Social media helped Florida, Texas courts deal with Irma and Harvey

Parts of Florida and Texas are still recovering from category-4 hurricanes Irma and Harvey, but life is returning to normal for many people, and officials there have begun to assess how they prepared for and responded to the storms.

Court officials in those states largely feel good about how they dealt with the storms, and they attribute their success to preparation, experience and social media. Maybe you expected them to cite preparation and experience, but social media?

“Facebook and Twitter were the real workhorses during the storm,” said Craig Waters, communications director for the Florida Supreme Court. Texas court officials also relied on social media before, during and after Harvey hit.

A look at how those states used social media may help other states communicate better with court constituents the next time a natural disaster strikes.

Seeing the potential

Florida and Texas are not new to social media.

Florida started thinking about how social media could help the courts communicate with the public as far back as the mid-2000s. A few years later, in 2009, the Florida Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to start using Twitter. The court’s website now also includes links to its Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn pages.

In Florida, the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties in the central part of the state, is a recognized leader in Florida for using social media and technology to communicate with the public. It has been using Twitter and Facebook since 2013 and has added other social media since then.

Texas also started in 2013, specifically Twitter.

“We saw the potential in using social media to communicate with the court community about events, appointments, meetings and policy changes,” said Megan LaVoie, director of public affairs and special counsel with the Texas Office of Court Administration. Right around the time Twitter started, the judiciary was implementing eFiling, so Twitter was used to get the word about eFiling. Texas also uses Facebook.

Working with it every day

It’s one thing to have social media sites. It’s another thing to use them – and use them often.

Florida’s highest court uses Twitter for breaking news, Instagram to release photos, YouTube to share videos, LinkedIn to distribute articles and other information to lawyers and court professionals, and Facebook to let the public know about everything from court-related anniversaries to new or updated procedures.

In Texas, “we use social media for everything,” LaVoie said. “Every day is different.” She said one year the Office of Court Administration staff dressed up as Star Trek characters for Halloween. A photo was tweeted, and William “Captain Kirk” Shatner, who has 2.56 million Twitter followers, retweeted it.  

Using it for Irma and Harvey

Court officials’ familiarity with social media made it second nature for them to use it to communicate with Floridians and Texans before, during and after Irma and Harvey hit.

Waters used Twitter and Facebook to continually update the public about court closures and re-openings. Brief social media posts often included links to more detailed information on the Florida Supreme Court’s website.

The Ninth Circuit also relied on Twitter, Facebook and its website to announce court-related breaking news, targeting litigants, journalists, jurors and court employees many times a day, especially before and after the storm, said Matt Benefiel, the circuit’s trial court administrator.

Texas mostly used Twitter not just to let them know about closures but to advertise legal hotlines and clinics and to let them know that eFiling was up and running. The eFiling system never went down, so people were processing cases before, during and after Harvey, even if they couldn’t get to or use their offices.

“We were tweeting information every day, multiple times a day,” LaVoie said.

Knowing that it works

Social media made communicating with the public and court constituents about Irma much easier than in 2004, when hurricanes Charley (category 4), Ivan (3), Frances (2) and Jeanne (3) pounded Florida.

During Irma, social media was a more reliable form of communication than telephone landlines and cell phones, which didn’t always work.

One notable example: Waters became aware that law students were worried that Irma would delay the release of the Florida bar exam results, so he posted a notice on Facebook that the storm would not delay the release of the results. That one post received about 29,000 hits – more than any other post he has ever made. That made it clear to Waters that people were paying attention to the social media posts.

LaVoie said she is confident that a lot of people were paying attention to their social media posts because of “multiple retweets” from attorneys, judges and court workers

After Irma passed, Waters received numerous compliments from lawyers, journalists and others about the court’s social media posts. So did Benefiel in the central part of Florida.

 “Social media,” Benefiel said, “was the go-to arena to get updated and immediate court information.”