Social Media in Crises: From the War-Room to the Boardroom

September 15, 2014

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Israel and Palestine wage a war on-the-ground and online. Fundamentalists declare a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Russia and the US are at each other’s throats over the ‘war’ in the Ukraine – a new cold war that is played out in traditional and social media. ISIS executes American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria, broadcast on social media. All of these events occurring in the past few months.

Henry Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State and national security adviser, says the world order is crumbling. His conclusion is that the concept of order that has underpinned the modern era is in serious crisis.1

If that is true, and I believe that it is, what has changed over the past 30 years to spur this?

Let’s rewind. In 1984, it was the mid-point in the Iraq-Iran war. It also saw Saudi Arabian jet fighter planes, aided by intelligence from a US electronic surveillance aircraft and fueled by a US tanker, shoot down two Iranian fighter planes over an area of the Persian Gulf. The Soviet Union withdrew from the summer Olympic Games in the US, and other bloc nations followed. Syria freed captured US Navy pilot, Lieut. Robert C. Goodman, Jr.

While the political situations may seem like deja-vu, what’s different is a radical change in how we get our news today compared to 1984, when we were mostly informed by well-established media organisations. News used to go through a structured review process, while a planned news cycle allowed facts to be verified and sensitive news to be well-considered before publishing.

The catalyst of the world-defining change since then has been social media. Apple introduced the user-friendly Macintosh personal computer in 1984, and thirty years later it is estimated that there are 1.82 billion social media users globally.2 The structured news organizations have been bypassed; ‘news’ is available 24/7 online, no longer just compiled by considered, professional journalists and editors. While acknowledging that, at many times, news was influenced by vested interests or other forms of bias, there was a both a process and an explicit attempt at balanced reporting.

In the new world order, where everybody is a publisher, a propagandist, a marketer looking to win hearts and in some cases; mitigate unfortunate facts! This has brought tremendous transparency and a voice to those that may never have been heard in traditional media. While it has also been embraced by people of ill-intent, we cannot say the advent of social media is bad – think of the Arab Spring among the many valiant examples.

However, there is also no denying that the age of propaganda has reached a new level and fever pitch. Terrorist organisations take their message direct to their audiences, in real time, using all means of influence through social media, especially leveraging video and other visual mediums. While the executions were grotesque, it is mostly the power of social media that has been used to advance their cause by seducing the disenchanted, winning public opinion and gathering financial support. Through social media channels, they now openly and actively recruit fighters to join their cause.

Others before them – NGOs like Greenpeace who effectively used traditional media channels – were early adopters of social media and achieved outstanding results. They used vivid imagery to expose and embarrass companies from whom they wanted change and to raise significant campaign funds.

Yet companies are still slow to realize the significant threat of social media in their planning for crises, let alone the enormous opportunity that it also represents for companies to take control when they hit, get their message out fast and unfiltered, and thereby demonstrate leadership.

Study after study continues to show that leadership in a crisis is a defining factor. It garners the ‘benefit of the doubt’ and secures valuable breathing space for a company in a crisis, when time cannot be bought from key stakeholders, but their patience can be secured. Furthermore, reputational damage in a crisis is now often directly proportional to the speed of response. This means that companies in crisis need to communicate at the speed of their audience.

Therefore, the traditional command-and-control approach to crisis management – built around enforced procedures, focusing on key decision-making personnel in head office (potentially in a different time zone), along with consultation with many internal stakeholders – leads to a considered (often slow) approval process and responses timeframe. This in fact compounds a crisis that is playing out in the social world, deepening the reputational damage.

Companies must move with the times. Communication in the new viral world involves shortening the chain of command. The commanders on the ground need to be responsible for all aspects of managing a crisis, including communications. After all, they are closest to the facts that are rapidly unfolding.

Importantly, they need to build their crisis management strategy around social media, treating it as both a threat and an opportunity.

Consumers are quick to use the power of social media to put pressure on companies. Staying on top of company-related buzz can be hard in foreign lands, with a prominent example being Western executives who can’t read Chinese not being able to get a feel for the situation simply by looking at Sina Weibo. The same goes for Asian companies operating in Western countries. Be sure to make use of a good social media listening tool that works in different languages, translates accurately and can track issues (and antagonists) in real time.

Again, the corporate sector needs to follow the lead of NGOs, among others, by creating their own media outlet. Companies should monitor in real time from the command centre where, in rapid time, they can respond by producing and issuing media releases, videos and other information in easily-digested forms. They then support these efforts by tweeting, posting and blogging – all designed to drive traffic to their updated websites and Facebook/LinkedIn platforms.

In a crisis, Search Engine Optimisation is critical but Search Engine Marketing (buying key words and advertisements on Google) ensures key audiences find your facts in this new world order of information overload from competing interests.

1 Wall Street Journal, “The Assembly of a New World Order,” Henry Kissinger (2 September 2014)

2 Statista 2014