With the advent of Twitter, YouTube, camera phones and social networks, news, comments, audio and video of any event or incident can speed from one end of the world to the other, crisscrossing the Web a million times before any official statement from authorities, investigators or PIO’s reaches the public’s eyes.
How can a public relations professional or PIO ride this wave of information instead of getting smashed against the rocks in an information maelstrom?
In his blog, Crisisblogger, Gerald Baron writes about his impressions of a recent incident with Behind the Scenes at the Austin Plane Crash–an exercise in virtual communication response.
According to a CNN article, “Andrew Joseph Stack III, 53, an Austin resident with an apparent grudge against the Internal Revenue Service, set his house on fire Thursday and then crashed a Piper Cherokee PA-28 into the building, which houses an IRS office with nearly 200 employees, federal officials said.”
In his blog, Baron tells us how the crisis was handled for his new client, the City of Austin, specifically the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He focused with bullet points on how information was moving in relation to the city’s PIO,
- Twitter and other social media are no doubt driving the information about an event of this nature. Reports coming from Twitter were almost concurrent with the event as some early “tweets” were from people witnessing the event as it occurred.
- Major media use Twitter and other social media as primary sources of news. When you see “reports” or “eye witness reports” in the media coverage do not think it is that they have talked to someone directly but are likely getting it from the many tweets or posts on the Internet.
- The initial reports are virtually certain to be wrong—that is the nature of the internet and witnesses commenting from their perspective and speculating. But it is quite amazing to see how the online community sorts things out and gets to the facts faster than you would imagine.
- Where it used to be that official sources would be the primary focus of the media’s interest a quick review of the media coverage will show that a primary interest of the media is to talk to eyewitnesses—often those same people who are reporting what they see or know (or speculations) via the Internet.
Baron gives this last piece of advice to communicators dealing with a crisis in the social media age, “PIOs and public officials have to scramble very, very hard to keep up with, let alone try to get ahead of, this kind of instant information coming from so many sources. As the official source of the news about the event, their primary role becomes rumor management—correct false information as it emerges—rather than focusing on being the first with the news.”
Having dealt with these situations several times myself, specifically plane crashes and their media’s gusto for any and all information on them so they can be the first to report and have the exclusive, I consider Baron’s description of how he and his team handled the crisis as a quality approach.
The one point I would add is that a PIO or crisis communicator must be right and accurate in their information release or statement. As the official source and rumor refuter, they must be right all the time every time because as media has already turned to social media and citizen journalists for information on event they may start perceiving those persons as the final word on events if the authorities spokesperson has the information wrong.
Once that trust is lost, there is no going back, it is alot cheaper, easier, and most importantly in the fast-paced news cycle, faster, for media outlets and social networks to use the recent tools in information dispensation.
So yes as crisis communicators we do need to ride the wave of social networking, but we need to be steady and calm and not let the wave crash over and destroy the clear “communication” we are tasked with providing.