Blend of Social and Traditional Media Jump Starts Disaster Response


Every day we learn new ways to use social media in our work and personal lives. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest and other emerging social media tools are already transforming how we communicate and do business in ways unimaginable a decade ago.

In this first of a two-part blog post, I’ll present an illustration of how these tools empowered a small South Carolina community of people to quickly and efficiently come to the aid of a much larger group of people struck by disaster.

A Call to Action

When a devastating tornado hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27, 2011, five members of our church in Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, made a commitment to help. We learned that the son of a member of our congregation was an associate pastor of a Tuscaloosa church. In short order he sent us a list of needed supplies, along with assurances that our donations would aid the neediest victims.  

The Challenge

The immediate challenge was to inform our community about specific needs and how to donate them. To make our efforts worthwhile and timely, we would have to use innovative approaches to reach many people fast. With my background in corporate marketing, it occurred to me that the same powerful social media tools that enable businesses to tell the world about their products and services could help us provide effective disaster relief – and quickly.


Enlisting the help of our church assistant, our first step was to reach out to all church members through email, inviting them to donate supplies and volunteer their time. Our campaign built momentum as the initial recipients forwarded emails to their friends and to associates in clubs and civic organizations.


We added a special “Disaster Response” page on the church website to provide a list of needed supplies, the collection center schedule, , and related logistical information that let donors and volunteers know instantly what to buy and when to report for duty. This eliminated handling hundreds of phone calls.     

Personal Contact

Concurrent with our online efforts, volunteers placed collection boxes in grocery stores and locally owned businesses to facilitate collection of purchased donations. As shoppers noticed other shoppers buying goods to donate, many asked if they could join in. Now the campaign was spreading through the old communications standby: personal interaction.

Quick Response Codes

We placed flyers and posters with the collection boxes that listed the types of donations we needed. The flyers and posters included a “Quick Response code,” a relatively new social media tool. 

A Quick Response (QR) code is a matrix barcode designed to be read by smart phones – anytime and anywhere. The black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background can contain over 4,000 characters of encoded information programmed to a web address, or URL, such as our special disaster relief web page. When someone scans the QR code with the camera of their smart phone, it takes them to a specific web destination, such as a web page, a YouTube video, or a podcast. Like an express lane in a grocery store, the QR code provides a fast way for a device to fetch information.  

Creating our unique QR code was easy. We simply used one of several free code-generation websites. Then we printed the code on our flyers. People who read it with their smart phones were taken to the church website page where they could access up-to-date information about what items to purchase. This new social media tool enabled us to minimize wasteful buying and maximize the impact of our campaign.  


As our project gained momentum, we felt a greater need to keep people informed and encouraged. Email, phone calls, personal interactions, and our website provided only limited interaction. How could we easily reach more people to get involved or keep people excited and committed?

The powerful interactive social media tool Facebook was our solution. We established a Facebook group of volunteers and members of the community who could exchange information, post progress reports, ask questions, and share their thoughts and photos. The Facebook pages also contained the collection center schedule and other useful data. We could see the enthusiasm, involvement, and momentum increase through the Facebook interaction. Even though many of us never had face-to-face contact, social media united us around a common purpose and enabled us to expand our efforts rapidly.

Traditional media

Newspapers, TV, and radio also played important roles in publicizing our campaign. Two radio stations interviewed our pastor, and a TV station interviewed me and filmed our volunteers as they loaded the truck. We highlighted some of these media spots on our Facebook page for broader visibility.

Awareness of our project was growing rapidly, and so was participation. Less than two weeks after project initiation, a twenty-four-foot truck full of needed goods was headed for Tuscaloosa. Our core group had expanded from five to about one hundred. We have no way of knowing how many people donated items, but it was in the hundreds.  

Watch for part two of this two-part BLOG in a couple weeks.



Posted by Christopher Smith on 17-04-2012 in Leadership, Marketing, Technology