Preamble – The United States Army Social Media Handbook
While researching social media policy and guidance, I came across the latest edition of the United States Army Social Media Handbook, published in June 2012 (hereafter referred to as ‘the Handbook’). It is an impressive document because its content, presented with an encouraging tone, includes a review of the applications of social media in the context of the United States Army (soldiers and dependents), and the risks involved with social media engagement and how to address them. The Handbook also provides specific guidance on how soldiers can use social media to be more effective. One such topic is the use of social media for crisis communications.
The use of social media for crisis communications remains a controversial topic. Detractors focus on risks of social web engagement, most often the potential for reputational damage from missteps, and, especially in the context of crisis communications, the possible confusion and chaos stemming from the dissemination of misinformation.
Despite resistance, there is growing acceptance that, as noted in the Handbook,
“Using social media to communicate with stakeholders during a crisis has proven to be effective due to its speed, reach and direct access.”
This practical view reflects an agnostic approach to technology:
In a sense then, arguing whether social media good or bad misses the point because social media is a reality and is being effectively employed to support crisis communications; the risks involved can be controlled. The Handbook addresses both, even offering a case study of how the United States Army used social media to provide updates during the 11 March 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan.
The Handbook describes the following practical guidance on how to use social media for crisis communications and protect organizational credibility:
- Build a community early: establishing a trusted social media presence and networked relationships take time , and must be done before a crisis;
- Promote the organization’s social media presence: publicize links to social media sites and profiles on email signatures and in correspondence to increase awareness;
- Post content often and as soon as practical: people visit websites to perform tasks or to be informed. Frustrated visitors who cannot achieve these objectives, a process that can happen quickly, will likely never visit the site again. To be seen as a credible source of information in the fast changing circumstances of a crisis, it follows then that websites must be dynamic and meet visitor needs. Further, social media provides the means to quickly pass information, but it simultaneously creates an insatiable demand for information. This means that information should be posted as soon as possible. Organizations can also extend their reach by sharing information with trusted partners, who can then broadcast on their networks. The risk of inaction is the potential loss of organizational credibility;
- Monitor content and conversations, and engage: social media has transformed emergency management and crisis communications because those affected by, and witnesses to, an event now feel they are part of the response. The ubiquity of smartphones, combined with video and photo sharing applications, generates a constant flow of potentially valuable information, from which organizations can identify the needs of those affected. At the same time, social media monitoring and engagement allows organizations to influence the conversation and find trends, so that communications can be adjusted to correct misinformation and squash rumors before they can take hold;
- Leverage mobile devices and platforms: encourage staff to use mobile tools to connect and share information in innovative ways so that they can send on-site information from their mobile devices during a crisis; and
- Analyze results and adjust: one of the benefits of social media is that there are a host of (often free) metrics to analyze the impact of tools, and to get and collate feedback. This information can then be used to adjust the crisis communications social media strategy to prepare for future events.
Social Media Risk Management
Debating the merits of social media is beginning to take on an anachronistic feel. I do not think we are at the point where discussing the impact of social media is synonymous with considering whether the automobile is good for society, but we are close.
Like that automobile, taking advantage of the capabilities of social media is beneficial if applied in the right context in the right way, while acknowledging and controlling the risks involved. Achieving requires simple, practical guidance, which will be the subject of a future blog post.