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.

Lack of Differentiation
There has been a lot of discussion about the nature of a Twitter message and the 140-character constraint. These short messages do not provide an opportunity for depth of discussion or detail. Twitter feeds have another troublesome characteristic in a crisis, which is that they have very little to differentiate them, apart from one’s own familiarity with the source.

A message from a major news outlet looks more or less the same as a message from a lone “troll.” Under normal circumstances, this might not present a problem, since one would have most likely validated a source before following. However, monitoring Twitter through an aggregator such as TweetDeck, where the volume of messages can be overwhelming, can make it very difficult to evaluate messages based on the validity of the source.

Lack of Attribution
Understanding the source of a message is probably the most important aspect of determining whether the information is credible and useful. Yet, this is perhaps the greatest shortcoming of all messages in the social media channels. There is simply no way to establish the chain of information back to original sources. The ease in which someone can retweet, share or like on social media contributes to the cycle of word of mouth speculation. That, combined with the inability to differentiate sources of those messages, has the potential to create some very disruptive confusion.

Social media messages tend to persist through practices such as retweeting, or even simply because there is no editorial oversight ensuring that the information is timely and accurate.

This means that a message can be recirculated as “new” for hours, potentially, after it originally finds its way into the public. As these older messages continue to circulate side-by-side with newer messages, which may be contradictory, the potential for confusion grows.

During the Purdue shooting there was debate throughout the day about the number of shooters involved, even though there were no definitive sources for the information.

The difficulties with social media illustrated by the Purdue shooting serve to highlight the need for caution in determining whether a particular bit of information may be actionable to the degree that a crisis management or communications team might respond directly. Discussing these difficulties, while it may increase our caution, does not in any way suggest that social media should be excluded from a crisis response plan.

At the very least, social media should be monitored by a crisis response or communications team as a means of understanding what sorts of rumors your community might be experiencing.

The other two significant lessons that can be drawn from observing the Purdue shooting would be:

Include social media monitoring as part of a larger, well-integrated crisis communications plan.

While it is by no means common or considered a “best practice,” we have heard from organizations that they believe the publicly-available social networks will meet their communications needs during a time of crisis. The difficulties we have discussed make it clear that relying on social media exclusively for communications during a crisis event is virtually certain to guarantee confusion and uncertainty.

We recommend developing a communications plan that provides reliable and controlled methods of communication to speak with a clear and accurate voice for you
r organization during a crisis.

Establish social media channels long before they need to be used in a crisis, and help your stakeholders understand where they can find the definitive reliable information during a crisis.

To the degree that you do elect to use social media as part of your communications plan, do not wait until a crisis occurs to establish your presence. Channels such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn should be created ahead of time and used on a frequent basis. This is necessary not only to reduce confusion and chaos during the crisis, but also to ensure that your stakeholders are familiar with your social media channels and will be able to find them when needed. Update your website to include links to these channels. In the event of a crisis, you can create a placeholder on your home page to provide updated information and list the hashtags to be used when communicating during the crisis.

With careful planning and diligence, social media can become a powerful tool in your overall crisis planning array.

Ralph Metzner is director of product management at FEI Behavioral Health and previously served as chief innovation officer at The Crisis Prevention Institute. FEI is a social enterprise wholly owned by the Alliance for Children and Families, a national network of nearly 500 human-serving organizations.


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