Many emergency professionals think of social media as just another communications channel. But to really harness the value that social media offers in critical communications, one must first understand a key fundamental fact: social media is a two-way street. Like phone, email and the public airwaves, social media is effective for disseminating emergency information to lots of people quickly. But social media is also very good at collecting information about situations and exchanging information among stakeholders as events actually unfold in real time — sometimes before vital information is available elsewhere.
In fact, the two-way nature of social media is a critical part of developing situational intelligence and is something many emergency planners have already experienced firsthand.
In a recent survey on social media in crisis communications that Everbridge conducted with over 400 emergency communications planners, more than one-third reported that at least once in the past they had learned about an incident or crisis from social media before learning about it through their normal crisis communications channels. Three-quarters also said “yes” when asked if their organization had ever found helpful or surprising information via social media.
Over a Billion People Are Already Here
Social media is both an inbound and outbound communications channel by virtue of the fact that its use is unrestricted — anyone can step up to the microphone — and also because social media is wildly popular. Facebook reported 1.15 billion users as of June 2013, while Twitter had over half a billion users in May 2013. If you want to get people’s attention, it makes sense to reach out to them in the places where they are likely to be. And because anyone can step up to the microphone, anyone will step up — especially in a crisis — as reports of major news events around the world constantly remind us.
Many people expect organizations to watch social media channels and respond quickly. According to a recent American Red Cross survey, more than two-thirds of participants agreed that response agencies should regularly monitor and respond to postings, and 3 out of 4 people said they would expect help to arrive within 3 hours of submitting a request for assistance via social media.
That means that social media already is an expected part of your crisis response, even if it is not part of your crisis communications planning. The question is not whether social media has a role but what that role will be, and how will emergency communications planners shape it.
In our next edition, we’ll continue to explore how social media can be used during crisis communications.