By Gerard Braud
Let’s look at several case studies to understand the impact of social media when “it” hits the fan.
Social media allows us to communicate in a crisis; social media fails on us during a crisis; social media can cause a crisis.
Where do we start? Think of social media first as a place to Listen and not to talk. Look in the mirror. You will notice the good Lord gave you 2 ears and one mouth. You should use them in that proportion.
Now let us look at social media case studies of crises that involved natural disasters. In the case of Haiti, immediately following the January 2010 earthquake, Twitter was providing a platform for discussions. Facebook was providing a social media channel for discussions that are more in depth. But the conversations were incomplete because many of the people closest to the situation could not talk with us or receive our messages because they were without electricity. Their cell phone batteries were dead and the cell phones that had power were competing for limited band width and likely unable to get a signal. This should be a big red flag that social media and electronic communications have their limitations in many crises.
The Fukushima disaster and Japanese tsunami in March 2011 was another event that unfolded on social media. Some people claimed they learned about the actual earthquake on Twitter, before the shock waves even reached them. Whether this is true or another internet myth, the reality is it could have happened and could happen for other events in the future.
One social media trap is that verifying information is often difficult. It is not wise to repeat unverified sources, even though people on social media do it all the time. This means our listening requires extra attention. In the case of Twitter, we can sort our listening by hash tags by simply following a trending word with the # sign in front of it. Among the great dangers on Twitter is when wrong information is re-tweeted. On Twitter you will often see the letters “RT” before a message, signifying it has been re-tweeted by followers of the original message.
And while social media allows you to listen, often technology fails you, preventing you from both listening and talking.
Twitter, again, is constantly vulnerable to overload. Have you ever tried to use Twitter, only to get a screen that displays a giant whale being lifted by tiny birds? The message says Twitter has exceeded its capacity.
Think about it? In a crisis, internet and telephone use goes up exponentially. At the time you need it most, it may fail you, impeding your ability to listen as well as talk. This is a warning sign that says your Crisis Communications Plan should not be built with a heavy foundation of social media. Your plan should be more heavily rooted in more traditional communications means, with a component of social media as a lower priority option, based on where technology stands today in 2013. This may change in the future, and you must be vigilant to stay abreast of trends and technology so you can rethink this as needed in the future.
To prove the point of technology’s weakness and failure, examine how often it fails not in a crisis, but in a simple, regional moment of joy. When my hometown New Orleans Saints football team won the NFC Championship on January 24, 2010, all cell phone and land based phone lines in New Orleans and our region were jammed and calls could not be made. Even text messages could not go through. This lasted for nearly one hour after the end of the game. For that reason, you should never put all of your eggs in one basket. This is a clear example that if you live by technology you will die by technology. In the world of crisis communications you may have many tools at your disposal, but you must have a Plan B and a Plan C. If one set of tools fail, what can you use next?
You, as a professional communicator, representing a company, government agency or not-for-profit organization, must consider carefully how much trust you want to put into social media as a part of your crisis communications tool box.
You must also be aware that your potential opponents may be out maneuvering and out communicating you, using these same tools, in certain types or crisis events.
In 2009 we saw a different type of crisis and crisis communication as the Arab Spring
unfolded. The initial government opposition in Egypt started on Facebook. As outrage
spread on Facebook, it eventually spilled into the streets as protests. Eventually in Egypt and other countries, social media played a major role as protesters in the Middle East were using Twitter to communicate where police attacks were taking place and where protesters could find safe houses during street riots. For the most part, the government leaders were not savvy enough to understand the power of social media. Private Facebook postings to
friends and direct tweets to colleagues gave protestors a clear communications advantage as this crisis unfolded. Eventually, some of the open chatter of protesters on Twitter allowed their opponents, the
government, to listen in on the conversation to eavesdrop.
And while the protesters were technically using Twitter as a communications tool, their needs are likely very different than the communications needs of your company.
As we stop for today, add to your to-do list the need to set aside 10 minutes to evaluate how you might use social media to listen during certain types of crises. Also, evaluate to what degree you might use it as an outbound communications tool to talk during a crisis.