The methods and means that exist for effective crisis management have become largely inadequate for dealing with some of the catastrophic natural disasters that many countries around the world have been forced to cope with. From the destructive forces of tsunamis in Japan, to the crippling effects of earthquakes that decimated the country of Haiti, assistance came in large part as a result of social media platforms. From the ability to locate missing children, to the efficacy with which they can orchestrate the delivery of essential supplies, many social media platforms have served as the backbone for efforts in providing aid to these ravaged countries. Still, concerns surrounding the reliability of validity of information disseminated in this manner cause many to assert that gravitating towards crisis management policy to this effect is a terrible mistake. Additionally, costs associated with such a shift must be taken into consideration as providing mobile broadband support on a large scale could represent a significant expenditure, even for government financed entities. Ultimately, it seems the bulk of research into social media integration as a means of more effective crisis management presents strong arguments for such shifts in policy.
The twenty-first century affords society myriad opportunities that simply were not available to the masses 10 or 15 year ago. More importantly, the onset and fire-sweeping popularity of many social-media websites such as MySpace, and later Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit, have exponentially impacted the speeds and avenues via which people can communicate with one another. No longer must individuals run to a pay phone and deposit quarters for only a few brief minutes of conversation with loved ones or colleagues. Rather, modern cell phones and other wi-fi enabled devices provide people the opportunity to contact anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time, day or night. While these advances might have inadvertently spawned an entire subgroup of introverted individuals who, rather than socializing in bars or at other local gatherings, would prefer to remain in the solace of their home, the world at their fingertips, such is not the topic of this paper. Instead, this paper examines how the ever-increasingly streamlined processes of broadband communication via cellular networks and the Internet have completely transformed how societies communicate. Moreover, the significance of improvements in the mechanisms and ease with which smartphones provide broadband communications, with respect to many of the most popular social media websites, has a tremendous bearing on the management of emergency situations. In particular, social media platforms provide two significant advantages in the relay of information when compared to their more traditional counterparts.
Historical methods of crisis management have remained relatively constant throughout the past few decades. Inasmuch as they were structured, the management policies that have pervaded crisis response literature in past years have focused on a few key points. Foremost among the recommendations from experts in the field was the importance of “optimizing access to information”, although this often proved difficult simply as a matter of technological limitation (Adrot & Moriceau 2013). More recently, those in the field of crisis management have emphasized how more readily available, up-to-date, content access can significantly enhance to the efficacy of an organization’s disaster management policy (Adrot & Moriceau 2013). Not necessarily by design, many organizations have recently acknowledged improvements to their policies from the integration of various social media platforms and other public forums of expression.
Enter Social Media. Social media platforms, perhaps more than any other medium, have some distinct advantages in the mass transmission and dissemination of information to the public. One advantage of breaking a news story via platforms like YouTube or Twitter is the almost immediate, and sometimes overwhelming, response often generated from users around the world. For example, events like the genocide in Darfur went largely unnoticed by the general public until celebrity George Clooney and his father smuggled cameras into the region and began posting videos to YouTube. Despite having begun in 2003, the horrors in the Darfur region of Sudan were not widely publicized by the mainstream media in the United States. And when the 3/11 earthquake smashed the shores of Japan, it was through Twitter messages that many of the breaking updates were communicated, with tweets using the word ‘earthquake’ totaling more than 246,000 by the end of the day, Friday (Global citizens 2011). These scenarios demonstrate some of the most relevant benefits of social media platforms as they pertain to handling crises: when utilized correctly, user-driven websites like YouTube and Twitter have the uncanny ability to create widespread awareness of situations that might otherwise never see the light of day. However, such platforms may yet possess an even more valuable contribution to society in the arena of crisis management.
