Social Media - Asset, Threat, or Distraction During a Crisis?
Published in Continuity Magazine, June 2011. Drew Gibson discusses the changing media environment and the speed at which information can now travel during a crisis. Can companies keep up?
ocial media is sometimes perceived to be the root cause of crises; but do we concern ourselves with the sites themselves or the capability they derive and how do we use this to our advantage when a crisis occurs? From Pheidippides the Greek messenger, to the telegraph, the telephone and on to the computer and the smart phone, someone has always wanted to be the first to receive a piece of news or information. While the advent of social media allows the sharing of information to be taken to a new level of speed and reach in our globalised world, in reality, it is simply another new method of communicating news to one or many recipients. Its power and significance lies in its immediacy, and allowing connectedness and participation in conversations amongst wide communities without boundaries. As a result, it has the potential to become the centre of the way we communicate and already is for some. S technology students in their dorm rooms; in fact 54% of Facebook's users are over 34. What impact does it have on crises? Social media has allowed communication and information sharing on a previously unimaginable scale in terms of speed, volume and accessibility across the globe. Messages can be sent at the touch of a button, not only to one person, but to everyone within your network making speed of dissemination far quicker than any email or phone call, or even the newswires. Combined with the associated technological developments, these messages can also be viewed anywhere. It took less than three and a half minutes to send the first picture on Twitter of the US Airways flight 1549 after it crash-landed on the Hudson River in New York in 2009; it will have taken even less time for it to be re-tweeted multiple times around the globe. Combined with the weight of numbers that these `networks' generate, the speed of dissemination creates a real challenge for an organisation in the midst of a crisis, as BP discovered last year. The number one search term on Twitter in 2010 was #GulfOilSpill, whereby a huge number of activists coordinated protests at BP filling stations and offices around the world. And in the Middle East, social networks have facilitated the drive for change � as one of the protesters in Tahrir Square said: "We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world." It is undoubtedly a powerful tool and while some perceive it to be a negative influence, many organisations have used it to their advantage in managing events. In the London Students Fees Protests, it was used to track the routes protesters were taking and where factions were grouping to cause trouble; in Australia, the Queensland Police Service used it to coordinate the rescue efforts following the severe floods. Thus, organisations can benefit from the hugely positive ability of the social networks to disseminate key messages in support of their crisis response and benefit SOCIAL MEDIA ASSET, THREAT OR DISTRACTION IN A CRISIS? What is social media? When the internet was first conceived in the 1960s, the concept was that it would be a means of sharing information between scientists and academics, but it subsequently became much more than that. Social media is the logical progression of this ability to share information amongst networks of users capturing imaginations and memes1 to bring people together. Whether we like social media or not, the numbers speak for themselves; Facebook has over 500 million users, LinkedIn 100 million users, Twitter 200 million users and Friendster 115 million users. The list goes on, there are literally thousands of sites and even if you consider a significant overlap between them, it is not unreasonable to assume that over one billion people regularly use a social media site. Based on a world population approaching seven billion people, taking away those without any internet access, too young or too old to actively engage, it is clear that using this phenomenon is no longer the preserve of a group of Crisis communications "While the advent of social media allows the sharing of information to be taken to a new level of speed and reach in our globalised world, in reality, it is simply another new method of communicating" "It took less than three and a half minutes to send the first picture on Twitter of the US Airways flight 1549 after it crash-landed on the Hudson River in New York in 2009; it will have taken even less time for it to be re-tweeted multiple times around the globe" from the same speed and reach. We do, however, need to keep a perspective on the interest that will be generated in our own crisis or incident, as all the same rules apply to social media as the conventional media. Does it capture the imagination? Is it visual or interesting? Is it of public interest? If the answer is no, then it will not even make it to the news headlines. We also need to be mindful of the symbiotic relationship between traditional and social media because while traditional media is collecting information and getting story leads from sites such as Twitter and Facebook, equally the social networks need the conventional media to tell the story and get people to join the conversation in the first instance. So what are the options for engagement? Even if it is not in keeping with your organisational culture to post everything on line, social media can be used effectively as part of your crisis response through `passive engagement'. By using social media to listen to what is being said about you or associated crises, companies can develop a new level of information to support decision-making and informing their response while not getting actively involved in dialogue with the wider networks. Alternatively, you can listen and inform the decisions you make and use it as part of your response mechanism in a crisis, `actively engaging' with the communities on the various social media sites. While both active and passive use allows organisations to break inside the critics' decisionmaking cycles, to gain the advantage, any engagement should be carefully considered and prepared for in advance through a defined strategic approach in keeping with the organisational culture and training in support of your chosen strategy. Being sucked into engagement with social networks for the first time in the midst of a crisis without preparation is very risky. When AirAsia flight 124 skidded off the run way in Kuching, Malaysia, in January 2011 with 114 passengers and six crew onboard, they initiated a well planned and rehearsed social media strategy, using it to update the public on the situation. As the Group Chief Executive tweeted: "Working hard to remove aircraft. All passengers are home." This was one of many carefully constructed messages across several social media sites which reassured the public they were managing the situation and getting operations back to normal as soon as possible. Organisations should be aware that expectations of what information should be shared with the public have changed. People want to be `in the know' more than ever before. This means that in a crisis if the public feels that an organisation is trying to hide something, they can search until they find the answer. Social media engagement can proactively meet the public in open dialogue or passively develop an understanding of what they wish to know. for every company, but actively considering how to approach this channel is now highly recommended. Even if the decision is not for active engagement, you can still benefit from the utility of information that social media provides. It can be a powerful means of communicating with consumers, protagonists or detractors, or equally a powerful source of information to develop a `from the coal-face' understanding of a situation. What is clear is that social media is ignored at your peril as it becomes an increasingly prevalent facet of our lives; it has its limitations at present, but it will develop and evolve and we are just at the start of the curve. BC managers do not need to like it or to Tweet it, but they should at least endeavour to understand it; not only how it can impact us, but how it can be used to our advantage and from this decide how to engage with it. Footnote A proactive approach to social media Social media allows communication amongst individuals and groups on a totally new level through the sheer speed of dissemination, the numbers it can reach and the imaginations it can capture. It allows people experiencing an event to report it as it happens. While social media has been pilloried by many as a passing fad, or the root cause of many problems, it has also been used successfully by many to support their crisis response and convey their message. Actively launching into the blogosphere is not going to be the right course of action 1 Wiki definition � A `meme' is a relatively newly coined term which identifies ideas, behaviours, or styles that spread from person to person within a culture. The concept comes from an analogy: as genes transmit biological information, memes can be said to transmit idea and belief information