Crowd Source Your Crisis Communications

There is something inherently problematic about having predictable ways of dealing with the unpredictable. Yet we all cling to the idea that in the face of chaos we need order, and feel that if we can have sufficiently robust systems we will be able to maintain order when all hell breaks loose. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. By its very nature the unpredictable catches as unawares. Despite our best efforts to think ahead and put in place crisis communications plans we have no guarantees that the right person will be in the right place, at the right time or that events will happen in the order that we anticipated.

While the idea of having managed channels of communication makes sense in the routine, predictable, day- to-day world it can actually make things worse when the undetectable happens. We can ignore things that are crucially important because they don’t appear to come from the right source and we can chase our tails, invoking processes that might be appropriate for one set of circumstances but which cause greater confusion in the particular situation we face.

When the worst happens we need the most distributed and flexible means of coping that we have at our disposal. Social Media. The combination of weblogs, wikis, Twitter and Facebook is seen as messy, subjective and unmanageable and while all of this can doubtless be true, when you have an unpredictable situation the distributed nature and inherent spontaneity of social media is just what you need.

In the first place having an extended network of people “noticing things” is likely to give you much earlier warning of something happening that needs your attention than more conventional means. Someone, somewhere will notice something and if it is of sufficient importance they will mention what they have seen in conversation. Given the public nature of most online communications, If what has happened is of enough significance then others will also notice it and start to amplify this signal, exercising judgement as to whether it is significant or not to them. Each of them will provide checks and balances to make it more likely that things that really do matter come to the collective attention.

Once you have noticed that something is happening, and that it is worth taking seriously, social media also gives you a number of methods of dealing with the situation. I mentioned already that you can’t always guarantee that the right person with the right skills, and the designated authority, is going to be available to react when disaster strikes. Having access to a wide range of people, with wide ranging skills who are able to volunteer their help and indeed work with each other to determine what action is appropriate, can be a valuable source of enhanced capability.

We have now seen a number of examples, the Tsunami in Asia and the flooding in New Orleans for instance, where spontaneous, ad hoc networks of connected individuals have outpaced the authorities in their responses to disasters. People have been able to build networks of support and informal communication channels that are a very valuable in bridging the gap between the disastrous events and the ability of the authorities to build a more sustained response.

In the same way as mainstream media are learning to work with, and accommodate social media, communication teams within business would do well to do the same with the networks being used by their own staff. You don’t give up your responsibilities or professionalism but you learn to integrate these with the increasing potential of distributed networks close to the ground. Equally you don’t throw away youremergency plans and preconceived communications channels but you start to integrate these with direct engagement in the increasingly viable alternatives.

It would be naive to give the impression that there are no issues with this “crowd sourcing” approach to disaster communications and recovery. Panic can be spread using these tools just as effectively as support can. Lack of knowledge or inappropriate unofficial responses can distract attention and cause inefficiency. However the most effective answer is to combine both the formal and the informal approaches. Those responsible for managing official channels and official responses should also be connected into the social media world and its networks. This gives them the opportunity to represent the official line, help direct activity, and input a strategic view point to help the network towards a collectively more successful outcome.

Trust is a big issue in any communication with staff and if anything even more so in times of stress and anxiety. People will invariably turn to the sources of information that they trust the most and increasingly this may not be the official sources of information. The onus is on any communicator to be perceived as “trustworthy”. It is no good being upset that people don’t believe you after the fact, you have to do whatever it takes to make it more likely that they will believe you when it matters.

Whether or not we choose to actively engage with these new online environments people will use them when disaster strikes. Being aware of this, competent in our engagement with these tools, and willing to learn from them is, I would suggest, the only way to approach your next disaster - whatever that is. The most robust solution is to combine the best of what we know about crisis communications in emergency situations with an increasing understanding of how distributed networks, based on social media platforms, can become a viable and effective part tool kit.

So how do you develop the skills and start building the networks that will enable you to do this? Waiting until disaster strikes is too late. You have to be in there now building networks, building relationships and understanding the dynamics of the social media spaces so that when disaster does strike you are in a position to make the most of the possibilities they offer. These are learned skills and it is possible to make the right decisions more often than not as you build social media within your organisations. All of this takes time though and it is so important to start sooner rather than later. As with all of these things you have to give before you take and a bit of upfront effort will pay huge dividends to those prepared to make this investment.