Comms in a crisis – using social media to spread the word
The recent crises affecting Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East, have not only made world news headlines but have also been a major benchmark of how we deal with such news in a world driven by ‘now news’ and digital technology.
The difference with these crises compared to those in previous years is the speed and immediacy with which the news has spread, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and other online news outlets. It’s a sad but undeniable truth that good news travels fast online, but bad news travels faster. With all these disasters the wider public has embraced and owned social media.
The Egypt crisis was given the #jan25 hashtag on Twitter within hours, in reference to the first day of riots, and numerous groups were set up on Facebook to share news of the floods in Australia, to inform worried relatives of the latest developments. Events in Christchurch and later in Japan led to Google launching a ‘Peoplefinder’ map which allowed worried relatives to register their concern about missing loved ones and get updates where possible.
Social media’s role during crises, natural or otherwise, is now widely acknowledged throughout the world, and placed high on crisis communication agendas. Twitter and YouTube increase awareness, aid missing people searches and lead the call for donations. Over five million people logged on to YouTube the day after the Japanese tsunami, in further proof that social media is now playing as important a role as any other channel in keeping people updated on the goings on in the world.
The advantages of such ‘instant’ reporting are clear: in times where history is being made and lives are being affected, social media not only acts as a global communication tool, but also doubles up as a search engine for those wanting to know the latest news. Typing related search terms into Facebook or Twitter and using established hashtags on the subjects allows users to view both the latest updates on the situation but also the general opinion and reaction of the public to the news.
However, there are dangers to using social media and written messages to convey information at such crucial times. One particularly poignant story was that of the Australian man who found out on Facebook that his family had been murdered, and there was also a heavy backlash when Twitter users were quick to react and condemn those involved in the Joanna Yeates murder investigation in Bristol.
An interesting development that has emerged from these terrible crises is how businesses and marketers have responded. Far from cashing in on terrible circumstances, many brands have utilised the huge power and influence they have online to try and help those affected, from assisting search and rescue to fundraising for the victims. As well as Google’s aforementioned Peoplefinder, brands have communicated donation messages and promoted new initiatives such as Hilton’s offer to convert loyalty points to donations.
Brands must be careful when using social media in this way; these are sensitive times and one wrong move will destroy a brand’s reputation if it’s seen to be exploiting these situations. Look at Expedia’s error in sending out an email shortly after the Christchurch earthquake featuring the ill-fated cathedral as the lead image; this was an easily avoided error which understandably caused upset and anger amongst many social media users.
However, the positive power of social media, and Twitter in particular, is becoming more and more visible during these volatile times. Social media is not only the first port of call to react to a crisis but it is also being used proactively to garner support for social causes. Twitter has played such an important role in spreading the word during the Middle Eastern uprisings that authorities made several attempts to block access to the site.
With all this proof that social media is invaluable in times of crisis, it would be foolish for brands to devise a crisis communication plan without factoring it in. But it’s important to remember that while social media can have a positive impact during natural and humanitarian disasters, it can have a less favourable effect during business crises, as consumers will quickly turn to social channels to criticise and attack under-fire brands. It’s essential for corporate communication teams need to understand how they can use social media to their advantage in a whole range of circumstances, and those who invest the time and money in such training will be respected all the more for doing it.