Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Social Media Makes a Crisis Last Much Longer

When is a crisis over? When does the communication about an emergency event stop? When should the JIC be deactivated? The common answer is: when media interest goes away. That answer today is very, very wrong.

There are two reasons for this. One, the attention span of today's major media has come to resemble that of a seriously ADHD kindergartener. They arrive almost at the speed of Twitter, and they disappear soon after. That is because today's media lives and dies on one thing alone that is immediacy. If it isn't happening right now, they have no use for it. Tiger's story isn't gone, but he is thanking whatever stars he might be seeing right now that Amanda Knox's story hit when it did. The swine flu story erupted in April and dominated the news--for about a week. Then it disappeared from the media. Did the problem go away? No, while the media was chasing the next thing that happened, the story deepened with accelerating infections. Millions of people were looking eagerly for information but they could not find it on the major media. Sure, it came back late this fall but the story was the failing of those in charge to provide vaccines. That played out and now they are gone again.

The focus of the media on immediacy is one reason. The other reason is that most people are now getting their news and information from the internet, and engaging in conversation in a very public forum called social media. If you think about swine flu as an example, Pew research made it clear that most people were getting their information from the internet. They still are, new ones every day as the infection continues on. But PIOs and communicators tend to think there is no crisis and maybe not even reason to communicate because ABC isn't calling and the news helicopters have gone somewhere else (to Italy right now).

As long as significant numbers of people are hungry for information about the event, common sense suggests that communication activities should go on. If the JIC shuts down, or the communicators say "we're done" it doesn't mean information will not be generated, shared and commented on. It just means that those at the center of it won't be participating.

We had a client who shut down their incident website even though 20,000 visitors were coming to them everyday for information. We asked, Why shut it down? They said, "The news media isn't following this story anymore and they never report what we have to say anyway, so why have a website up?" The logic of that escapes me. If they had 20,000 people showing up at their front door or calling an 800 number seeking information, I doubt they would board up the door or disconnect their phone. If they did, they could hardly be called communicators. But because the news media wasn't tracking any more, they did not see the value of talking to those 20,000 who were asking them to tell them straight what was going on.

A recent environmental event we were involved in demonstrated the difference between social media involvement and mainstream media. It's a story similar to the book The Long Tail. The media coverage in the first hours and few days of the event is strong, then it starts to tail off (depending on what else is happening that is immediate). The social media activity, as measured by the monitoring tools, starts off a little slower in this case. It is just building as the mainstream media starts tailing off. It's peak seems to hit a few days after the mainstream has all but disappeared. Then it slowly tails off.

Even a few weeks after an event is "over," the conversation can still be going strong. This may be the most important time to identify rumors and work on correcting them because those continuing the conversation often have the highest interest and the most long term interest.

This reality of a longer emergency communication cycle creates some real challenges for PIOs who understand it. When do you stop communicating? If you are the PIO of a Joint Information Center, when do you deactivate. The normal rule of deactivating after the ICS structure has stood down doesn't necessarily make sense. The public interest, conversation and debate may go on long after the response efforts have been completed. In my view, there needs to be a plan for deactivation based on public interest and if the response structure is deactivated, there needs to be a way to transition the communication activity to a single lead agency or multiple agencies who still have a reputation stake in the game.

Your thoughts? Email me at gbaron@piersystems.com.

1 comment:

  1. A very good point Gerald ... I'm going to present my suggestions to address the issues you raise on my own blog.