A crisis can broadly be characterized as an incident that consists elements of surprise, danger, and uncertainty which can affect communities, corporations, and even nations. McLean (Clock is ticking on Malaysia Airlines in crisis management) states three ‘crisis realities’ that organizations may crumble under if unprepared – the lack of information, time and the right resources. The dearth of these three realities can create a ‘crisis smog’ – blinding organizations with the pressure to deliver an informative response.
When a crisis occurs, people are hungry for information and need someone to communicate accurate information to them (Carmichael, Putting the Right Information on Twitter in a Crisis). Marra (cited in Pang, Dealing with external stakeholders during the crisis: Managing the information vacuum) emphasizes on media’s demand for ‘immediate information and answers during a crisis’. Coombs acknowledges this hunger for information and media’s continuous search for crisis details, while the stakeholders, people directly and indirectly affected by the crisis, start to consider media as a primary source of information. This, ultimately, turns into a vicious cycle.
Although credible information timely communicated by an authoritative source can reduce public outrage and help people come to terms with the crisis, a gap between the occurrence of the crisis and the response can create an ‘information vacuum’.
To avoid inaccurate and rudimentary information in the ‘vacuum’, scholars have called for attention to fill the space with useful information. Citing a practitioner who states that misinformation becomes news in the absence of information, Marra explicitly expresses the necessity to fill the vacuum.
Crisis Management on Social Media
To fill the information vacuum and communicate with key stakeholders at a time of crisis, new media presents itself as alternative route to manage crisis damage. In this day and age, social media plays an undeniably significant role in crisis management.
First, due to the high speed at which news travels on social media as compared to other channels, organizations, regardless of their size, need to constantly monitor and track their online presence (Pownall, How social media impacts crisis communications). Because social media creates a kind of ‘urgency’, it is wise for organizations to respond as quick as possible to a crisis. Additionally, social media is a convenient channel for people from anywhere in the world to share their perspective on. Keeping this in mind, Kauffman how mainstream media finds it easier to pick up information from this source even if it may not be as ‘well-informed’.
Second, transparency is paramount in the digital age which is a reason enough for organizations to be open and responsive, especially during a crisis (Klein, Transparency: Social Media Is Forcing You to Tell the Truth). In other words, when a crisis first breaks out and the facts are unclear, social media plays an intrinsic role in a crisis management strategy.
Social media channels’ immediacy creates both opportunities and challenges for communication professionals.
As described by Pownall, a reputation & communications adviser, social media has several advantages including but not limited to: a source of insight for organizations to identify how various stakeholder groups think and feel, thus, making it easier to maintain a direct relationship with them; a platform where crisis strategy can be tested real-time; a platform where various media formats can be used to communicate facts and express emotions. Directly or indirectly, these plus points present themselves as opportunities to professionals who are a part of the crisis management team in organizations. While immediacy created by social media channels provides numerous opportunities, it presents challenges as well. Pownall mentions how organizations are expected to respond almost immediately to a crisis while at the same time they are expected to be thoroughly consistent with their messages across channels; it is a necessity to monitor incoming comments and feedback with an innate understanding of how to respond (or not respond) to them; communication professionals who do not understand the dynamics of social media could turn out to be a risky hire as they can easily make poor decisions at a time of crisis.
According to a recent Nielsen report, there is an overall increase in the time spent on social media among consumers. Adding to this, today anyone with a device connected to the internet can publish – anytime, anywhere (Alejandro, Journalism in the age of social media). Therefore, when the information vacuum is not timely filled with credible information it often leads to huge pitfalls as social media is notorious for giving birth to hearsays and hoaxes. For instance, in March 2016, a fake website copied the design of the New York Times and published an article stating that Elizabeth Warren endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. This hoax was shared by a staggering 700,000 people to the point where The Times had to clarify that they had nothing to do with the fraudulent article (Garcia & Lear, 5 stunning fake news stories that reached millions). An instance that highlights the influential nature of social media channels is when Facebook and Twitter users broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death before any major news network did. This news was consumed so widely over social media that some websites even crashed due to the heavy traffic flow. This further proves Alejandro’s point that ‘in the social media sphere, news is word of mouth on steroids.’ In another instance, Twitter co-founder, Evan Williams apologized for social media site’s role in getting Donald Trump elected as the President of the United States (Schladebeck, Twitter co-founder apologizes for site’s role in Trump presidency).
Evidently, social media plays a vital role across industries and because of its prominent nature, organizations need to identify best practices in their own industry and master the art of crisis management. Eventually, this will help them maintain authoritativeness and long-term meaningful relationship with their stakeholders.
This research essay was first put together as a part of my coursework for master of marketing communications at the University of Melbourne.