Video interview: Social Media and Disaster Assistence

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Christoph Unger, President of the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistence, is happy about social media possibilities. We talked to him about new communication channels and how to create a climate of trust and confidence.


For most people a structured, predictable daily routine is the norm. Mr. Unger, as President of the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance you deal with just the opposite, with events that are not predictable as well as seriously problematic situations and disasters. How challenging is this in terms of communication?

Christoph Unger: Communication certainly plays a key role, especially in disaster situations or in emergencies of national importance. But it doesn't just spring into action when such things happen, it needs to be well prepared to ensure it really does work in an emergency.

Floods are a typical catastrophic event in Germany. Looking at the 100-year flood in the 1990s and comparing it with floods in recent times, do you think the spread of smartphones has changed anything in terms of the way we communicate?

Christoph Unger: Yes, quite obviously. Modern means of communication - social media, smartphones - naturally have a role to play nowadays, not just in society as a whole but as an instrument for dealing with such situations, and are a very particular challenge for us, because of course everyone has a smartphone and a great deal of information is disseminated, sometimes not just the good news.

You just mentioned social media. Disasters like these are typically cyclical. Are there specific cycles in which social media are particularly important for civil protection?

Christoph Unger: No, it is important in all phases. Right now we are using certain channels to spread information and offer recommendations and guidance on what to do. Because when things get really tough, time also becomes a huge problem. It is really important, therefore, to use such channels very early on, in order that we, as a public authority which is trying to give out recommendations for action via these new communication channels, can create a climate of trust and confidence.

It is important today that information from the authorities reaches everyone, even those who cannot read or hear well, if at all. Can a smartphone help here?

Christoph Unger: When it comes to warning the public in disaster situations, a mix of communication channels is important for us. Smartphones are a new and excellent means of issuing warnings and disseminating information and recommendations. However we need all options, of course, from sirens through radio communications and television to smartphones. We are glad that modern technology enables specific information to be provided via smartphones, for example. It's better than what we could achieve with a siren.

You just touched upon sirens. They are known as a standard channel of information. With social media you now have a kind of feedback channel. Do you use this in any way? Does it help you?

Christoph Unger: This is something we use primarily during the stages before a disaster, for the purpose of exchanging and discussing information, because we receive a lot of leads, suggestions and tips from the community. I believe it's important to offer people guidance in a disaster. So for us the one channel to the public in such situations is still the important one. However, we also use other ways, of course, to evaluate what is happening and what is developing within the community. There is a host of programs that are in fact used - as we saw with Sandy in the United States - to gather data from the Internet and social networks, generate information and so assess the situation better.

One last question: What is your personal idea of perfect communications in a disaster?

Christoph Unger: I don't have one. There will always be a chaotic phase initially. What is important is that we develop secure, reliable channels before the event that very quickly help us, in such difficult situations, to connect with people, assist the public, support them and literally show them the right way to go.

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