The past seven days have been ones that have surprised the world, and particularly people in the UK. There have been many things that have been discussed or reviewed about recent events and this includes the role of social media in the modern society.
I am not going to venture into any controversial ground but instead want to reflect on the learning of the past seven days and how big organisations may have to now start to re-write their plans for communicating during major incidents.
When most plans were original developed and considered social media did not exist. For communication the focus was on delivering information to the media and directly through staff to communities, and these are still really important elements of any crisis. They are the ways to provide updates on developments including key information to tell people what they need to do as well as to reassure them about what is being done to manage the situation.
But in 2011 the engagement through social media is an additional and important element of any communication plan for an emergency. David Cameron may want to shut them down but that does not recognise all the positive elements that it can bring. People can give immediate feedback on what they are seeing, can provide footage or photographs of incidents to help find those individuals involved, and can join with others to be a force for good.
The critical element is to make sure you invest the time in putting information and messages out through social networks. Millions of people are using them on a daily and hourly basis and in during an emergency these people want to receive and give information through the networks.
You need to have a clear understanding of social networks and how they work, but also be starting to develop a community and engagement. Doing this in periods of calm will be an investment for the times when things get hard. If you ignore social networks now then you will be trying to learn and develop how to use them at a time when you want to move swiftly, and that will create delays. Delays mean a gap in providing information which is just not acceptable now.
There are many social networks in existence and all are slightly different. They have different positives and negatives about how they work. For any plan being developed it is essential that it focuses on having integrated social networks that are working together and working to support the overall communication plan. This is something that I have been passionate about for some time. Using Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and others has more impact when they support each other and support the overall plan – providing information, supporting any investigation and reassuring people.
All this requires appropriate resources. Emergency plans need to include details on how to keep people informed through social networks, helping to stop rumour and speculation and for organisations to be able to provide the facts. Banishing opinion is important as in the initial stages people want accurate information from social networks as they do from the media. The resourcing is not just a 9 to 5 thing; it has to be considered 24 hours a day seven days a week.
You have to recognise that you will not always get things right. Even with the best of intentions there can be mistakes. It is important to recognise when you get things wrong, and apologise. Ask people for their feedback on what they want because no one person or team has all the answers. There are always things to learn and this week has been a steep learning curve for many, me included.
The one thing that is clear is that we still have a long way to go in understanding social networks and ensuring they are just part of our day-to-day business. No matter what the rhetoric they are not going to go away and it is essential we learn from the past seven days and build on social networks for the future.