Tweet or not tweet in a crisis???

In Communication, Organizational Communication - Assignment on March 20, 2012 at 6:43 pm

I was sent this article (thanks Chuck!) from the Jamaica Observer that has the headline “The Best Thing to Do in a Crisis is Stay Away from Twitter.” I was intrigued because this is exactly the opposite advice that I and others that I know whom I consider experts in this field have been teaching and preaching.

I suspect that the article will get a lot of circulation because a number of more traditionalists in crisis communication and PR will glom onto the headline without reading the story and say, “See! I told you! Using social media in a crisis (or any time) is a bad idea!”

James MacGregor, the author of the article, does indeed suggest that social media is not the panacea that is often suggested. He says:

“…we are so often besieged with assertions that crises are effectively managed (or, perhaps, can only be managed) through massive applications of social media (only a few years ago, it was massive applications of traditional news media). We don’t think so. Judiciously deployed, social media can be powerful tools. But in many circumstances, social media are more likely to cause or worsen a crisis than they are to prevent one. And once a crisis has arisen, the best remediation is likely to be very old-fashioned— direct, simple, helpful and, above all, personal.”

No doubt that social media can cause or worsen a crisis, if not used well. And that is what he says:

“Used judiciously, social media can sometimes forestall a crisis. Used foolishly or maliciously, social media can provoke a crisis, or turn it viral. Once a crisis does erupt, social media has considerable potential to make it bigger, uglier and faster-moving.”

OK, he says use social media judiciously. He doesn’t say don’t use it. But then he makes the strong case why you need to be aware, monitor and use it during a crisis. He talks about how people will find out first about a crisis through Twitter and how YouTube will enable them to see it, and how blogs will “drown out mainstream media.” His solution to this new reality:

“There’s a corresponding litany of things you can do to prevent or deal with all this: Learn how and when to tweet yourself. Make and post your own videos. Hire a social-media monitoring service. Hire a search-engine-optimizer…”

That doesn’t sound to me like the advice supposedly encapsulated in the headline.

But he also suggests that you can cause a problem with Twitter (I agree) and that once a problem is caused with Twitter you can’t fix it with Twitter (hmmm, not so sure about that). He says:

“You are very unlikely to defeat a Twitter-formed perception with more Twitter. All that happens is more public visibility is given to the dispute about the first perception.”

First, Twitter and other social media have been shown to be remarkably self-correcting and you can be part of that process. But he says in effect a firestorm on Twitter may require more than Twitter to be put out. Yes, as he says in this article–it is a multi-channel world and we must operate in those multiple channels. Sometimes you have to use more than Twitter including as much direct communication as you can, as he points out, in order to defeat a firestorm on Twitter.

And that seems to be his real point because I agree completely his four summary points:

1) Go direct 2) Answer the question first (in other words, deal directly with what people want to know) 3) Be short be simple (he refers to the 140 character limit 4) Be pre-emptively good (actions speak louder than words).

Great advice. But doesn’t go direct also mean using the same channels that at least some in your audience are you using including social media?

Altogether, Mr. MacGregor in my mind is sending very mixed messages about using social media and the potential for damage. In that he is completely correct. But the headline gives no mixed message at all and consequently it does a severe disservice to Mr. MacGregor and his advice. The Business Insider editor takes pains to point out the headline was written by O’Dwyer’s. Clearly it was written to attract attention ala “Man Bites Dog,” but it is irresponsible, misleading and will do harm to those who will jump on this advice they see in it.


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