Police Department and Fire Department are getting active in the social media space too. It will be interesting to see how they further adopt technology to be more effective. If only the DMV would start Ustreaming from their lobby so we could see how long the lines. Now that would be something!

The application, integration and usage of social media by local news media, utilities and government agencies is limited only by the imagination of those who can affect change. We are fortunate in Chattanooga to have forward thinkers running some of these organizations.

Does the rise of social media diminish the role of news media? I don’t believe so. Being in the right place at the right time to tweet a picture/video does not make one a journalist. However, savvy news organizations that continue to adapt and experiment with new mediums will eventually surge ahead of their competitors, and thus remain relevant. Those that don’t, well…

You may be wondering why I forgot to mention the other big network affiliate TV station. It’s because their “eye” wasn’t focused on that space. Their Twitter feed was nothing more than an automated RSS feed that provided zero relevant information during the weather emergency. I’m sure they were broadcasting updates on their station, but I, like 20,000 others without power, wasn’t able to tune in.

News Channel 9 took a moment to acknowledge viewer content

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