I'll admit that there are times when I become completely frustrated with social media. Like when my Facebook “friends” decide to share way too much personal information. Or when absolutely false information spreads like wildfire on Twitter, like this week's “news” that Grand Central Station in New York was shut down, first because of a terrorist attack and then later a steam pipe explosion (Turns out it was either a hoax or misunderstanding stemming from a tweet that featured a link to a 2007 news story when the latter actually happened).
After the Grand Central incident, many in the Twitterverse proclaimed that this is precisely the reason why social media could never replace mainstream media, because of the speed at which news travels, unverified. Perhaps that is true, but another event this week served as a bold reminder that social media's value in a crisis is worth the risk. Since the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Facebook and Twitter have played an instrumental role in fundraising efforts.
A text message campaign, promoted through those two channels, raised nearly $5 million for the American Red Cross' relief effort in Haiti in just two days. Companies like Virgin have utilized corporate Twitter feeds to solicit donations from followers. And many Facebook users have changed their status to reflect when they donated to the Red Cross, thereby inspiring their friends to do the same.
The very essence of social media that can sometimes be the actual cause of a corporate crisis—its unprecedented speed—is the same characteristic that can make such a useful tool in serving as a solution to a crisis. The basic components of a solid PR program involve raising awareness and motivating action—things that are more easily done given the speed and reach of social networks. This of course has been shown already through recent marketing campaigns, but the events in Haiti have provided a real opportunity for social media to show its power in a humanitarian crisis.
Given that in times of crisis there can be incredible confusion, it's important to make sure that any social media fundraising effort is linking back to a verified source of information, such as a corporate site. Crisis, even one that is not affecting a corporation or organization directly is still always an opportunity to build trust, something that will benefit future fundraising efforts.