SM & Unintended Consequences

I spotted this on the LinkedIn Crisis Communication forum (re Using Social Media in a Crisis) by Bob Wade ex COI (lightly edited)

…. The University of East London and several other universities have been given permission to run a ‘Twitter Farm’ in a programme to study how social networks change/direct behaviour during a crisis.

They group the Twitter dynamics as:
Stage one – ‘Open’ – what’s going on? Includes a lot of opinion – ‘I think it’s because of this etc’
Stage two – ‘Directed’ – sharing hard information and insight with each other.
Stage three – ‘Comprehension’ – what does this mean for me/us, who’s fault is this – consequences/blame.

They are taking live incidents and monitoring speed and size and content of responses. They looked at the Cork air crash on 11 Feb this year in Ireland. The first mention on Facebook was ONE MINUTE after the crash. They recorded 243 tweets on the crash – the incident began at 9.50 am – the first tweet with CORRECT information did not appear until 11.51. So for two hours, false information was circulating.

The peak in the Twitter exchange for the Cork incident was Stage Two, which was about the time the correct information began to appear. The danger period is Stage One when people are giving uninformed opinions. This is the reason Emergency Planners are waking up to the social media – there have already been two major ‘Stage One’ incidents with serious consequences:

Love Parade, Germany – several people crushed to death after texts and tweets circulated that the quickest route out of the festival was through the tunnel, when officials were trying to get people to disperse evenly through several exits.

New York Grand Central Station evacuation – Police dealt with a small suspect package; a very minor incident. But people began tweeting that the station was being evacuated, even that bombs had gone off else where in the city (the source of this rumour turned out to be a steam valve burst in the Mayor’s office). So the whole place self evacuated – when police and railway officials asked where everyone was going, people would show them their tweets and the officials and police would join them – its on Twitter so it must be true!

So the buzz words now in the emergency planning community are ‘network innoculation’ (moving quick to counter false rumours)and ‘network seeding’ ( getting correct info into the mix asap).

But a lot of us in the emergency services and Resilience community are dinosaurs (including me) and don’t know how to rapidly use social media to affect behaviour change during a crisis. So I’m certainly beginning to advise organisations that, if they are ‘not yet with the programme’ on social media, they need to make arrangements in their Media Emergency Plans to bring social media experts in, so their organisation can ‘join the conversation’ when the proverbials hit the fan, and move it to Stage 2 as quickly as possible. Some of the emergency services do get it however – I was with Hertfordshire Police on Monday for an exercise, and they told me how they use Facebook to talk direct to suspects, even asking them to hand themselves in – and some of them do!

About JS

John Stonborough FCIPR specialises in media relations, providing an authoritative and discreet advocacy to corporate and private clients world-wide. He specialises in handling the hostile media and media regulation. He is known for observing "An interview is no time for an original thought." He is the great-nephew of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. His working career began as a London policeman and then as a reporter for the Daily Mail, BBC Radio 4, Thames Television and Channel 4 TV. From 2001 to 2004 he was The Media Advisor to the House of Commons Commission. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. He is married and lives in London, England.
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