Crisis CommunicationsGuest Post by Karen Freberg

Social media and crisis communications has become one of the fastest growing areas of both practice and research for today’s communication landscape.

A recent report from Continuity Insights in 2014 shows that “over half (58%) rated mobile technologies [are considered] as absolutely vital in carrying out crisis communications plans, up 5% since 2013” (page 4). Additionally, “over half of respondents (52%) feel that the benefits of using social media as a crisis communications tool outweigh the risks” (page 4).

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We researchers often only focus on what good can be accomplished with social media at our fingertips. However, with each emerging platform and tool that enters the workplace or discussion in the social media community, the shadow of potential dark uses and features arises as well.

Social media crises have evolved beyond just negative events going viral – whether it is a personal tweet accidentally sent out publicly, or a customer service response gone awry.

We have seen this in many different cases involving false rumors, unconfirmed information going viral (Bangkok Bombings), cyber attacks (US State Department Twitter account and attacks on brands like Target), hacks to website data and users (Ashley Madison), and using social media to create terror online and targeted to users for their view (Virginia TV shootings).

Researchers and practitioners need to work together in order to address these challenges.

Here are a few ways to do this:

1. Go to the International Risk and Crisis Communication Conference (ICRC).

This conference hosted by the University of Central Florida is open for both practitioners and researchers who present their work in crisis communication. We need to be going to the same arenas to have these discussions to help build an engaged community to answer these questions, combat these emerging challenges, and work together to come up with practical and research based solutions.

2. Build crisis communications practices throughout curriculum.

We all have to be students of social media and actively seek out information to learn more about crisis communications more than ever. As an educator, I try to include at least a week or so of crisis communication content in my courses in the way of crisis simulation workshops, blogs, podcasts on crisis and social media (like Melissa Agnes’ podcast), certification training in crisis communications (like the one offered by the CDC), exercises, readings, assignments (like this one I did last year in my crisis class), and guest speakers.

I am currently teaching a graduate crisis class at the moment at the University of Louisville, and I tell my students even though they may not go into the field of crisis communications, they need to know how to handle a crisis in a given situation.

3. Sharing crisis and social media research with the public.

There are many great research resources on the topic of crisis and social media specifically. One in which is good to bookmark and check out would be the work being done by Institute for Public Relations and their Social Science and Social Media Research Center. Plus, attending webinars on some of the latest trends and issues pertaining to social media and crisis communications is key to note here as well.

Firestorm Solutions hosts some great free webinars with leading experts as well as viewing conference presentations on the subject online. For example, Tim Coombs, professor and researcher in crisis communications at Texas A&M University, did a splendid and entertaining presentation at Lund University in Sweden about social media, crises, and zombies.

4. Reach out to social media and crisis specialists.

There are many individuals who are working in the field of crisis communications that could be of use as a great resource for your practice, research, or even classroom. Some of the professionals I have reached out to for my classes and research include crisis communication professionals such as Jonathan Bernstein, Melissa Agnes, Rich Klein, Chris Syme, Tim Coombs, Jane Jordan Meier, Brad Phillips, and Karen Masullo and Jim Satterfield of Firestorm Solutions.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about where the social media and crisis communications field is heading. And as we continue the discussion, we are all going to have to come together to bridge research and practice, so that future generations of professionals have a balanced perspective on how to be effective in crisis communication.

Photo: Alan Cleaver via Flickr, CC 2.0

Karen Freberg

Karen Freberg is an assistant professor in Strategic Communications at the University of Louisville. She is also an adjunct faculty member for the West Virginia University IMC Graduate Online program. Freberg has presented at several U.S. and international research conferences, including ones in Australia, Brazil, China, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and The Netherlands.