Social Media – Transforming How the Nation Responds to Terrorist Attacks. Are We Ready?

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On Tuesday July 8, the House passed legislation to establish Department of Homeland Security (DHS) standards for emergency responses on social media during terrorist attacks. The bill passed 375 to 19 and is intended to create a group within DHS to provide guidance on how social media will be used in these cases. According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind), “It’s necessary for the federal government to determine how to use social media, like Twitter and Facebook, most effectively to communicate with citizens. Social media is transforming the way the nation responds before, during and after a terrorist attack.”reddit

It’s no surprise that social media is now part of mainstream media and that the public has an insatiable appetite for instantaneous reports in times of emergency.  It’s a great medium for sharing immediate information on geo data, text, photos, video, commentary and more. While using social media for emergencies is on the rise, so is the potential for failure and “getting it wrong.” Case in point, Reddit’ s debacle in full view of the country as it played detective after the Boston Marathon bombing last year.

Reddit is a mass community with a particularly strong first responder community, users who follow first responders and others who monitor and detail scanner activity – resulting in breaking news. Anyone can create a threaded discussion (or subreddit) on the website. Each discussion typically has administrators who monitor and detail scanner activity. These subreddits are independent and monitored by a team a volunteers.

Reddit users, who launched their own investigation, rushed to get the Boston story out fast resulting in innocent marathon bystanders having their reputations tarnished for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also impacted was the family of a family of a missing Brown University student suffering the insult of having their child accused as a suspect. Reddit did apologize on behalf of their user postings for the false accusations. General Manager of the company, Erik Martin, issued an apology first acknowledging the site’s positive contributions then saying, “However, though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation, which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”reddit apology

It’s important to note that within the first few hours of a crisis there is a huge amount of misinformation that spreads rapidly online, much like what happened in the Boston Marathon Bombing case. Typically what happens is that some (but not all) bloggers and news agencies simply reshare, share and retweet what they see without any fact-checking. In the case of the Boston Bombings, a number of major news organizations were following Reddit as a source – because they (Redditors) were often correct. Fact-checking and researching a story is a must before hitting the reshare button.

Misinformation spreads like an out-of-control wild fire, or as we like to call it, a Firestorm. It’s like today’s online version of the game “Telephone.” In this day and age, most crisis communication professionals will tell you that if the company or organization responding to an incident doesn’t issue a statement in the first 6-hours after a crisis they’re toast. Getting a message out to the public quickly is critical.  But moving too fast can only make matters worse. That’s why it’s important to follow these five simple rules:

  • Demonstrate sensitivity and empathy toward the victims, keeping in mind that “Every Crisis is a Human Crisis”.
  • Release information quickly but make sure it’s accurate first. The information you uncover, if handled carelessly, could cause misunderstanding, damage and actually change the course of history.
  • Don’t wing it! Carefully craft your messaging and own it. A key to effective crisis communications planning is to develop clear and concise messages or message mapping.
  • Train your people. It’s important to have a culture of preparedness. You never want to have someone within your organization serving as a spokesperson that isn’t trained to handle a crisis. Has your crisis communications person actually responded to a crisis?
  • Never spin the story. Transparency is always the best way to go. It promotes trust and demonstrates your commitment to making it right and to the industry in which you serve.

For more information about Crisis Communications click here.

Because social media used for emergency management is in its infancy, it’s important that businesses and organizations truly understand that this is not just another channel for broadcasting messages to the public. It can also be used as two-way communication between emergency professionals and stakeholders. And with a new form of communication comes a better understanding of how to use it. It’s vital that any business or organization have strict social media guidelines and policies and that staff are adequately trained. Social media represents real risks and therefore demands a much disciplined approach. Questions to ask yourself are:

Do we have detailed policies on the use of social media within our company or organization?
What are the major functions and features of common social media sites for emergency management?
Do we use Social Media Best Practices and do we comply to the standards within our industry?
Who is our audience and what social media channels do we use?
How do we sustain the use of social media in an emergency management capacity (national, state, local, tribal and territorial)?
Who has control and access to our social media platform within our company?

It’s obvious that social media is changing the way we react to disasters. According to a University of San Francisco survey, 70 percent of people in disaster situations use social media to let their families and friends know they are OK. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has already created three Facebook pages and 34 Twitter accounts with almost 250,000 followers.  

Your company or organization’s reputation, brand, legacy and profitability hang in the balance during a crisis. Doing the wrong thing can create a point of no return.

If you would like to read the full Department of Homeland Security report, “Using Social Media for Enhanced Situational Awareness and Decision Support,” click here.  For more information on how to use Social Media for Crisis Response and Management contact Firestorm at 1-800-321-2219.

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