Breaking News at the Speed of Social Media

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Posted: November 7, 2014, 2:35 p.m.
by Mary Kathryn Woods.

A crisis breaks. Within the blink of an eye, the whole world knows. How? A little blue birdie with a big mouth that we call Twitter plays a significant role in spreading news stories. A few tweets and retweets are all it takes for a story to go viral. If it is your organization trending on Twitter, you are hoping it is for positive purposes, but that is rarely the case.

Recently, we have seen social media narrate crises such as the Ferguson riots, the NFL’s domestic violence problem, Urban Outfitters’ controversial sweatshirt and countless more. Whether it is a customer service issue, a product recall, an insensitive comment or a scandalous rumor, the news often breaks on social media first. Consequently, an organization’s social media response to a crisis has the power to make or break the organization’s reputation.

Insignia Communications, a reputation management and communications consultancy firm, recently conducted research aiming to discover social media’s impact on breaking news and how it affects an organization’s crisis communication. Thirty international journalists, reporters and media correspondents shared their opinions on the subject. The report’s findings offer organizations insight into how to use social media to effectively communicate during a crisis.

The impact
Social media is not only a communication game-changer, but it is also a role-changer. Social media alters the role of citizens, journalists and organizations in breaking news situations.

Citizens are no longer just recipients of the news, but also providers of the news. Social media gives citizens an outlet to report eyewitness accounts, share news stories and voice their opinions. The Pew Research Center reported that “14% of social media users posted their own photos of news events to a social networking site, while 12% had posted videos.” However, according to Insignia’s report, 90 percent of journalists agree that social media does not undermine the influence of traditional media.

“Media respondents overwhelmingly felt that despite social media, traditional media still holds a uniquely important role,” Insignia Communications’ Managing Director Jonathan Hemus said.

Hemus explained that this belief stems from people’s reliance on traditional media for credible information and traditional media’s active use of social media.

“When you get an influential, traditional journalist using social media to communicate, that’s when you get the double whammy of traditional and social coming together, and you get something of real credibility coming through,” Hemus said.

Journalists and traditional media outlets are no longer just broadcasting information; they are also engaging with the story as it progresses on social media. Insignia’s report reveals that 87 percent of journalists said social media changed their role. Journalists use social media to scan for potential stories, report stories more quickly, reach unofficial information sources and gain access to eyewitness accounts. Nonetheless, the report concluded, “the key dynamic which has changed is speed.” Bernstein Crisis Management’s Social Media Manager Erik Bernstein shared a similar opinion.

“The biggest impact social media has had on the way breaking news is reported is in accelerating the trend of racing to be the first to report on any happening, throwing fact-checking to the wind,” Bernstein said.

This inevitable competition between media outlets has a two-fold effect. Social Media Examiner called it “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Effects of Social Media on Journalism.”

“There is a risk of the quality and accuracy of news reporting diminishing,” Hemus said. “However, that is balanced up by the power of social media to provide so many other perspectives. So, in many ways we get a more rounded understanding by hearing about it from so many different sources. Like many things in life, there are positives and negatives in terms of the quality of news we’re getting.”

Lastly, social media provides organizations with the opportunity to communicate with its followers directly, immediately and personably. Still, Hemus admits that some organizations are not taking advantage of communicating through social media during crises.

“Organizations not using [social media] are leaving their reputation in the hands of third parties,” Hemus said.

The adjustment
Social media’s effect on breaking news calls for organizations to adjust their crisis communication plans.

“The rapid spread of information and ideas has forced organizations to speed up the pace of crisis management,” Bernstein said. “Not only that, but it has also made them accountable to a much broader audience due to the ability of any one person to really amplify a message.”

According to Insignia’s report, “Organizations who want to be successful in protecting their reputation when facing crises and issues must adapt their crisis communication protocols to meet the needs of a social media age.” Hemus noted that a number of traditional organizations and businesses remain hesitant to change their old ways.

“The much more informal, rapid, flexible, less-controllable, social media style of communication can be hard to adapt to,” Hemus said.

These organizations should practice using social media in order to develop the confidence required to communicate in the face of a crisis. Bernstein said that organizations should include the “Three C’s—confidence, competence and compassion” in all communication efforts.

“To have a good chance of success, you really have to do the planning, training and preparing beforehand,” Hemus said. “So, it’s about working out how you would use social media in the event of a crisis situation.”

Insignia Communications offers organizations opportunities to participate in simulations and exercises to prepare for real-life crises. In addition to training, organizations must constantly monitor social media in order to be aware of a brewing organizational crisis, Hemus said. With social media demanding instantaneous news, organizations need to become aware of the crisis and react as rapidly as the media and the public.

“If it is clear that there is a crisis breaking about your organization, I think to have a benchmark of a response within 15 minutes is a good target to have,” Hemus said. “Many organizations are not geared up to hit that, but if it gets to more than an hour, then you really are behind the eight ball.”

Insignia’s research proves that by providing the public with factual updates, an organization can secure itself as the authoritative source and influence how the story unfolds. Likewise, media outlets will turn to the organization in an effort to obtain the accurate story.

“People will turn to the organization at the heart of the crisis,” Hemus said. “They will believe the information put out by the organization at the heart of the crisis, if they get it out quickly and if they provide reliable information.”

If an organization fails to communicate efficiently, it might lose control of the story. For example, Bernstein was impressed with DiGiorno’s adept handling of its social media mistake in September.

Ultimately, because social media has multiplied the pace of breaking news, organizations need to prepare and practice a social media response that will protect their reputations. Don’t let the little blue birdie clip your organization’s wings — be prepared.

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