The #SocialFirefighter™: the evolution of Crisis Communications

In the 24-7 news cycle, #PRFails & citizen journalism prevail: are you socially savvy with the evolution of traditional crisis communications?

I often joke that I should have been a Fire Fighter; because all I seem to do is put out other people’s PR and Social Media bushfires. I hose down speculation, rumour and innuendo. I douse volumes of foam on poorly chosen words. I go postal,  fire-axe in hand, on corporately embarrassing photographs. I proactively water-bomb areas of risk to prevent spot-fires from reigniting.

Instead of a fire truck, I drive an iPad. Instead of turning on the lights and sirens, I quietly activate my HootSuite contingencies. Instead of pulling on heavy woolen overalls and donning a hard hat, I simply slip off my heels and put on my birkenstock’s. The ‘fire’ and the tools of trade may differ, but the objective: to save lives, put out the fire and salvage as much as possible in the process – is the same.

Saving lives on social media? Yes – in some circumstances like cyber bullying, lives most definitely are at risk; as a direct result of social media curation action or inaction.

Before the mass-uptake of social media, Crisis Communications was a mostly 9 to 5 scenario. You knew each publication’s print deadlines and the television news-media had to actually get a camera crew out to a hot-spot before a story made the nightly news. PR was a civil affair, where the only scandals being addressed out of hours were of epic proportions. The fires, while burning hot and at times long, were relatively contained.

Fast forward to 2009-10 when consumer accessibility to Smartphones and mobile internet exploded. Out of this burgeoning social sphere emerged citizen journalism. Anyone, anywhere with a smart phone and a mobile internet data pack could instantaneously take a photo or video, upload it to social media and ‘break news.’ In real time. As it happened. Repeatedly. Concurrently with multiple other citizen journalists. Sharing en-mass with social networks.

As quickly as Joe or Jane Citizen can shoot and upload a video to YouTube; PR and Crisis Communications becomes a very complicated 24/7 affair.

Australian change management and business strategy thought leader Kevin Dwyer in his article ‘Leadership in the 24 hour news cycle’ explains:

The 24 hour news cycle led by opinion pieces dressed up as news and shock jocks seeking to shock rather than inform or reflect, is not a place for the faint-hearted.

In social media crisis, it is most often opinion via product or brand dissatisfaction that causes the most social damage. Citizen journalists are not savvy with Fourth Estate ideals or constrained by editorial clearance. Their interest isn’t in selling news- it’s in capturing and sharing it. The act of ‘sharing’ citizen journalism gives traditional news media a free kick; with footage and stills imagery readily available and public comment plentiful; opinions once again become news-for-sale.

Shock jocks leverage social outrage and build social hysteria; fueling the social-flames to increase their ratings, attract new audience segments and ultimately, earn more advertising revenue.

For social media community managers and curators, this translates to combative reaction and engagement across a client’s or community’s social streams. Combative reaction and engagement can be positive or negative: socially supportive or scathing.

Social stream anarchy can, like a fire, occur at any time, leaving brands’ without comprehensive around the clock social strategies and monitoring exposed to  legal, moral and ethical risks. The importance of a cohesive, strategic and holistic social media strategy and crisis communications plan – just like a workplace fire action plan – cannot be underestimated. By the time your PR team comes back from a long weekend, it’s too late for proactive PR to mitigate emergent risks. It’s too late to lock-down your social streams and it’s too late to prevent the news media from picking up the story.

Social media disasters are completely preventable if you have a well prepared and rehearsed Social Crisis Communication Plan. Think of it as your Social Fire Drill and Fire Action Plan. The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to survive when social-disaster strikes.

Ready to chat about preparing your organisation for a PR or social media crisis? Get in touch.