How social media impacts crisis communications

London

A resourceful Media and Public Relations student from China at a UK university recently asked me for my thoughts on crisis communications and social media for her dissertation. In the spirit of sharing, here’s the first part of my response – the second on how crisis communications differs in Asia and the west – will be posted shortly.

The questions have been edited for clarity:

1. To what degree is social media impacting crisis communications? How is it changing traditional crisis communications?

Social media has had a significant impact on crisis communications:

  • Most obviously, news and information travel much faster, meaning organisations need to track issues and potential crises more regularly and respond more quickly when something bad happens
  • There is much more misleading and false information to track and consider, some of which is deliberate
  • Online opinion tends to be very volatile and polarised during a crisis, making it difficult to know when and how to try to manage perceptions
  • The lifecycle of crises has become much more unpredictable with so much information constantly swirling online and getting picked up by the mainstream media, and the ease with which confidential information now leaks
  • Perhaps most important, the nature of the social web means people nowadays expect organisations to be open and responsive during a crisis – which may have profound implications for crisis strategy, important at a time when many large organisations are not trusted and when the facts are unclear when a crisis first breaks.

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of social media on crisis communications strategy?

The main advantages are that, thanks to social media:

  • Organisations now have greater insight into what various different stakeholder groups think about them and behave towards them
  • Crisis strategy and messaging can be tested and revised more or less in real-time, rather than having to commission custom market research surveys
  • Relationships with stakeholders can be handled direct, bypassing ‘traditional’ gatekeepers such the mainstream media
  • Using video, photographs and other tools, it is now possible to communicate factually and, critically in a crisis, emotionally
  • You can involve more people more closely in an organisation’s recovery once the worst of a crisis is over using crowdsourcing and other web and social media-based techniques.

On the other hand, social media presents many strategic risks and operational challenges during a crisis. These include:

  • Organisations have to respond very fast while ensuring their messages are consistent across many channels
  • Then there’s the huge volume of comments and feedback to manage, while knowing what is important and what should be left alone
  • Online opinion and feedback may be skewed, inaccurate and not as insightful or nuanced as conventional market research
  • An analogue leadership team which does not understand digital/social media and can be very jumpy during a crisis, leading to poor decision-making
  • If social media is not treated seriously and strategically, the necessary procedures and skills may not be in place before and during a crisis.

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See also my Primer on Crisis Communications, which covers similar territory:

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