In today’s world of citizen journalists and social media, we can learn of an event in seconds or even watch as it happens live. This shift has had an effect on how we communicate in times of crisis or disaster. As a result, accounting for social media has quickly become one of the most challenging aspects of developing an organization’s crisis plan.
One of the reasons for this difficulty is the speed at which information spreads on social media. On the surface, it may seem beneficial to get information out as fast as possible during a crisis. The problem is that there is no opportunity to vet or contextualize first-hand accounts and there is little fact-checking or editing to ensure the validity of the message. Since there is no way to stop information from spreading, it makes the situation even more difficult for first responders.
Social media is also characterized by a lack of differentiation and attribution. Tweets by major news outlets and citizen journalists look the same as they come up in your Twitter feed. In an everyday situation, this would not be a problem, but in an emergency, information received is often accepted as fact regardless of source credibility. The ease with which people can tweet, retweet, share or like contributes to the cycle of word-of-mouth speculation and can create confusion.
In addition, social media messages tend to be perpetuated by practices such as sharing or retweeting. Because there is no editorial oversight, there is no way to ensure that the information is timely. This means that a message can be recirculated as new for hours. As these older messages circulate side-by-side with those that are newer—and possibly contradictory—the potential for confusion grows. During a crisis, it is essential to ensure correct information is the only information that is disseminated.
To combat these potentially dangerous characteristics, social media needs to be included as part of a well-integrated crisis communications plan. One way to do this is to create online “listening posts” that synthesize news from all types of sources, including print, blogs and social media. This data can provide details on where a threat might be and who needs additional information or assistance. For example, the Centers for Disease Control could use a listening post during a crisis to see whether residents in a particular area are posting fearful or confused messages about an outbreak. The CDC can then focus on quickly delivering accurate information to that area. Organizations can create listening posts using a number of tools, including Google Alerts, Twitter Search, TweetBeep, TweetDeck, Hootsuite and Social Mention.
Social media can be an invaluable tool to quickly spread important information to any number of users. Do not wait until a crisis occurs to develop your social media strategy, however. Establish your presence ahead of time and use it frequently to ensure your stakeholders are familiar with your social media channels and will be able to find them when needed.