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Using Social Media to Enhance Disaster Communications

About this article: Several agencies, carriers and associations did an outstanding job keeping their clients and members informed in the East Coast disasters using social media and e-newsletters. This article discusses what these agencies and associations did and also outlines the opportunity the Independent Agency System has to build on what has been done to-date by creating a national disaster communications plan and resources, perhaps through Trusted Choice®, to deliver a coordinated approach and messages that agencies and state agent associations across the country could access during disaster situations.

by Rick Morgan

It is not unusual to hear agents who are not yet actively participating in social networking question its value and/or its return on investment (ROI). Despite clear evidence to the contrary, they consider social networking a fad and/or a waste of time. When I speak of clear evidence, I think of the way our industry used social networking in response to the earthquake, hurricane Irene, tropical storm Lee and severe flooding that plagued much of the East coast the past summer. During these events, agents, carriers and associations effectively used social networking to connect with their followers and communicate valuable information.

Agencies used everything from e-newsletters and blogs to Twitter and YouTube to post information on how to contact carriers, storm updates, emergency shelters locations, road closings, office hours, FEMA info, tips on cleaning, preparing a disaster supply kit, storm surge maps, “thank you’s” to emergency responders, photos of local flooding, and insurance policy coverage information. In short, they provided valuable information and kept their customers informed prior to, during and after the disasters.

Several carriers also did a great job posting storm-related risk management information on their websites and Facebook pages. Travelers and Harleysville would be two good examples. I also found our industry actively involved in Twitter conversations and followed them using the hashtags #irene, #hurricaneirene and #insurance.
State agent associations and IIABA’s Trusted Choice® team also provided valuable information and updates that agencies could take and incorporate into their client communications.

Social Media’s Unique Value As Cindy Donaldson, Founders Insurance Group, Inc., put it: “The great thing about the social media is the “live updates” – which I continually posted. So if it helped one person – it was a win!” Carol Reese, CIC, CRM, from the Henry D. Young Insurance Agency, adds: “I feel that social media is a great way to get information out to many people immediately to help them deal with disasters and their aftermath. It also shows the community that we care about what may be happening to them and are here to help them get through the claim process and disaster recovery.”

Agencies Stand Out with their Communications It was one thing for me to be here in Colorado watching and commenting on our industry’s disaster response, but it is quite another to hear from those who were actually living through the experience. I wondered not only why they used particular social tools, how effective they were, and most importantly, how their customers reacted. To find out, I posted these questions on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. In their own words, here are some of the responses I received:

Carol Y Reese, CIC, CRM, Henry D Young Inc Insurance Agency: “We mainly posted information on our Facebook page and blog. We posted information such as how to contact us during and after hours, where to find claim reporting information on our website and how to file a claim online or at our service center if we were closed. We also posted useful links to local, state and national information to help people through the disaster, cleanup and claims process.

“We are a small town of 5000 people, so we see many of our customers on the street and do a lot of walk-in business. They verbally told us how appreciative they were for the information when we would see them around town. I also think it's important to post other things about thanking our first responders for being there for all of us and the photo of our t-ball field. It makes our Facebook page more interesting, I feel, not just totally informational.”

Ryan M. Hanley, The Murray Group Insurance Services, Inc: “I used video. I think video is more relatable and actionable than text at this point: 6 Hurricane Preparedness Tips for Homeowners and Putting in Insurance Claims after Hurricane Irene. I uploaded the videos to YouTube and created blog posts around the videos and sent them out to all my (social) networks. We also did an email to all our clients (that did not include the video).”

Cindy Donaldson, Director of Marketing and Sales, Founders Insurance Group, Inc.: “I used our blog, Twitter and Facebook, posting information on how to contact carriers, updates on storms, emergency shelters, road closings, flooding etc.

“We also updated our Website with that information. The biggest response came from our e-newsletter – where we posted all the emergency contact information. It is easier to see the response there AND it also goes to all of our insureds who have given me their email addresses vs. the smaller number that follow us on social media.”

