Listening is just as important as informing in crisis communication
To listen to social media users and respond to their worries or emerging rumors should be a central part of professionals’ crisis communication strategies.
This is one of the results in our upcoming book Social Media Use in Crisis and Risk Communication, in which we discuss current practices and future directions for professional crisis communicators. The book is a part of the European project RESCUE (Researching Social Media and Collaborative Software Use in Emergency Situations). Researchers in Austria, Finland, Norway and UK have investigated how authorities, NGOs, and journalists have used social media in various types of crises: the terrorist attacks in Norway on 22 July 2011, the Central European floods in Austria in 2013, and the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014.
The RESCUE team concludes that social media has its own unique dynamics, which set the stage for how communication about crises should be planned and conducted. For example, ordinary social media users expect active dialogue and personal responses to queries. In this age of social media platforms, professional communicators need to understand that the more traditional one-way strategies of informing about the ongoing crisis, from the authorities to the public, will still be important – but not sufficient in order to communicate effectively.
In addition to understanding the dynamics of social media in general, our research points to how professional crisis communicators need to understand the specifics of how crises are manifested in social media – and how these two forms of dynamics go together. For example, while in everyday use applying hashtags is an established and well-known strategy in order to link content to other similar information, in the first phases of emergencies we will not know which hashtags that will dominate discussions about the crisis. Communicators who use hashtags to find, spread or link information need to be aware of this limitation in the first critical minutes of an emerging crisis.
Furthermore, the amount of content in social media increases rapidly after a crisis, and potentially harmful rumors may be spread alongside important information. To ensure that the public knows where to find the right information and who to turn to if one is in direct danger, authorities and other key communicators should have established active social media accounts. Just as the 911 and 112 emergency phone numbers are familiar to most people, national rescue authorities should have social media accounts that are familiar to ordinary users, and within reach when needed.
Interviews we conducted suggested that many professional crisis communicators are familiar with social media dynamics. They have in many cases implemented, or at least tried to develop strategies that are specific to social media. The problem rather seems to be among managers, team leaders or other key decision makers. They often see social media as a potential, but perhaps not necessary, addition to existing communication strategies. The RESCUE researchers underline how important it is to acknowledge that the public is using social media, and therefore expect authorities and other key communicators to also do so.
An argument often used by reluctant managers or leaders is that social media platforms and usage patterns are continuously changing. As we do not know who will be using which platforms in the coming years, planning for an uncertain social media landscape is seen as difficult and expensive. However, the RESCUE researchers point out that an awareness of the changing landscape should be seen as an asset rather than a problem. If an organization takes a certain degree of uncertainty into account when drawing up strategies for the currently most popular social media outlets, they may also be more sensitive to identifying emerging user trends and to what seems to work across several platforms. In the long run, such organizations may also have a lower threshold to update their strategies in response to new social media platforms or patterns.
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