Updated: May 2, 2020
We all appreciate the magnitude social media has blended with our everyday lives. People are spending their energies feeding the social media wheel with all sorts of emotions. I recently came across a sign in an office space which read ‘In case of fire, please rush to the emergency assembly point, before posting a picture of the incident on social media’. It was a glaring reminder of how much social media can push people into taking certain actions even when their life is under threat. It also drew me to reflect on how social media can quickly break news as it unfolds.
The reign of Social Media
Social media has literally taken over the control of information flow. It has literally empowered the public to create news and shape information. It has also made the job for public relations and crisis management practitioners both exciting as well as a little more challenging. Practitioners have lost a substantial amount of control over message dissemination - there is more public control on the type of information they want to engage with, and its sharing. Social media has changed the pace at which news breaks. Coupled with a 24/7 news cycle, it is now a different ballgame for practitioners, altogether.
In the event of a crisis unfolding, organizations are more exposed and vulnerable to the power and influence of social media than ever before. With social media, people can amplify a crisis within minutes whilst you are scaling the walls of bureaucracy to issue a statement. It can only take a tweet from a crisis victim or a bystander, and within minutes the incident is transmitted ten thousand times across the globe.
Where does the practitioner sit?
The manipulative influence of public messaging and the associated interpretation of a crisis event underline the need for practitioners to get on their feet as quickly as possible and take hold of the messages as the crisis escalates. The worst mistake is to think and hope that the social media frenzy will die down on its own – yes, it will eventually die down, but what about the reputational damage caused whilst you are wishing, hoping and procrastinating? The battered reputation will stay with your organization and may have irreparable damage to its corporate profile, business operations, and profitability. The way you handle a crisis will sway your public's opinion, either in favour or against your organisation. So hoping and wishing has never been a strategy.
Leveraging your Social Media
Social media has, on the other hand, accorded practitioners an opportunity for a two way by-the-second communication to engage with the organisation’s public during events of crisis in nature. It is an opportunity to feed the social media wheel with information that will shape public interpretation of the crisis and their perception of the organisation during turbulent times such as crisis moments. As soon as social media platforms gets busy with your crisis, responsible persons have to immediately activate their organisation’s crisis response arsenals. A quick content analysis of what the conversation on social media is all about should help shape your responses and communication content.
As practitioners, it is necessary to clearly spell out roles and responsibilities for people in your crisis management team. Whatever roles assigned, never forget the role for monitoring social media and sense-making of its content. By any means, avoid contradicting statements from leading persons in those roles. At least have a line of thought to derive statements from – this can best be mapped from the organisation’s response contained in the press release.
Apparently, having the courtesy to continuously engage your public with information on new developments around the crisis situation, goes well with your crisis response. Building an effective flow of information is an essential ingredient in cultivating confidence and trust with your public, as well as helping them achieve sense-making of the crisis itself. It also reflects the organisation’s sense of care for both its reputation and its stakeholder’s emotions and safety. Additionally, caution should be taken in the choice of words and the tone when sharing your information to avoid inflaming the crisis situation or infuriate crisis victims. Most importantly, get your facts correct.
Energise your team, and match your words with action
Managing and putting together a crisis response action, in general, can quickly sap the energy from the crisis management team. Apart from the organisational spokesperson, it may be wise to engage top level management in crisis communication activities - someone the public holds high, and is in a position of influence. Further, any promises made in your statements must be relevant and match your deeds. AirAsia Flight QZ8501 crisis presents a very successful picture of this approach. When the crisis occurred, the Chief Executive Officer, Tony Fernandes was present throughout the crisis, answering questions alongside Government officials and constantly engaging stakeholders on digital platforms. His presence matched the promise he made that he was ‘..not going anywhere’.
When your organisation perceives that it is time to press the crisis panic button (i.e organizational issues are blowing up into a crisis), it is very necessary for practitioners to inform the organisation's employees as quickly as possible - as opposed to letting them get the surprise from social media. That can have ramifications on the organisational culture and its dynamics.
Public relations and crisis management practitioners should understand that with social media, information is no longer for the privileged few. Practitioners ignoring social media around an unfolding crisis would be doing their organization a huge disservice.