1. Develop a social media strategy

To utilize social media effectively, it is important to consider what your goal is: who do you want to reach and for what purpose?  Do you want to gather information to e.g. increase your or your first responders’ situational awareness? Or, do you want to alert, provide information or provide action perspectives to the population or to specific groups? Or do you want to engage in sense making? Knowing your goal you can start thinking about how to go about reaching it.

Having a strategy in place for how and when organizational members will communicate via social media before and during crisis is important for effective social media use. Address who should communicate what and when during a crisis as not all information should be communicated directly or by communication officers. Some information belongs to the communication message of administrators and high public officials such as Mayors and elected politicians. When deciding on such matters it is important to keep in mind why and with what purpose, you are using social media.

Furthermore, in order to communicate effectively your communication channel, but also your message has to suit your audience, situation and goal. The more popular and accessible a social media application is, where the former can vary greatly on a geographic scale, the more likely it is to be used. For example, Facebook and Twitter are very popular on a global scale, whereas hi5 is particularly popular in Latin America. Keep in mind that your audience is fragmented and will use different communication channels to gather information. Subsequently, consider the content of your message with regard to the type of communication you are using; one size does not fit all. The use of the social media applications in a pre-crisis setting aids its use during crisis situations, as your followers are already familiar with it.

A special point of attention is that social media cannot and should not replace other crisis warning systems, but should be used complementary. Social media applications usually require mobile phones with Internet network access, but during crises, digital communication networks may break down which makes it impossible to use social media applications for those who are involved in a crisis situation. Therefore differentiation is the key: use both traditional and social media technologies in order to be sure that the information you want to share will reach (all) the different target groups.

Key steps: 
  • Determine your social media goals in relation to your crisis management activities: who do you want to reach and with what purpose.
  • Compile a social media strategy that provides direction and guidance members of the organization as well as citizens:
    • Why, when and how social media applications will and should be used (during a crisis) by members of the organization and who will handle the social media accounts.
      • Assign specific roles e.g., address who is responsible for monitoring social media coverage by citizens during crises.
      • Think about who is allowed to respond to posts on social media. 
      • Decide if there is information that needs to be shared through a high-ranking official, e.g., a public officer, Mayor or elected politician.
      • The creation of a social media expert team responsible for communicating with the organization’s stakeholders through social media could be of great importance.
      • Why, when and how social media applications should and can be used (during a crisis) by citizens.
        • Determine when and how citizens can contribute via social media.
        • State that capturing pictures and sharing information should not interfere with the on-site emergency work.
        • State clearly that in case of an emergency, social media applications will not replace the emergency number.
        • Consider and address if there are exceptions, e.g., when traditional warning methods are not functioning, and how to proceed.
  • Be explicit about who is allowed to communicate what kind of information. In essence, communication officers may be explicitly allowed to communicate factual information that is already visible for the public or journalists.
  • State explicitly in the social media strategy that uncertainty and ambiguity should be accepted.
  • Develop an associated social media data protection policy entailing data handling procedures; what will be done with information provided by citizens, how long will it be stored? To whom is it accessible? (See the next tip on privacy considerations)
    • Develop rules of conduct that ensure that images or footage captured in ways that are unethical or violate a person’s privacy unacceptably are not used.
  • Consider the social media landscape of your country: explore which forms of social media are most popular and assess which platforms can be used to reach the largest audience. For example, look into statistics of social media usage per age group, and learn that Twitter is a suitable mean to reach young people in the UK, and could be used to inform them in a typical crisis, while being less suitable to reach elderly people.
  • Use popular social media platforms (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Google+) to increase citizens’ involvement with your organization.
    • Create and start using social media accounts that are most popular amongst your target audience in an everyday situation.
      • Consult the social media analytics tools in order to identify which social media platform is most popular for your target audiences.
    • Observe how others use the social media application you are using. Ensure that you take a similar approach that fits with the tone of that application.
    • Make it clear that you will use this social media account in crisis situations.
  • Consider the usefulness of interoperability between different accounts to help streamline your use of social media within crisis management. For instance, Twitter accounts can be connected to a Facebook account so that when a Tweet is sent it also appears on Facebook.
  • Design and test a comprehensive risk and crisis communication strategy that highlights the interoperability of different communication systems you are choosing to use to reach your audience.
  • Use analytics to track progress and adjust your strategy if needed.

Walmart is an example of a private organization extensively using new technologies during crisis situations. In particular, in the crisis of hurricane Katrina Walmart established one of the first online Emergency Contact Services to be accessed through any in-store kiosk and through its website, helping the public to locate and communicate with their friends and families. Walmart has also developed specific guidelines which are available online for both associates and customers to follow in a crisis situation.

(Walmart, “Media-information: Wal-mart’s response to Hurricane Katrina”, Walmart website, 2014. (Online) http://news.walmart.com/news-archive/2005/09/04/media-information-wal-ma... [Accessed: 28 September 2014]. Walmart, “Walmart’s social media guidelines”, Walmart website, 2014. (Online) http://corporate.walmart.com/social-media-guidelines [Accessed: 5 February 2015].)

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