Ken Scudder is a communications trainer and crisis communications consultant.
Social media, and how to incorporate it into public relations and crisis communication, is the most challenging new factor that I've seen in my 20+ years in the industry. How to use Facebook positively, when and how to respond to negatives on Twitter, and whom to put in charge of an organization's social media, are questions that we're still trying to find a consensus on.
Monday's ghoulish attack in Boston showed many of the positives and negatives of the Twitterverse during a crisis. As to be expected, false information and speculation sped through both the public and the media. On the other hand, official feeds were able to get important information to the public, as well as tamp down rumors (especially on Wednesday after CNN reported – and Fox News "confirmed" – that a suspect had been arrested).
Slate's Jeremy Stahl published a great article on how journalists, and spokespeople, should use Twitter in a crisis. While most of it is geared towards the media, spokespeople and PR executives can use many of its tips.
My favorite piece of advice in the story is this:
…as the voice behind Slate's Twitter feed, I have a few more thoughts about what journalists, news organizations, and anyone else with a Twitter account should do during a national tragedy like what happened today in Boston. First, media outlets need to turn off their automated Twitter feeds to ensure that frivolous and/or off-topic items don't get sent out by mistake. You don't want to be tweeting about the tax benefits of the state of Texas while limbs are being amputated in Boston if you're @GovPerry, or—ahem—the latest "Dear Prudence" column if you're @Slate.
This is a step I had not considered in my consulting, but will be one of the first I recommend from now on.
I have also recently been involved in a LinkedIn discussion on whether you can "forbid" employees from using social media during a crisis. My answer was:
I was asked this question in training on Monday. You can't "forbid" it, but you can point out how important it is to have the company speak with one voice and that accurate information is dispensed at all times. I told my client to request employees not put messages/pics on social media of the crisis, but if they have already done so don't be onerous in the response.
Pete Townshend wrote in the liner notes of his album All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes "there have always been times like these." Social Media is just a faster, and more personal, version of the communication we've been conducting since Gutenberg (or cave paintings). But, as with all advances, we have to determine what sources and information are legitimate, how to work with them as communication professionals, and how to prevent further chaos by using them correctly.