Social media is still a crisis management blind-spot

Despite all the warnings and embarrassing glitches, many organisations are still failing to embrace social media as a core tool in crisis preparedness and response.

This sad reality was reinforced by a survey of American business continuity practitioners, which found that more than half (57 per cent) did not officially use social media as a crisis management resource, and only eight per cent believed that social media had become enabler for their organisation to proactively identify and respond to crisis events.

In crisis management, social media now demands higher standards of transparency and consistency, and has introduced new methods of very rapid communication with stakeholders, both locally and around the world. In fact, the change social media has made to crisis management has been branded “the new normal.”* So why are so many companies so slow to adapt to this new normal? One reason is a “wilful blindness” which puts the whole question of social media readiness firmly in the too-hard basket. Other reasons include over-reliance on procedures, fear of social media risk and unrealistic effort to protect corporate reputation. While such foolishness continues, organisations everywhere are suffering the financial and reputational damage of social media disasters. For example the excellent e-book “Avoiding #Fail” describes with excruciating exactitude 100 separate case studies of social media crises, disasters and screw-ups.

Some social media disasters might seem trivial, but others can have serious, real world consequences. Let’s not forget when hackers took control of the Associated Press Twitter account last year and sent reports that President Obama had been injured in two explosions at the White House, briefly wiping US$136 billion off the US stock market.

Or the anti-coal hoax a few months earlier when a young Australian activist with a laptop reportedly distributed a fake news release which triggered a $300 million crash in the share value of the coalminer Whitehaven.

One of the most significant examples of social media crisis failure was in late 2010, when a Qantas A380 had a near-disastrous engine failure after taking off from Singapore. Before the plane had burned off fuel, passengers had already tweeted pictures of the damaged engine from inside the aircraft; a blogger in Indonesia posted pictures of pieces of wreckage which had crashed down from the sky; Reuters had run a false report saying the plane had crashed; and Qantas shares started to fall. All that and more while the plane was still in the sky.

In the aftermath of the near-disaster, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said that while the airline was ready for traditional media and responded quickly, they missed this whole social media end of communication. As a direct result IATA, the international airline body, developed a new social media-era crisis communication guide. Yet today the question remains unchanged: Which company or industry will be the next to find itself woefully unprepared when a crisis strikes?

* Ziemnowicz, C. H., Harrison, G. & Crandall, W. (2011). The new normal: How social media is changing the way organisations manage a crisis. Central Business Review, 30(1), 17-24.

About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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