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IUPUI Student from Salem Helps Homeland Security Reach Storm Victims


March 26, 2012

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An Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis student from Salem, Ind., has been using his journalism and social media skills to help the Indiana Department of Homeland Security reach out to storm victims after tornadoes swept through a half-dozen southern Indiana counties March 2.

Garret Walton, whose family, relatives and friends live throughout the storm-ravaged area, had already been using social media to collect donations of needed items and driving them to southern Indiana every weekend following the tornadoes. Then IDHS contacted Julie Vincent, a public relations instructor in the IU School of Journalism at IUPUI, looking for volunteers to help with social media. IDHS had worked with her during the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

Vincent thought of Walton, a journalism student majoring in public relations. “He is one of our best kids,” she said.

When Walton walked into the IDHS joint command center in the Indiana Government Center in Indianapolis on March 12, “I got to work right away.”

By the time the week was over, he was producing news releases like a pro. He was also helping public relations professionals who were less savvy than he about how best to use social media to spread the word about recovery services to southern Indiana residents.

“I kind of provided other volunteers with a crash course in social media,” Walton said.

Using what he had learned from his journalism courses and from “living on Facebook for six years,” Walton developed guidelines for posting status updates and other information in ways that would be the most useful and attract the most attention on Facebook.

Lengthy status updates were replaced with shorter versions that were easier to read and share. Local offices began re-posting these updates, helping IDHS reach a wider audience, Walton said. He also encouraged a “conversational” tone to make sure intended audiences would read and understand important information.

Walton’s experience helping IDHS has only strengthened his long-term plans following graduation in May to one day work in crisis communications. In the short-term, he would like to use his journalism degree and minor in biology to get a communications-related job in the health care field.

“It definitely solidified what I want to do,” Walton said. “I like the rush of constantly being on my toes.”