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Social media in a crisis: Don’t control it, harness it

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Over the last few months, we’ve hosted sessions in Saint John, New Brunswick; St. John’s, Newfoundland; and Halifax, Nova Scotia to talk with fellow communicators from various sectors about crisis communications and share stories from the frontlines. In every city, the discussion quickly focused in on social media and how it has changed the way we communicate in times of crisis.

We live in a time of ‘citizen journalism’, where anyone with a smartphone is a reporter through online channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. And as media outlets shrink their newsrooms, social media fuels the thirst for content and serves up potential interviewees and witnesses on fast moving and breaking stories.

So, with this steady stream of content (some accurate, some not), how do you and your organization control it?

You don’t. You harness the insights it offers. While it’s important to track the real-time conversations happening on social media and identify key and emerging themes, we offer the following thoughts for harnessing social media when communicating through a crisis.

  1. Be the primary source of information and drive the masses to it. Host your issue specific information on your website (that, you can control) and share on your social media channels. The idea is to create a single source of information and encourage people to visit your website.
  2. Listen, be present and monitor. By monitoring the conversations online, specifically the types of questions people may be asking, you’ll be able to identify information gaps and provide this information on your website (think Q&A or FAQ) or directly to your key audiences.
  3. Know when to push yourself away from the computer. Once misinformation has been corrected, don’t feel you have be lured into an online debate. Differing viewpoints are important and should be listened to. But you don’t have to have the last word or ‘win’ the argument. Listen, be respectful, provide access to the right information and know when to move on.
  4. Your message has to be accessible and timely. In times of crisis, people expect a constant stream of information. Ensure you are updating your information regularly, and share these updates on your social media channels.
  5. Social media has to be part of your crisis plan. Most organizations don’t have the resources to respond to every inquiry. Having your social media plan in place will help ensure efficient and effective communications by understanding your social media process and what channels you’ll be using to share your messages and drive inquiries to your website.
  6. Employees can be your best advocates. Have your social media policy in place. Lay out the ground rules, engage your employees and ensure they know where to drive inquiries. The more people directing traffic to your controlled and updated information, the better. Social media is a necessary consideration of any crisis communications response but don’t let it distract from the overall plan to get back to business as usual.

Social media is key to informing and supporting your response to a crisis while building trust through timely, open and transparent communications. NATIONAL’s team of crisis experts in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. would welcome the opportunity to talk more about your social media plans.