More so than even the ability to generate awareness of crises around the globe, social media platforms greatly accelerate the mechanisms associated with traditional news broadcasting. For example, 30 years ago breaking news was first reported to a news organization from an anonymous caller, or what have you, and then transmitted from the news organization to nearby journalists, assuming they could be located or contacted at all. If there were no affiliates of the news organization nearby, journalists were driven in or flown in to report on the situation. Of course, this was a somewhat lengthy process because once on scene, camera crews still had to setup the necessary equipment and establish connections before the public could be informed on whatever events were transpiring. But with the advent of twitter, a picture taken with a camera phone, along with a heading of 140 characters or less, could be instantaneously translated into ‘news’ in a matter of seconds. One article comments how in recent years, Twitter has emerged a source of news broadcasting that represents the potential for offering detailed, real-time data in times of disaster that is simply beyond the realm of possibility for the more conventional procedures in journalism (Rogstadius et al. 2013). Furthermore, it has been noted that the brevity inherent in Twitter ‘tweets’ compels the user to compose messages that are focused on the most pertinent information and avoid unnecessary fluff (Schultz, Utz, & Göritz 2011). And while in the past, a news station’s number of content subscribers limited the number of people that they could reach, the only constraint to reaching more people on social media websites today is the quality of a user’s, or in this case of news station’s, content. As such, when news of something like the Boston Marathon attack hits social media websites, the response is nothing short of overwhelming, often generating millions of page views and subsequent transmissions in only a matter of hours. In the end, it is these factors of speed and awareness that make crisis management via social media platforms a superior form of management. During times of crisis, people need facts and constant updates, and they need them quickly. In this regard, there are few options for speedily and efficiently communicating major world events that compare with the capabilities of social media platforms.
Benefits of Social Media Integration. The surge in popularity of social media websites like Twitter has contributed infinitely more to society than mere IPO profits or smart opportunities for growth investments. In times of crisis, the delays that result from getting word of recent developments, relaying the information to newsrooms, and finally broadcasting it on television are often far too inadequate to stay abreast of the updates as they come in. As such, social media websites often represent the quickest avenue via which news agencies can quickly and efficiently keep their viewers up to date on any breaking news. In fact, one article from Mnookin and Qu reported one journalist as stating that following the Boston Marathon attack, the ensuing manhunt and updates as to the progress of the search were provided to the public almost exclusively through the journalist’s twitter account (2013). Moreover, the article states that despite the journalist’s experience of having worked in nearly every kind of print outlet, as well as having written for blogs, webzines, and newsweeklies, he felt that the events which transpired in Boston ultimately demonstrated that in certain circumstances, social media simply has no rival in terms of its ability to efficiently and seamlessly update a large audience on breaking news developments (Mnookin & Qu 2013). Still, traditional journalism has its place as another piece from Editor and Publisher relates that when events like this are taking place, old-fashioned newspapers cannot afford to prioritize one method of coverage over the next. The article goes on to assert that coverage via social media platforms is just as important as formal, on the scene interviews and other traditional forms of journalism, even when the latter are not necessarily on par with the time-values of the former (K. 2013). Even before the tragedy of the Boston Marathon though, there were multiple large-scale incidents throughout the world that were largely made public as a result of updates from social-media websites.
The 2010 Earthquake in Haiti represented some of the most innovative strategies in which social media avenues were utilized to facilitate the delivery of essential supplies in the aftermath of the disaster. Specifically, mobile-based texting services were employed to not only bolster the possibility of trapped or stranded individuals finding the means via which to communicate their distress, but also in terms of generating donations to aid in the cleanup of the disaster. In particular, the 4636-texting service, created by Ushahidi.com, was pivotal in the efficient and timely delivery of necessary supplies to local treatment centers, as well as in regard to tracking down individuals who were rendered immobile as a result of the earthquake. One article notes that the texting service operated at such high levels of efficiency that one Haitian clinic received fuel for its generator only 20 minutes after having texted 4636 for help (Mullins 2010). Unfortunately, the social media integration with respect to the crisis in Haiti was not without its mishaps. One such rumor that began to circulate in the days immediately following the quake was that UPS would ship any package under 50 pounds to Haiti for free (Oh, Kwon & Rao 2010). Similar rumors then began to emerge articulating that airlines were also willing to fly, free of charge, any medical personnel who wished to volunteer their services in assisting Haitian medical staff (Oh, Kwon & Rao 2010). Still, while such instances illustrate the potential for the spread of erroneous information, many would argue that the concrete benefits stemming from programs like 4636 far outweigh the potential misunderstandings that might arise between social media followers and airline or parcel companies. Interestingly, the possibility of an earthquake presents an ideal scenario through which to examine many other potential benefits of social media utilization.
