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Social Media In Crisis

Yesterday I was asked by my friend and former colleague Natasha Baker to help with a video project for Sinclair Community College.  I was interviewed and the video will be used with videos of other respondents in an upcoming presentation to academic leaders from around the country.   I was asked to answer a question about the role of social media in academic institutions, particularly in crisis situations.   While this is not precisely what I said (I was speaking extemporaneously yesterday, and did not take notes) it is very close.

Social media can be extremely important in managing crisis situations.  There are several ways in which it can improve an academic institution’s ability to better understand situations, communicate information, and manage unplanned challenges associated with crisis situations.  Here are some of the ways that social media can be useful.

Part of managing a crisis well involves having knowledge that something is happening early on.  With news increasingly breaking through social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, (Jet Airplane landing in Hudson River, Earthquake in China, etc…) monitoring social media channels for relevant conversations is critical.  Colleges and universities should consider monitoring the social web as a full time job, so that when a problem arises, the institution is able to identify a problem quickly and respond to it properly.  Using simple tools like google alerts, twitter search, google blog search, google news, igoogle, and google reader can help these institutions to stay informed about breaking news and emerging crisis situations.

Once aware that something is happening, it is important for institutions to assess the situation and then to distribute important information.  Social media makes it possible for institutions to distribute this information immediately, without having to rely completely on traditional broadcast sources to disseminate the details.  Certainly broadcast media is still helpful in getting the word out, but no more do institutions have to rely on news cycles and broadcast schedules to notify the public of a crisis.  Another key is in the fact that in social media platforms members can play the role of both receiver and transmitter.  Because of this, messages can spread more quickly, and can be tracked as they move across the social web.  It is possible to follow the conversation as it evolves, discover who is receiving information, and who is sharing that information with others.  Additionally, it is extremely simple to set up web pages to answer common questions, post links to important information, and notify people as the crisis situation changes.


Because social media enables much of the conversation on any topic to be tracked, it is possible to see who is getting the message.  It is also possible to see who is only getting parts of the message or misinterpreting the situation entirely.  In these cases, institutions can use social channels to address misinformation both directly and indirectly.  Predicated on trust, this ability to engage in the conversation and understand public perception is a vital part in keeping a crisis situation under control.

Continued communication
As a crisis situation changes, the plans for response change.  The ability to continually communicate a clear plan of action is vital to managing a crisis situation properly.   Social media enables this, not just during the crisis itself, but also in the time following the crisis.  Once the television cameras and reporters have left, there are still people who want answers.  Social media can better equip an institution to continue the conversation if necessary, address public concerns, and restore a sense of trust and order.

Crisis situations can never be completely avoided, but social media can help institutions to manage them much more effectively.  Social media should play a central role in how colleges, businesses, and even individuals manage these situations.  This technology offers an unfiltered, accessible, direct and fluid channel for communicating important facts and gathering relevant feedback.  Increasingly people are turning to social media as a means of entertainment, information, and communication.  As this becomes the norm, it is important to get a grasp on how social media works, build a trusted network of friends and followers, and know how to use these tools before a crisis situation takes place.