Pauline Handy, Marketing Director, V.F. McNeil Insurance: “Our biggest response came from our e-newsletters. In fact, the first e-blast about Irene yielded the highest open rate we’ve ever seen since we’ve been using e-marketing. In addition, this blast also had the highest click-through rate. The e-newsletter also brought replies to my email address simply thanking us for the information, as well as phone calls to the agency with questions sparked from the newsletter.

“Although we did use vehicles like Facebook, etc. to post information it certainly is a much more difficult thing to judge. These posts quite possibly could have been viewed by many; however, my analytics only revealed a few visits to our site in this time frame, from each of these platforms.

“We are continuing to keep the communication going even after the storm. Our upcoming newsletter will touch upon two things: first, the unusual weather patterns in CT as a whole in 2011 and what we’ve learned about planning, preparedness, and staying informed; second, the topic of flood will be addressed with a blog about flood insurance.”

Nancy Nicklow, President, owner, Huff Insurance: “Our agency posted a lot on Facebook – what worked the best for us were the preventive tips we offered on the Facebook page. Those got people talking.”

Michael Honig, CIC, Partner - Honig Conte Porrino Insurance Agency, Inc.: “We posted information/tips to help people prepare prior to the hurricane. We also posted a current list of most of our major insurance carriers, along with the special hurricane claim contact phone numbers they had established. We changed all of our voice mail messages directing clients to our Facebook page for the most up-to-date information on claims reporting. I think our efforts made claims handling, post storm, much easier as numerous clients were able to report their claims directly to the carriers as a result of the information we posted.”

Michael McMahon, Account Manager & Advertising at McMahon Agency, Inc.: “Our agency posted info following the earthquake & leading up to the Hurricane to both our Twitter& Facebook. I stayed on the island that was mostly evacuated & rode out the storm. Since we never lost power, I was able to post updates to Twitter throughout the event. We got a lot of new followers and lots of RT's from people who had evacuated the area & were trying to get info on what was going on. Also, I posted pictures to our Picasa account throughout the storm.”

Marie Stahlman, HR Manager at DGK Insurance : “Our agency used Facebook to advise people of our office hours as we had to stay closed during the state of emergency and how to reach people for assistance, i.e., Google phone. Also, we utilized our website for clients with FEMA info and tips on cleaning. We informed clients where to go for cleaning supplies, clothes, toiletries, etc.; and those not affected, where they could go to help and what to donate. We adopted a daycare to help them with restocking toys, books, furniture etc., and we “facebooked” our friends for donations and had an overwhelming response.”

Donna Eller Freeman, The Baxter Insurance Group: “We posted items on our web site that feeds to the notes on our FB page a week prior to the hurricane. We also posted directly to our FB page. Then afterward, we posted to our FB page numbers for them to use if they needed to contact people. For the earthquake, we posted questions and answers regarding earthquakes – that they are not typically covered and that on most policies it is optional. As for responses, there were only a few who actually posted. A few others said things in person. I am not really sure how effective social media is. We have a ton of followers, so unless they blocked the content, they are seeing our posts to FB. It’s easy to do, so we will keep doing it for now at the TheBaxterGroup on FB.”

State Associations & Trusted Choice® Step Up to Support Members Paul C. Banuski, Marketing & Communications Coordinator, Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of New York: “In advance of the storm we did both traditional outreach as well as social media. Our Situation Room is a blast email alert we send to all members and we used it to send an alert on Irene on August 26. We followed up with post-storm update on September 6th & 8th. Prior to the storm, Tim Dodge, our Director of Research, also shared the Situation Room update on his blog& released a short video on preparedness as part of his “Two Minutes with Tim” series. Both went out via his Twitter account. Also on August 26th we began sharing preparedness information on our page on Facebook and our Twitter account.

