MCSMN Blog

June 6, 2011

Social Media and the Orphans in Haiti – "Tom Vanderwell, Ann Curry is following you on Twitter."

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Many people think that the only thing Twitter is good for is telling people what you had for dinner and what coffee shop you are at.

Wrong.

Let me tell you a story about how Twitter worked to help the orphans in Haiti......

Prior to January 12, 2010, I used Twitter for a couple of main reasons:

  • To interact with real estate and mortgage people all over the country. It is a great way to keep up with people all over the country, talk to them about what's happening and to not feel so "alone."
  • To keep up with the news and the markets. In the mortgage world, it was and is very important to keep on top of what is happening in the markets, the economic reports, the direction of the interest rate market and things like that.

So, I had found a number of the main news sources and was following them. Places like the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the Washington Post, CNBC, the Today Show, Ann Curry, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric, Al Roker, Barry Ritholtz and a bunch more were all on my "follow" list. I also followed all of the local TV stations and newspapers and their reporters. I created a separate list in TweetDeck (my favorite and almost only twitter app) that shows only what they are saying.

Now keep in mind, the orphanage that my wife and I adopted our two youngest children from is about 15 miles outside of Port Au Prince Haiti.

Well, I'm sitting at my computer at 5:07 pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 and Tweetdeck pops up one of those boxes in the upper corner of my screen showing one of the new tweets that just came in. It was a tweet that changed my life forever.

"Major 7.5 Earthquake hits Port Au Prince Haiti" and then a link to their article. I clicked on it, read the article with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. This was bad. Devastatingly bad.

Within 10 minutes, I had reached our adoption coordinator via instant messenger (located in Colorado) and she was on cell phone with John Bickel (the orphanage director's husband). So about 25 minutes after the earthquake, I had confirmed news that our orphanage had survived and that we had experienced no casualties at the orphanage (though we didn't know the status of our staff who weren't on duty at that point.)

And then the phone calls started coming. Being an adoptive parent and a board member, many families who were in process of adopting knew me and my family and started calling us and asking us what we knew about what was going on with the earthquake. I'm so glad that I was able to reassure them that their child was safe within 25 minutes of the earthquake.

From 5:15 PM on Tuesday until 4:00 AM Wednesday morning, I spent virtually the entire time glued to the computer and the phone. I was scouring all of the major news websites but I soon learned that I was able to find out more news of what was really happening in Haiti and with the earthquake on Twitter than I was anywhere else. So, I'm searching Twitter using terms like #Haiti and #PAP and #Earthquake and getting live reports from people on the ground in Haiti. I was then able to pass that information on to our supporters and adoptive parents. Using Twitter to keep on breaking news from the "front lines" is a great benefit.

But that wasn't the most powerful way that Twitter changed the lives of orphans in Haiti on January 12, 2010. The most important aspect of Twitter that made a difference that day is Twitter's ability to be the great equalizer. I've had interactions with people on Twitter who I never would have had the opportunity to if it weren't for Twitter. News reporters, CNBC guest commentators, PGA golfers and others are all on "that" list of people who I've tweeted with that I never would have otherwise. But probably the most popular one is Ann Curry from the Today Show.

About 8:30 or so that night, Ann Curry posted on Twitter, "Trying to get in touch with anyone in Port Au Prince Haiti who speaks English - need an interview." I chimed in, "I'm "talking" with our orphanage there - they all speak English."

We went back and forth a bit trying to connect. At the same time, I was IM'ng with our staff in Colorado and they were talking/texting with our staff in Haiti (when they could get through.) Then I got a message from Ann - "How do we get in touch with them?" Shortly after that, I got the email that is linked below. I haven't framed it yet, but I think I'm going to.

Ann Curry Twitter email

It was then that I had to step away from the computer for a minute because the power of Twitter just kind of hit me. Here was this mortgage lender from West Michigan talking to one of the anchors of the Today Show in the middle of the first night of an international disaster. All because of two things:
• The power of Twitter to be the great equalizer - More of the "high profile" people are accessible than they have ever been.
• The willingness to speak up. Twitter is most powerful when you aren't a Twitter "Stalker" (always listens but never says anything) but also aren't a "Twitter Hog" (someone who clutters up the space with very little of importance.)

Back to the story - Ann and I exchanged a few more DMs and she got the contact info that they needed down in Haiti. About 30 minutes later, I got a Facebook message from the orphanage director's daughter (working on her laptop outside the orphanage where she could still get a signal - they didn't know if it was safe to go inside). The Facebook message said that Dixie was talking to a producer from NBC.

What was the end result of the Twitter conversations that I had with Ann Curry? See for yourself:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Because of Twitter, Ann Curry's willingness to be accessible and my willingness to speak up, the orphans in Haiti, especially the ones at "my" orphanage got a lot more publicity than they would have otherwise. And that additional publicity led to additional support at a time when we really needed it.

My recommendations are:
• Set up Twitter to develop a list/group (depending on what app you use) for the news people that would impact your life and your work.
• Don't be afraid to interact with those people and places - not as a spammer or trying to sell something but as someone who cares about their community and has something useful to add.

You'll be amazed at how powerful Twitter can be.

Next time - "How Social Media changed the government's approach to Humanitarian Parole and the orphans in Haiti."

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