When a crisis, such as a natural disaster, affects the public, social media, most notably Twitter and Facebook, will always come into play. While social media is an increasingly vital aspect of crisis communications, it usually does not exist on its own. Social media supplements and enhances other, more traditional communications, whether it’s a siren alert or a TV news broadcast.

In addition to its many powerful, desirable characteristics, social media, like traditional communications platforms, also has limitations and disadvantages:

Social media advantages for crisis communications

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Before a disaster affecting the public strikes, social media provides organizations with a powerful tool for building trust among people who use social media by developing constructive dialogues in social media communities. Emergency managers in particular are thus able to establish their social media presence as a go-to source for authoritative public information during a natural disaster.

Social media disadvantages for crisis communications

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Unauthorized or inept use of the social media platform by the organization’s personnel could be damaging to credibility and ability to earn trust. Effective use of social media requires a commitment to policies and resources.

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Reinforces crisis alerts being sent to the public through traditional routes, e.g., sirens and traditional media, while simultaneously fostering public feedback.

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Many segments of the public, (e.g., elderly and infirm, economically disadvantaged, non-English speakers, etc.) do not typically use social media. Other communications channels, including, for example, door-to-door personal meetings, may be necessary in such cases.

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Regular monitoring of social media can help serve as an early-warning system for helping first responders identify pending disasters.

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Information gathered from social media users may be inaccurate. Hoaxes are prevalent. Information gathered that seems critical to public safety requires careful confirmation.

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Enables monitoring of timely reports from the public as well as general public opinion before, during and after a crisis.

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Requires increased human resources to properly monitor social media, assess it and respond appropriately. Individuals of the organization may not know procedures for flagging and reporting pertinent information gleaned from social media. Training may be necessary.

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Offers an additional way to track the course of a disaster and the effectiveness of the response as perceived by the public

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The public’s views on the disaster and the response to it could be erroneous. Immediate corrections, necessitating a commitment of communications resources, may be necessary.

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Another way to assess recovery progress in the wake of a disaster.

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Social media can also fan negative public opinions about the way first responders managed the disaster, possibly creating a post-disaster public relations crisis.

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A wide variety of social media platforms are available, each having its own characteristics, e.g., short messages (Twitter), long messages and multi-media (Facebook), video (YouTube), photo sharing (Flickr). Software is available that can help sort through data and support human evaluators.

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Multiple channels can overwhelm those tasked with monitoring social media.

The goal for any organization experiencing a crisis that affects the public is to integrate social media with traditional communications channels. The two platforms must be mutually supportive in their messaging and responses to the public. During a natural disaster, understanding and acting upon both the advantages as well as the disadvantages of social media can literally be a matter of life and death.

About David Kalson

David Kalson is an expert in issues and crisis management. He has more than 25 years experience providing strategic communications counsel, on-the-ground assistance and highly targeted media relations and “new media” programs to manage issues and crises as well as reputation enhancement for both profit and not-for-profit organizations. Business sectors he has counseled include energy, food and beverage, financial services, healthcare, consumer products and technology. He has designed and implemented communication / media relations programs, often emphasizing Web-based strategies, to address issues including data security breaches, environmental accidents, product recalls, financial problems, high-profile lawsuits, corporate governance issues, criminal behavior, attacks by opposition groups, government/regulatory challenges, competitive challenges and labor disputes. Companies he has counseled in relation to crisis drills, plans and crisis management include Cargill, Dunkin’ Brands, Cadbury Schweppes, Staples, Entergy, Eli Lilly, Canaport LNG and the American Automobile Association (AAA)

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