Monday, September 30, 2013

The Role of Social Media in Crisis Situations

Last week, social media and advocacy were being discussed in class. The use of social media has drastically changed the way in which we obtain information related to crisis situations. Nowadays, legitimate news sources aren’t the only channels that people are gaining information from. The general population now has equal ability to publish their stories online. In doing so, the Internet has become a forum for people to comment on and discuss the news. While many view this as a positive aspect of new communications technology, one should still be wary of the legitimacy of any information posted online. 

There are a few questions that should be considered when obtaining information about a crisis situation through social media. Though one should always think critically when absorbing news in general, it is especially important to do so when the information is coming from online sources. First of all, there is the issue involving the accuracy of reporting. Who gets the correct news out first? How do you verify information that is put out on social media? Can the social media news feeds maintained by the news agencies be trusted? Is the information posted on social media by the “people” (general public) trustworthy? Is it the public’s role to discern between the truth and the not-so-true? These are all vital questions that need to be kept in mind while absorbing the news, as literally anyone with an Internet connection nowadays is able post whatever they feel like posting via social media. 

I can relate to this issue with a recent personal example. Upon waking from a nap during the afternoon of April 15th, 2013 (napping during the middle of exam week - classic behaviour), I groggily opened my laptop to check my Twitter feed. It was flooded with retweets from popular newsrooms, celebrities offering condolences, and comments from real-life friends... all about a tragedy unfolding in Boston. As soon as I realized what all the commotion was about, I began to search the web for news articles related to the situation at hand. Twitter could only offer me so much information; I needed to do some research on my own accord. It is important to note, however, that Twitter was the first channel through which I heard about the Boston Marathon Bombing. Personally, this method of news obtainment is not an uncommon practice. I do not own a TV (even when I did have access to television, I would rarely watch it), I do not subscribe to or read a physical newspaper, and throughout the day I rarely browse news channel websites. Casually scrolling through my various social media news feeds is how I’ve been coming across news updates (major and minor) recently. This practice became even more typical after receiving an iPhone about a year and a half ago. Now, all of my favourite social media apps (as well as legitimate newsroom apps) are in the palm of my hand, ready to be browsed on the go. Even just a few years ago, the way I found out about major events was drastically different than how I do today. The rise of social media and the popularity of smartphones has altered the way in which we go about obtaining our news. We live in a high-tech, fast-paced world; social media is showing no signs of slowing down. 

Tragedy Strikes Ottawa

Yesterday was a tragic day in the city of Ottawa. During the regular morning commute in the South-West part of the region, at 8:48AM, an OC Transpo city bus barreled through the guard rail at a crossing and collided with a VIARail passenger train. Six people have been confirmed among the fatalities, while there are still many injured victims being treated at local hospitals. 

As both a university student and resident of Ottawa myself, the news of the accident hit very close to home. People from all walks of life take public transit everyday in order to arrive at their destinations - a convenient way to travel in a city congested with vehicular traffic. While the results of this event are both horrifying and unfathomable, I couldn’t help but wonder how OC Transpo, as a company, would respond to this crisis. How would this affect their reputation? How would this affect their sales? While I can safely speculate that the public relations team working for OC Transpo has their hands full for the time being, the public relations and social media role for many prominent figures in the community and industry have come to a head as well.
Emergency dispatchers weren’t the only ones quick to respond to the traumatic event. Many local and national politicians, or the people who work for them, were jumping onto social media websites (such as Twitter) to express their condolences. Mayor Jim Watson and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were among the first to make announcements publicly online, about 45 minutes after tragedy struck. 
While crises typically occur unexpectedly, it is not an excuse for a professional within the industry to be unprepared. A critical aspect of public relations and communications within a company or an organization is to develop a crisis management plan before disasters occur. Public relations professionals must expect the unexpected, and they do this by implementing methods to create plans. The “R.A.C.E. Method” is commonly used in the world of public relations in order to develop strategies and plans that will get messages across clearly and effectively. 
The R.A.C.E. Method implements the use of research, analysis, communication, and evaluation. During the research process, one must ask what the problem is, what one is trying to achieve, what is currently going on, and what the current perception of a situation is. Tools such as surveys, focus groups, interviews, audits, stats, and media monitoring are commonly used in order to answer these questions. Secondly, an analysis of this data is done. One defines objectives, identifies target audiences, and develops key messages. During the communication process, a strategy must be developed (as well as a method to measure the effectiveness of this strategy). A budget must be implemented as well. Finally, when it comes to evaluation, a PR team must look back on their communication plan in order to develop it further and better it, if possible. 
It does seem, however, that the city of Ottawa was well prepared for this kind of emergency situation (at least, that’s what the city is implying). In my opinion, I believe that the PR reps for local and national politicians are doing a very good job given the current situation at hand. Assuming they already had a crisis management plan in place, the PR reps have responded to the needs of citizens by efficiently and effectively making public announcements for their clients in relation to the events. Hopefully this excellent work ethic continues as news reports and new information about the case keeps popping up over the next few weeks. As stressful as these traumatic situations are, if public relations professionals have a crisis communications plan set up and ready to go before tragedy strikes, they will be in for a much smoother ride indeed.

An Introduction

Hello everyone,

My name is Leanne, a second-year university student studying Public Relations at the University of Ottawa. Besides that, I'm also a coffee and hummus-addicted synchronized swimmer (go Gee-Gees!) with an affinity for nail polish, fashion magazines, and rock concerts. This blog post is the start of an ongoing project for my Public Relations Seminar class. Over the course of the next semester (or so), this is where I will be gathering and posting my questions, comments, concerns, and general ponderings of the world of public relations as I continue to develop my knowledge in this engaging academic field.

As a Wikipedia, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr enthusiast, the impact that social media and the Internet have been having around the world (especially within the past decade) is of particular interest to me. I also enjoy learning about the history of communications technology; I'm amazed at how far we've come as a society in such little time.

As I'm currently planning on pursuing a career in public relations or in a related media field, I look forward to absorbing everything this class has to offer. Thanks for reading, there's plenty more to come!