“After the storm we set up a dedicated “Response & Recovery” page on our website (which has since been added to our disaster information page) where we shared information on response and recovery resources, from government sources, non-profit groups, industry groups like the III and the various power authorities in the impacted areas. Throughout the days following, we added to the page and used Facebook & Twitter to get the message out to members of the IIABNY community. I also did a brief YouTube video highlighting the available resources. During the flooding of New York’s Southern Tier along the Susquehanna, we used our Twitter page to share information using the #s7storm hashtag that was also being used by the Binghamton area media to share updates on the flooding.
“Continuing on a more personal level, my family used Facebook and email to assemble a team of aunts, uncles & cousins to travel to Schoharie over Labor Day weekend to help with some recovery efforts, and we shared updates with the rest of the family throughout the weekend using social media tools.” Sheri A. Acconzo, CMP, President & CEO, Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of New Jersey: “To enhance the information disseminated through our newsletter, Watchdog alerts and website, IIABNJ leveraged both Twitter and Facebook to send breaking news to our members before, during, and after the hurricane. Understanding that there would be many news outlets sharing information, and that we have a government affairs representative in communication with the state government, our intent was to be a single resource, or clearing house, of up-to-date information for the membership.

“With the ability for social media to break news in real-time, IIABNJ focused our communications process on this channel so our audience had a quick and easy way to receive pertinent information. Our Facebook page and Twitter profile became a steady stream of information that was accessible from anywhere. No sifting through emails or conducting Google searches were required to know the state of affairs prior to the hurricane reaching New Jersey, the hurricane status, the relief efforts, government funding, and more. Our members had details of information, such as the CAT number and whether Irene was a hurricane – the minute this data was released – by monitoring our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“In addition to IIABNJ’s posts, our Facebook page was also an outlet for members to share relevant and valuable information with one another, allowing us to be source of information as well as a catalyst for communication.

“The feedback has been positive. Members appreciated receiving the information immediately. We have also had a few New Jersey insurance companies comment about the timeliness of our postings.”

Kevin Brandt, Director of Operations, Trusted Choice®, Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America: “In the days leading up to Irene's strike on the east coast, Trusted Choice® highlighted preparedness steps on This article discusses specific items a consumer should consider not only when a major storm is impending but also during and after. We published this article through the website but also pushed it out through our Facebook page and encouraged our agents to share with their clients using their own social media presence. Trusted Choice® also used social media tools to remind our member agents and industry about the Trusted Choice Disaster Relief Fund and its ability to financially assist those who experienced losses not covered by their own insurance policies.”

Our Industry’s Opportunity to Provide a Coordinated Message Many agencies and associations provided a valuable service to their customers and members with their disaster communications. Yet, we can – really, must – do more. I would like to see our industry develop a single resource, or clearinghouse of up-to-date information, as well as, a comprehensive industry-wide social media response plan. The great work done by Trusted Choice®, IIABNY, IIABNJ and others can serve as a jumping off point for such an industry initiative.

In the recent East Coast disasters, most agents had to come up with their own content and find relevant source material. Without sacrificing the significance of local community information, there would be great value in our industry creating a single and centralized repository of information. Not only would this give agents access to event relevant content but populate the social space with a strong unified and consistent message. For example, if Trusted Choice®, a state agent association or a carrier created a video about disaster planning, it could be shared with this repository so that agents across the country could access, share, and link to it. The disaster communications plan would be designed to enable our industry to deliver a cohesive message and leverage the local presence of more than 25,000 independent agents. Thus, the plan would define and model the process of moving a timely communication to & from the national association level to the state associations and to local agencies.

Our industry shines at times like this. Creating a single resource center and communication plan would allow us to take control of our message and offset the typical popular media stories about increased premiums and uncovered losses. Implementation of this model would give us the means to demonstrate the strength and value of the Independent Agency System.

The agencies, carriers, and associations listed above are only a small sampling of the many who took advantage of social networking during Irene and the other recent disasters.

Rick Morgan has four decades of experience in innovative technology, marketing, and publishing in support of the independent agency system. He chairs ACT’s Social Web Work Group. ( Rick produced this article for ACT ( ). It reflects his views and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.

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