Citizen Journalism’s Impact on Crisis Management

One need only catch a breaking news event to see citizen journalism’s dramatic impact on today’s society.

When a young man rammed his car into a gathering of students at The Ohio State University and then started attacking people with a knife, Facebook posts showing students barricading themselves in classrooms were on the air within the first news cycle. Some of the first up-close images from the crime scene were taken by students posting pictures on their social channels.

Bystander videos of recent police shootings of unarmed suspects have placed law enforcement organizations across the country under a microscope of media scrutiny. News organizations like CNN are even offering viewers advice on how to participate: “Once you’re in a safe place, you can get your story to us by posting on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook with the hashtag #CNNiReport.”

The shifting landscape is also impacted by the way consumers get their news. According to a 2016 study from the Pew Research Institute, 62 percent of adults get news on social media, up from 49 percent in 2012. Online channels have now surpassed both radio and print as the preferred channel for news among Americans. With 72 percent of the U.S. population carrying smartphones, technology is now enabling consumers to access news no matter where they are, any time of day.

That technology also has empowered a new generation to take a more active role in sharing news. I often remind CEOs that at this very moment, dozens of citizen journalists are walking their office halls waiting for their 15 seconds of fame.

As some organizations have discovered the hard way, this trend has a tremendous impact on a crisis team’s ability to respond to an emerging crisis. Today’s digital platforms enable citizen journalists to report “live from the scene” faster than news organizations can arrive on the scene.

They have also opened a pathway for some to spread fake news to further their cause. Social platforms provide unfiltered access to breaking news events in a fashion never experienced before. The speed in which a company needs to be prepared to respond has shifted from hours to minutes.

Unfortunately, far too many CEOs aren’t ready to respond that rapidly. Through PadillaCRT’s Crisis IQ tool, we recently gathered data on 75 organizations from multiple industries about their ability to respond quickly to a crisis situation.

The results were humbling:

42 percent of respondents had never or rarely practiced their crisis response plan.

Only 18 percent believed they would be able to have an approved statement ready to go within the first 30 minutes.

Fewer than 30 percent noted that they were prepared to respond on social media within 15 minutes.

Far too many organizations are choosing to wing it in an era where social media and digital platforms can spread misinformation like wildfire. While social media trends and technology can certainly create challenges, they also create opportunities for the company that is prepared to take advantage of them. It simply requires a different mindset to managing a crisis, one that demands a willingness to play offense rather than defense.

The explosion of the internet and new technology platforms have created a need for an endless stream of content. That is especially true during a crisis event. With a demand to fill time or space, journalists will jump on any speck of new information so they can demonstrate that they are first or have the “latest” information. This creates an opportunity for those in the eye of the storm to feed that beast with information and images that guide the story down a more accurate path.

The key is you have to be ready before the crisis strikes. All it takes is to follow three simple steps:

Message for your primary threats now

Every organization that I have worked with already knows the primary threats facing the company. Very few of them have taken that information and acted upon it from a communications perspective.

We counsel our clients to create issues papers that identify the preventative steps taken to mitigate the risk, the high-level action steps to address the situation, as well as the key messages that we would use to address the issue.

The documents not only give them a head start in speeding up their response, but they also provide a level of confidence to senior leadership that you have a plan of action to address the threat.

Utilize social channels to tell your story

While today’s digital tools can accelerate the spread of news, they also create opportunities to take your story directly to the consumer instead of depending on others to tell your story.

We recommend that companies develop dark sites on at least their number one threat so they can launch a website dedicated to the issue within the first hour. At first, these sites focus on the actions and plans you have in place to address the issue including images and videos that can be shared on social platforms.

For instance, in cases regarding product recalls, the website may discuss the organization’s quality control efforts, include video of the production process and cover steps the company takes to ensure a safe supply chain.

Leverage your own citizen journalists

One of the great values of having strong social media platforms is the benefit of fans defending your brand in a crisis. After devastating tornados slammed Tuscaloosa, Alabama Power encouraged their followers to post images of their crews working day and night to restore power to counter critics complaining that it was taking too long. Within a few hours, pictures were popping up from across the region featuring positive comments from customers about the sacrifices the crews were making to turn the lights back on.

Another advantage of playing offense in a crisis situation is the ability to quickly counter misinformation caused by the citizen journalist.

With the right digital tools in place, your team will have the ability to offer a different perspective based on fact, not fiction.

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s, January 2017 – Crisis Communications Issue. 

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