Incident communications in the age of social convergence: four competing imperatives

Social convergence impacts emergency managers and first responders in many ways. Gone are the old days of responding in quasi-isolation. This means particularly difficult new challenges for Public Information Officers.

Time is a luxury no incident commander or PIO can afford. There are now four key imperatives when a disaster or emergency occurs:

  1. Respond … that hasn’t changed … but organizations now do so under much more scrutiny
  2. Alert your audiences … be socially convergent (use mobile tech and social networks)
  3. Monitor social networks and collate, analyze and present social data to support command and efficient decision-making in real-time
  4. Engage in ongoing dialogue with your audiences after you have warned them, keep them updated on the incident.

Why those four critical actions? Because, to put it simply, it’s what your audiences and stakeholders expect nowadays.

Responding: the scrutiny is now intense and immediate. And the judgment passed on your response also includes how fast you communicate. People will have different views on your actions …. Positive or negative. One thing is sure: if you rely as the traditional media to distribute your crisis messaging, you’re doomed to irrelevancy.

Alerting: relevancy in the age of social convergence means SPEED. Speed is not the only thing … it’s EVERYTHING. That means moving at the speed of your audiences (the pace of Twitter and other social networks) to be relevant … and using mobile tools to reach them to have a chance to be heard at all …. What you’re aiming for is to insert yourself in the alerting and news networks that are created organically by people online when an incident occurs. It also means you’ve got to have a solid presence ahead of any crisis too. There are tools that can help, such as Ping4Alerts! who marry mobile and social effectively.

Monitoring: recent events in Boston, Kenya and in the Philippines have shown the great value of social listening during incidents as a source of situational awareness and a way to gauge the public perception of your response. Operationalizing that listening is essential for supporting effective decision-making. You must find a way to finding out how the incident is progressing by screening out the fluff and concentrating on what witnesses are putting out; detecting and countering false rumours and defending your reputation. Next you must collate and analyze this info and feed it back into your command or ops structure in a way in can be used in real-time. A challenge for sure, but now eminently feasible and necessary. I like using a mix of Hootsuite and Tweetdeck for the listening part, Google docs for reports and Crowdmap for simple, easy-to-update maps.

Engaging: public alerting and warnings are one thing. But they are only the start of the comms continuum during incidents. Our audiences now demand constant updates. Does your PIO have the ability to keep sending out info? Either technical capabilities or the necessary authority? Now ensure you have linkages inside your social media listening teams to ensure that posts that should be answered get prioritized and acted upon.

After all, if the bad guys are listening to social chatter … shouldn’t you?

Now, the real hard part is that all of the four elements of the incident/crisis comms plan have to be implemented/conducted almost simultaneously. Again, time is a luxury no PIO can afford any longer.