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Social media imperative in crises

Recent disasters such as that in Orlando and Brussels have brought home the importance of social media during a crisis.

Around two thirds of the Australian population is on social media; at the start of 2016 more than 15 million were users of Facebook while there were 2.8 million “active” users of Twitter.

Businesses are following suit; 79 per cent of large businesses have social media accounts but less than half of small and medium businesses are social media active.

In Platform’s experience, many companies are risk averse and prefer to leave social media be than establish a presence. Aside from ignoring a potential audience, this strategy also reduces the communication opportunities available during a crisis.

Last year researchers from the Queensland University of Technology released results of a three-year study into how social media was being used as part of crisis communications.

It found that while platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were recognised as increasingly important in the dissemination of information during crisis events, they were not always used well.

“The official use of social media for crisis communications within emergency management organisations is still relatively new and ad hoc, rather than being systematically embedded within or effectively coordinated across agencies,” the report reads. And that’s for emergency management organisations whose role it is to provide accurate and timely information.

The role of social media can be extremely effective if used appropriately. Take, for example, last week’s devastating shooting in Orlando. Less than 24 hours after the event there had been 2 million tweets with the hashtag #Orlando.

Family and friends of loved ones were using Twitter to spread information and try to gain clarity around the event. In addition, the account of the Pulse nightclub where the shooting took place was swiftly used to spread information about how people could help.

The account was also used to share information about a fundraising page for victims of the shooting which had raised $1.2 million within 13 hours of being established.

Similarly, Brussels Airport took advantage of social media during the terror attack in March; less than 30 minutes after the attack Brussels Airport took to Twitter to confirm there had been two explosions at the airport, that it was currently being evacuated and asked people not to come to the area.

The airport continued to use twitter, and other social media accounts, as vital sources of information during the crisis; letting people in the carparks know when it was safe to leave, providing information line numbers and offering condolences to those affected.

Closer to home, BHP Billiton recognised how important social media was during the Samarco disaster. In the week following the incident in Brazil Samarco was referred to close to 35,000 times and the company continued to update followers on what was happening in Brazil.

To ensure it is done appropriately, companies need to have clear guidelines in place for how to use social media in a crisis.

A specific person or a team should be in charge of the social media account. They should also be intricately involved in crisis communications briefings and have a clear understanding of the role of social media in communications.

But most importantly, as with any crisis communications, the role of a company involved is to help people bear the pain of the event.

Kirsty will be sharing more of her thoughts on crisis communications at the WA Mining Club’s Education Series panel event on July 6th.

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