How Crisis Communicators Can Leverage SM Info Flow


I recently spoke at a two-day all-hazard crisis incident response seminar in Berkeley, Calif., titled, “Thriving in the First 96 Hours.” Among other activities, I took part in a leadership panel to field questions about crisis communications. This post, and others to follow, is adapted from my short responses to questions on the topic asked before and during that panel discussion.

Social media allows anyone with a smart phone to be a contributor in the crisis communications system, thereby influencing the information flow and ultimately, the tone of the response. How can the JIC (joint information center) and crisis managers leverage social media during a crisis event?

My first reaction to this question wasn’t to answer the how, but to answer the implied what — as in, “Yes! Do this! But, with care,” because I think it’s more important for leaders to understand that they should do this, before convincing them how to do this.

Many professional communicators advise exactly what I’m about to recommend — be part of the social media conversation (during and after crisis) by using and following the main hashtag(s) being used for the incident.

However, individuals and organizations in the midst of crisis need to be cognizant of hashtag hijacking, which is when those opposed to you or your activities use your proposed hashtag to be critical of your actions or policies, instead of “joining in” on the conversation. The #myNYPD hashtag hijacking (pictured above — sorry for the scary intro to this piece!) is a good example: the New York City Police Department was hoping SM users would post positive photos of police officers — instead, activists (and their supporters) used it as an opportunity to build awareness of police brutality.

How else can you be part of the SM conversation? Re-tweets, re-posts, sharing and interaction with other users is a simple way (and, again, this means making meaningful connections before crisis strikes). The worldwide #SMEM (social media in emergency management) and #VOST (virtual operations support team) networks can be invaluable as well. VOST volunteers, if they are trusted and directed by emergency management personnel, can be force multipliers for monitoring and curating SM activity, as well as being a megaphone to further disseminate facts about the crisis to wider audiences.

Sometimes social media channels work when other forms of communication don’t — it may seem odd to some people that they may be able to tweet when they can’t make a phone call, due to overloaded or damaged infrastructure, but that’s the way it is. If you already have an SM presence, you’ll still be in touch with your stakeholders when that’s the only avenue of communication.

Lastly, photos shared of your incident by the general public on SM can be valuable in getting your messages across or aiding operations. If a shared photo is verifiably true (i.e., really of your incident, and not altered) and helps augment the messages you’re trying to convey, you just found yourself an incident photographer (or an army of them); if geography is a complexity for your operators in mitigating disaster (e.g., finding flood survivors, tracking where spilled oil is coming ashore) the file information in shared photos could be a resource — if users have their GPS enabled, you’ll know exactly when and where the photo was taken.


Talk to me, Goose.

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