A prime example of the benefits stemming from the incorporation of social media outlets during a crisis lie in an examination of what might happen if an earthquake of similar magnitude were ever to strike a major U.S. city. While many people might find themselves trapped beneath the debris of previously standing structures or simply unable to call for help because there is no one around, it is likely that while mobile telephone networks would likely be jammed, most would still be able to get a message out for help in the form of a twitter message or Facebook post (Dawson, Hill & Bank 2013). In fact, multiple studies even went as far as to conclude that because of the widespread success the average person experiences using Twitter during emergency crises, a government priority moving forward should focus on improved integration of social media platforms for crisis management situations (Helsloot & Groenendaal 2013, Ruggiero & Vos 2013). Perhaps in response to such suggestions, the U.S. military decided to expand its communication horizons. In 2010, the Navy, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, contracted San Diego State University to experiment with “coordinated information sharing tools, techniques, and procedures…”a program now known as X24 that has since been implemented in a number of matters of national security (Lundquist 2011). Still, Palen et al. reiterate the imperative that traditional crisis management systems not be completely abandoned, and that a blending of conventional and social media-based management directives is the optimal approach to integrating social media in times of crisis (Palen et al. 2010). Clearly though, it seems a disconnect exists between society’s and corporations’ understandings of the impact of social media integration during such times.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of crisis management with regards to social media platforms is the idea that not only do they serve as a means of relaying information from within an organization to the masses, but that it is also highly valuable as a means of channeling information from the masses to those in the journalism industry. As one article puts it, it is important to remember that social media is a two-way road, capable of serving as a means for both outward transmissions of information as well as for receptions of information (Jin, Fisher & Austin 2011). So, while many organizations seem to have adapted quite well to the process of publishing news updates via social media avenues, many have yet to fully utilize the aggregating capabilities of such platforms as relates to information from multiple sources. In analyzing the dynamics of social media platforms though, it is apparent that such platforms are valuable in that they offer the unique combination of information flows from a wide variety of people in a wide variety of places, all of which culminates in a single, organized stream of data.
Another often-overlooked component of the world of social media that might significantly improve the management of crises is the use of wikis. Unlike Twitter or Facebook accounts that allow only one user to post updates and information to his or her account, Wikis allow multiple user posts that other users see as a single fluid collaboration rather than multiple posts from multiple users. More specifically, Phillipe Borremans explains that wikis are simply websites that allows multiple individuals to make edits and revisions via simple word processing programs, all in a secure environment (Borremans 2010). While at first glance it might seem that wikis have only a fraction of the appeal of other social media platforms, in terms of access to a large audience, the fact that multiple users—and by extension, multiple sources of information—can all collaborate and update a single web page, the overall concept of aggregating multiple information streams into a single location tends to hold. In that regard, wikis have the potential to be just as useful as other social media platforms when tragic, catastrophic events threaten the livelihood of large portions of the population.
Ancillary Benefits. Still, even events that may not merit the attention of international journalists still have the ability of garnering the attention of millions through social media platforms. Just a few years ago in early 2011, Twitter activity was largely responsible for the reuniting of missing 16-year old Faisal Fri with is family in India after only three hours of being reported as missing (Smith 2011). According to the article, the boys name and a picture were uploaded to Twitter with the instructions to contact his father (Smith 2011). Even though neither Faisal nor anyone in his circle of friends or family had any contacts in the celebrity or show business world, the tweet to find a missing boy in India actually reached the top of Twitter’s Top Tweet list after a plethora or re-tweets. Other research has concluded that schools might find Twitter particularly efficient when attempting to reach alumni or inform a large number of people regarding potentially tragic situations taking place at the institution, or concerning events that have already transpired, such as the death of a student (Garran 2013). Again, while these situations do not necessarily represent the management of large-scale crises, they nonetheless convey the usefulness of taking advantage of the mass users of social media platforms.
