Thursday, April 22, 2010

Oil Rig Disaster--Why Rumor Management is Critical

One of the big stories going on right now is the explosion of Transocean's Deep Water Horizon oil rig platform in the Gulf of Mexico. With a virtual front row seat to this event (PIER is being used by both US Coast Guard and BP--peripherally involved in the incident), one element of the story shows how important authoritative sources are in quashing social media driven rumors.

From the very first reports, it was communicated that 11 workers were missing. Then the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that all 11 workers had been found safe. They reported this apparently from a Facebook comment by Parish president Billy Nungesser who said they were safe based on several reports. But, importantly, he also said it had not been confirmed by the Coast Guard.

Here is the story from the Times-Picayune business section as it stands as I write this. Unfortunately, the incorrect story was removed so I can't show you that story. It was replaced by this clarification.

However, you can see the reaction of the readers of the original story still on page with the revised story, and through them you can see the damage caused by a false hope rumor. One begs the Parish President to get his information correct-- "No room for false hope--no room for error here these are lives!" Another says "The Coast Guard doesn't deal in rumors. Where is the prez getting his info? Sounds like he is trying to get on the Today Show."

A few quick takeways from this sad episode:

- A critical, if not the MOST critical, role of the JIC and the incident PIO is rumor management. that means they must always be the authoritative source of the information. It also means they need to monitor social media continually and step on rumors as fast and hard as possible.

- The media will go with any information they have because they compete on immediacy and can't afford to be late. They think they can afford to be wrong (hey, just take the story off the website and replace it with a corrected one), but can't afford to be late. It means that the JIC must expect the republication of rumors from social media by mainstream media as a matter of course.

- False hope rumors are among the worst and most damaging. When lives are at stake, raising hopes is sure to get headlines and even more sure to break hearts. Be very very very sure when reporting good news. The rule really should be if it is bad news make double sure and communicate quick. When it is good news make quadruple sure and then check it again.

- Rumors are most likely to emerge first in the social media. This one apparently came from a Facebook post--could have been direct contact with the reporters by the Parish President, not sure. However, social media enables the virtually instant spread of these rumors whether or not the media picks them up. So, social media monitoring on a constant basis is essential. If your JIC plan does not include a specialist to do nothing but monitor social media, you will, I repeat will, get caught flat-footed and be unable to respond quickly to rumors.

1 comment:

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