Social Media and Crisis Management

Today I was asked a question I’m actually often asked: what’s the next big thing for social media? I gave the same response I have given for the past 3 years, but which so far has not been harnessed: the greatest value in social media is in business continuity planning, and crisis management.

In this post I want to summarise why I believe social media is uniquely suited for crisis management.

The nature of crises is that they are unpredictable. They can affect an organisation, a brand, its shareholders or even its public. But they are consistent in generating confusion and concern – even panic – among all stakeholders for a firm. Most of that anxiety is based on lack of control over information and procedures that are necessary to overcome any challenges posed by a crisis. While serious natural disasters, accidents and malevolent attacks can involve significant reconstruction projects for firms, and thus complete recovery from a crisis is dependent on infrastructure, in most cases the costs associated with these recovery projects are covered by insurances. So it’s not the physical damage to a firm’s assets that induces concern. It’s the period of uncertainty between the incident itself and the temporary displacement of any staff or customer-facing venues. Similarly, when non-physical damage (libel, fraudulent or negligent behaviour, communication breakdowns, etc) occurs, firms do not suddenly cease production or catastrophically lose capacity to fulfill client needs. In most cases, the source of any crisis can be quarantined, and production can continue without a hitch. The problem is that communication within a firm often shuts down after a crisis, producing uncertainty among staff and this is further communicated to clients, in the worst cases, generating media attention, and negatively affecting investment confidence in the firm.

Executives have a tendency in crises to clam up, only allowing information on a need to know basis, and enforcing top-down information pathways – supposedly in order to avoid panic. But as has been demonstrated both in trivial local episodes (Stephen Fry stuck in a lift) and crucial global episodes (Iran election) social media provide an excellent platform for dissemination of information and delivering key messages to relevant personnel cheaply, efficiently and in a distributed fashion. Further, where business communication networks are disrupted, the peer-to-peer infrastructure of social media can route around damage in corporate networks and connect individuals (through direct messaging, file transferral, etc) for highly specialised recovery tasks. Finally, social media represent the best way of communicating with shareholders, customers/clients and the media. Rumours can be dispelled, rapid responses can be demonstrated, and malicious (libellous, deliberately inaccurate) statements can be targeted for correction, either through direct legal action, or by an appeal to stakeholders to correct inaccuracies through repetition of accurate statements.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of social media is that they are distributed themselves. So even in the event of cross-platform distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks as occurred yesterday for twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, YouTube and Google/blogger sites, there was still FriendFeed, MySpace, Ning, Bebo and other social platforms that were more than ready to take up the slack. And even if they all failed, we could always return to newsgroups, private sites and messaging systems that integrate with mobile telephony.

In essence social media are the greatest gift to crisis management and business continuity planning that has ever been invented.

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