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Using Social Media to Herald a Crisis

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Emergency Management and Social Media

Before the invention of computers, leaders were faced with the challenge of spreading crucial crisis information to everyone despite the limited available channels. Today, we have numerous methods for communicating about a crisis, and the challenge is learning to use them effectively. One communication platform that has become more prevalent and important in recent years is social media.

Facebook used to simply serve as a connection point for college students. Now, 18 percent of Americans use the platform to get information about emergencies, according to a graphic by the American Red Cross. If unable to reach emergency services, 20 percent of people turn to a social media platform for help.

According to We Are Social and Hootsuite, there are 2.8 billion social media users worldwide. Now people expect to hear about crises and related events via Facebook, Twitter and other similar platforms.

Though text messaging, radio announcements, phone calls, or other methods of communication delivery may be faster or more reliable, depending on the situation, social media is still a crucial part of the crisis communication reporting equation.

People tend to check multiple sources before deciding how to respond to a critical event, especially if they’re asked to do something drastic, like evacuate, according to Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes.

Using Social Media to Break the News

The people expect to hear about crisis events via social media, so how should your organization or institution deliver this communication? Here are a few important factors to remember when using social platforms to herald a crisis.

  • Prepare a plan in advance. Every organization needs a crisis plan. Adding social media to the equation requires brainstorming various scenarios and planning content and timing for messages. Every social media platform is different, so the messages will vary from platform to platform. For example, Twitter tends to be a place for speedy information and news updates, while Facebook showcases more details and discussion, according to interviews with emergency managers conducted by Chris Pearson, emergency preparedness blogger.
  • Use plain language. Because people have so much information to choose from on the Internet, they often speed read or scan. That’s why it’s important to keep messages short and to the point. That also means messages should omit acronyms and jargon that people may not immediately understand.
  • Remember the information will be shared/retweeted. On one hand, this is a good thing because it helps to spread the information. However, one common worry for public relations professionals is the idea of losing control of the message. This can be especially concerning when crises are at hand, and it becomes more problematic as a crisis unfolds. Keep this in mind when crafting and sending out messages. Will the message still make sense when passed along by others? What if they share it onto another social media platform? Thinking ahead about how messages can possibly be misused or misunderstood can save a lot of trouble.
  • Centralize the strategies for various departments. If you work in public relations or emergency management at a large university or corporation, you have probably noticed that various academic departments or sub-agencies approach tasks differently, and that includes corporate and external communication. That means they may also have their own social media platforms. During times of crisis, it’s particularly important for messages to align with one another to inform, not confuse, readers. Work with stakeholders from each department to create a crisis communication plan that utilizes any and all social media accounts to present a unified message so people receive the correct messages when it matters most.

Organizations and institutions are now utilizing social media platforms not only to herald a crisis incident but also to manage people and resources during a crisis and to assuage whatever destruction and problems may accrue after the crisis. Our next posts will discuss social media use during and after a crisis.


Additional Sources

National Center for Disaster Preparedness

American Red Cross



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