Social media get serious when it comes to crisis planning

Social media may be the latecomers to the party but they have established themselves more quickly than any previous media, and getting the serious side right could be a matter of life and death, writes Nightingale's Lorraine Homer.

Social media can play a role in saving lives and keeping people safe, writes Lorraine Homer
Social media can play a role in saving lives and keeping people safe, writes Lorraine Homer
Social media have cemented their place in the comms mix quicker than perhaps any other channel in history. They are an integral part of brand building, customer engagement and even service delivery for both private and public sector. There is little question of their strategic value or impact.

I can’t imagine a communication or marketing plan being written today that doesn’t include social. But can we say the same about our crisis plans?

I’ve handled many huge crises – including the Boxing Day tsunami, 7/7, and G4S at the Olympics – and have seen up close how this revolution in the media landscape has changed the way these events play out. 

Social media are a game-changer for crisis like nothing before. 

The failure to grip an issue has never been more likely to leave an organisation exposed. Every customer, bystander, passenger, employee or neighbour is now a journalist, cameraman, broadcaster and network all in one.

Business intelligence firm Domo estimates that every single minute, Facebook users like more than four million posts and 350,000 tweets are sent.  

In this mind-boggling environment your crisis can be out the door and running down the cyber road before you’ve even had time to alert the CEO.

Now add to this picture that a significant proportion of that content will be user-generated, not curated by responsible news organisations, checked for accuracy or bound by any reporting rules or guidelines. 

It’s the ideal breeding ground for an out-of-control crisis marked by speculation, rumour, misinformation and falsehoods, in which your organisation can be compromised, damaged and potentially destroyed.

The cumulative effect of this is a pace, reach and volume of information and opinion that many PRs will never have faced and don’t know how to handle. 

Organisations may have developed their communication capability for the digital era, but there’s a good chance the often-neglected crisis comms plan is stuck in analogue times. 

For some organisations the risk goes even further, with lives potentially at stake, and the need to get on top of communication literally becomes critical. 

The Government and the public sector have recognised the need to put social at the heart of crisis response and how they prepare. 

The recent Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism exercise, Strong Tower, simulated a marauding firearms attack in the heart of London. 

The Met put high-quality simulated social media platforms at the centre of the exercise. Complex pressures were created by feeding in information from the public, partners and news media. 

The real-time environment engaged and informed the decision-making of senior people, just as it would in real life. It has transformed the way the country prepares for these crises.

Of course, we hope that scenario never becomes real. But if it does, those charged with managing it have an understanding of what’s coming and how to handle it. 

This is the serious side of social media when they can actually play a role in saving lives and keeping people safe. 

That may be where they provide the most value of all one day.

Lorraine Homer is director of Nightingale Consultants 

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