Using Social Media in Times of Crisis – Harmful or Helpful?

Twitter and Facebook can provide immediate alerts and responses, but also yield misinformation and other potential concerns.

It was a phone call every parent dreads.

“Dad, I don’t want you to worry.”

Any parent will recognize this as universal code for “Begin. Worrying. Immediately.”

The call came this past January from my daughter, a senior engineering student at Purdue University, and a member of the Class of 2014.

“There’s been a shooting in the next building, but we’re fine,” she said. “We’re in a room with the doors locked, lights out.”

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. I responded as I would to any crisis event touching one of our clients, setting up alerts and social media monitoring, trying to get a complete picture of what was happening and how the situation was evolving. While receiving texts from my daughter, I was simultaneously monitoring Twitter and the Web from 200 miles away. As is often the case, the first reports and photos were conflicting and confusing, leaving me no way to draw any conclusions.

Within little more than an hour, though, messages began to emerge that the immediate danger had been resolved. The facts of the event were that one armed student had entered an engineering lab and killed a teaching assistant before surrendering to authorities.

As a parent, I was left with a strange mix of emotions – relief, fear, anger and great sadness. As a professional, I had first-hand experience with the behavior of social media in a crisis, and many lessons learned to review.

Social Media Is Here to Stay
FEI works with crisis clients to help them understand the role social media plays in crisis management and response. What we have learned from folks involved in community crisis response is a rather grudging acceptance of the presence of social media and the necessity of understanding its role in crisis management. The general opinion seems to be that social media is flawed and troubled, but here to stay, and any stakeholder in crisis communications will need to deal with it.

The situation at Purdue illustrated many of the challenges presented by social media during a crisis. An article from the campus news publication summed up the incident by reporting that students and faculty thought that social media sources such as Twitter and Facebook delivered confusing reports regarding the shooting on campus. While the information may have been misleading, one of the benefits of social media was that the Purdue campus and family members were alerted quickly of the situation.

As we work to understand social media’s behavior in a crisis, four essential characteristics of social media emerge as potential problems:

  • Speed
  • Lack of Differentiation
  • Lack of Attribution
  • Persistence

Throughout that tragic morning in January on the Purdue campus, these characteristics and challenges played out in real time.

Speed
In most areas of our lives, we have come to accept that faster communication is better communication. It is difficult to imagine that communication could be much faster than the on-the-scene, “citizen journalist” role of people directly involved in a crisis event. Yet, much of the process that makes communication reliable is missing. There is no opportunity to vet or contextualize the first-hand accounts, whether they are in the form of text messages or photos. Certainly, there is no cycle of editing or fact-checking.

If you have ever been present at the scene of a crisis, you are well aware of the overwhelming sense of chaos and confusion that often prevails. The voices of those “on the ground” at these events may be valuable resources, but they need to be considered with care.

Consider photos taken during a crisis. With no ability to place the photos in context or evaluate their meaning, their rapid circulation only contributes to rumors and misunderstanding. Throughout that tragic morning in January on the Purdue campus, these characteristics and cautions played out in real time.

Tagged with: Crisis Management
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