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Relying on social media for crisis communications

by Mac Thompson on Sep 22, 2015 2:20:00 PM

social media for crisis communications

As much as people like to believe they would act calm and collected during a sudden emergency, unfortunately it’s likely that most of them would either freeze, panic, or anxiously ask themselves, “What do I do now?” Some emergencies help alert building occupants via alarm, such as during instances of a fire—in which case, the obvious thing to do would be to evacuate the building. However, other emergency scenarios can be more complex or drawn out, where something as simple as a blaring alarm may not be much help, or, in some instances, may cause widespread panic. Fortunately, since nearly everyone today owns and operates a smartphone, specific information and instruction can be relayed to those in need via social media channels.

In-the-moment alerts for a dynamic audience

For decades, television was the most popular method of obtaining information about an unfolding event, whether it be a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or other emergency. To be fair, television is still the most popular method to get informed, but it’s not surprising that more people are instead using the internet, and in particular, social media, thanks to more convenience and a higher frequency of up-to-the-minute updates.

One of the biggest reasons why disseminating emergency messages over social media channels is gaining traction? Unlike a television or radio broadcast, social media posts can be shared, enabling the information to be re-broadcast to a wider audience. Ultimately, this tends to benefit those who may not be following or tuned in to the organization. Take for instance the recent tragedy at Delta State University where an active shooter was reported on campus. The official university Twitter account posted the following:

Within a span of a few hours, this and its subsequent tweets were shared hundreds to thousands of times, allowing Delta State students following the university’s account to repost the message on their feeds, spreading the message to students who may not follow their school’s twitter account. Notice how succinct and direct it is; the message provides both specific information and instruction within the 140-character Twitter limit. Taking care when crafting emergency messages is vital—an accidental typo or typing in all caps may confuse or frighten recipients. If an organization looking to social media as an additional means to spread information, proper training and planning are essential to achieve smooth execution.

Post-emergency, social media can function as a powerful tool to listen to, and answer questions from, those affected by the emergency in a sort of “cyber town hall meeting”. For example, FEMA engages users on its social media accounts after natural disasters, not only just to answer questions but also to address concerns and manage misinformation, ultimately solidifying the public's trust and respect of the federal agency.

Additionally, traditional news outlets also benefit from social media updates after a disaster. After the bombings during the Boston Marathon in 2013, The Boston Globe compiled information from tweets from law enforcement and civilians to display it on their home page as an automatically updating live blog so users could scan the feed to quickly find the facts about what had happened. Considering the prevalence of social media, it’s not surprising to see that other news outlets have also adopted this method of sharing information.

Information must be both factual and frequent

As useful and convenient posting tidbits of information to social media networks can be, its prevalence throughout society can ultimately prove to be somewhat problematic regarding its effectiveness due to high levels of uncertainty that can often accompany emergency events. In a study conducted by Clemson University’s Social Media Listening Center, over 5000 social media posts were examined during two active shooter incidents in 2014 in order to determine the effectiveness of social media as a means to inform during emergencies. Its findings concluded that while the social media posts conveyed more information about the event rather than emotion about the tragedy, a large portion of that information was false.

As it turns out, implementing a social media strategy for communicating details about an emergency can be a double-edged sword. If social media posts are not monitored and addressed quickly by law enforcement or other emergency officials, users are quick to share information that is not entirely correct, or in some cases, completely fabricated, especially in regard to active shooter scenarios. This incident regarding a shooting at Purdue University in early 2014 is a perfect example:

  • After the shooting, Purdue sent out text messages, emails, and social media posts to alert students, faculty, and staff to shelter in place and to check the university website for updates. Consequently, the website, inundated with traffic, had trouble loading, and school officials were not able to provide enough information through alternative channels, causing students taking shelter on campus to turn to social media, at which point imaginations began to run wild. Rumors escalated as one shooter became two (and then three), and a widely-shared photo of a plainclothes police officer with a gun was misreported as being the shooter.

Emergency management strategies for social media require a balance between releasing too much information (or releasing it too soon) and not releasing enough information to keep up with public demand. A lack of timely updates can cause emotional or frustrated civilians to concoct their own theories or conclusions, like when the FBI released photos of the Boston bombing suspects and users on the social news community Reddit falsely connected it to the recent disappearance of a Brown University student:

  • Unfortunately, the users’ accusations snowballed into premature conclusions and eventually sparked an “online witch hunt” that went viral, even leading established news outlets and reporters to spread the misinformation further. As a result, the missing student’s family endured a night of harassment and negating claims that they had aided a terrorist, which of course ended up not being the casethe actual suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was identified roughly 12 hours later. (Reddit, as well as those who had reported the misinformation, all provided formal apologies to the wronged family.)

An important rule of thumb is to take anything written on the internet with a grain of salt. Maintaining skepticism of claims posted on social networks is important, especially if the source profile is not verified, which are typically reserved for authoritative figures in the public eye, such as journalists or government officials. Social media can be a powerful tool for emergency messaging strategies and operations, as there have been countless instances where the majority of the public has benefitted from a simple piece of information or picture regarding an emergency, but like any communication medium, there will always be inherent challenges that require crisis management teams to be flexible and properly prepared when disaster strikes.

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This post was written by Mac Thompson

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