This Q&A is part of a series of social media posts on crisis communications, curated by the editorial staff of Security Management magazine and authored in part by security professional Lorraine Homer. Check out Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and our website for more from this series.
Q: How has social media helped shape the response to large-scale disasters?
A: If you think back to the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, there was no Facebook or Twitter, just 24-hour news. People also didn't have smartphones, so they weren't taking their own pictures and posting them on social media. The images that become so powerful in these sorts of crises were much slower to come out. It would take a day or two for the full scale of what was happening to really reach people in countries that were not the direct victims of the crisis.
Today, the breaking of news and the sharing of information happens much quicker than it did 10 years ago. During the siege in Sydney that happened at the end of last year, the first piece of information on social media was out in less than 10 minutes. It's incomparable, the way that it's affected how quickly crises become known, which is both a good and a bad thing. It's much easier for people to see what's happening and to turn their minds to responding to it. But it gives you very little time to think about how you need to respond.
Q: What can organizations do to prepare how to communicate during a crisis ahead of time?
A: You can get your key executives together every few months and take a scenario and run through what each person would do in the first hour of an incident. This exercise will help executives understand what everybody else will be doing, and they might find that two people think they would both be doing the same thing, which is inefficient, or that there's something that nobody realizes they're responsible for. You don't want to be using your crisis management plan for the first time in an actual incident. You want to have tested it before the crisis comes.
Q: Can organizations effectively use the information circulated on social media during a disaster?
A: I think they can. The huge amount of information that's available on social media is a real gift, if you know what to do with it. It gives you multiple points of view, it gives you news in places that you otherwise wouldn't be able to get. It gives you access to media that you can use to better understand what's happening, and it also points people to look at a channel that you can then use to try to get your information across.
Another important thing organizations should be doing is working out who else is on those channels that could help share information. So rather than an organization just trying to provide information and tell people what's going on, their partners can share with them, whether it be retweeting or taking their messages and putting them on their own channels. This can help your organization play a bigger part in the conversation, and means people are more likely to see them, take notice, and hopefully to act on them.
Q: What are some universal emergency communications principles that apply to both the public and private sectors?
A: A lot of the principles are the same. For example, the thing that can really affect your reputation from the outset is silence. Whatever the crisis may be, you may not know much about it in the first few hours other than the fact that it's happened. If you're silent across those first few hours, nobody else is. Everyone else is talking, speculating, and asking questions. If you say nothing, that really affects your reputation and how you're seen to be handling the crisis. Make sure you acknowledge that something has happened and that you're going to deal with it, even if you're not in a position to say how you might deal with it or what people should do at that point.
It's important to have people dedicated to understanding what's being said about your organization during a crisis so you can see what issues people are concerned about. It may be that you need to understand what's concerning your citizens, or it may be your customers. Either way, getting a grip on that information, and using social media to understand what people are concerned about, is applicable to both sectors.
The third area that is applicable to all sectors is your staff. If your staff are affected by an incident, they're going to get information not just from their manager, but from all sorts of sources. Communicate with your staff at the same time you're telling the outside world what's happening.
Lorraine Homer is the director of U.K.-based Nightingale Consultants and has more than 20 years of experience as a strategic communications professional. She also serves as an independent advisor to the London Metropolitan Police. Homer spoke with Security Management about how social media impacts the response to a crisis, and how organizations can effectively leverage that.