Moreover, websites like Facebook and Twitter have been employed during crisis situations that may not present as much widespread danger to the general public as earthquakes or civil wars, but which still represent a direct threat to the well being of people’s lives. In 2008 for example, a Berkeley photographer detained in Egypt for illegally photographing a protest near Cairo was eventually released after tweeting that he had been arrested to his followers, who then forwarded the information to the university (Perkins 2010). The following year, a pair of girls who found themselves “trapped in a storm sewer” were able to get help by updating the statuses of their Facebook profiles (Perkins 2010). Again, while the systemic danger of such situations in these instances was far less than that associated with more traditional threats to a population’s safety, they still illustrate the benefits that social media integration can provide when incorporated into crisis situations.
An interesting side-effect of the recent trend towards turning to social media websites in an effort to better get a handle on the publicity of crisis situations is the effect that such outpourings can have on those whose responsibility it is to manage such situations. The flooding in 2010 that plagued the state of Queensland in Australia illustrated some of the ancillary effects of social media platforms with respect to how the inflow of information can affect the management decisions and priorities of those in charge. An article from Bussy and Paterson commented on the impacts that public sentiment had on the media outlets in the region, concluding that, rather than the media influencing the agenda of the public, the public was able to influence the agenda of the media using Twitter to aim their discourse at public figures like Premier Anna Bligh and Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Bussy & Paterson 2012). What is most remarkable about the manner in which these events transpired was not that the public was able to sway the agenda of the mainstream media—though this a rather significant accomplishment in and of itself—but that they had done so not with official legislation proposals or petitions with thousands of signatures, but simply by voicing their concerns on a free social media platform. However, as has already been briefly discussed, the incorporation of social media into crisis management policies does present certain problems inherent to the technology.
Disadvantages. Unfortunately, there are instances where social media tends to cloud the situation at hand, rather than providing clarity or promoting any kind of efficient communication. Perhaps the most recent example of this kind of mishap occurred in the days immediately following the bombing of the Boston Marathon when the perpetrator, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was able to temporarily allude authorities after the social-media website Reddit mistakenly identified another individual, missing college student Sunil Tripathi, as the bomber (Hodson 2013). Reddit is a website that lets registered users submit links to news stories that other users then vote ‘up’ or ‘down’ to determine the link’s ranking on the news home page. However, after the bombing of the Boston Marathon, it served as a means of obstructing justice when its users misidentified the individual, they believed was responsible for the attack. While this is one of only a handful of instances where social media worked against the efforts of law enforcement and other concerned citizens, it still highlights a considerable risk of implementing such unorthodox mechanisms of crisis management, despite the well-intentioned efforts of the users responsible for the ordeal.
In assuring that social media platforms are properly utilized there is another component that must be addressed. In order to avoid some of the mistakes associated with social media misuse during the Boston Marathon attack, Veil, Buehner and Palenchar in their 2011 article elaborated on 11 steps administrations should adhere to when employing social media platforms during times of crisis (Veil, Buehner & Palenchar 2011). Among them, taking measures to ensure that only the most credible sources are shared or followed, as well as understanding that social media is neither a Panacea nor a novel means of communication are some of the most important things to take into consideration in determining whether or not to utilize such methods of communication (119). Other research commented on the managing capabilities inherent in social media platforms, as speedy updates via Twitter can serve as a means of relaying mass instructions, or adjustments to previous posts, in addition to providing more efficient means of news coverage (Veil & Ojeda 2010). This notion was corroborated in an article from Schmidt and Chase that noted the importance of organizations monitoring social media feeds for any information that is incorrect or otherwise incomplete as concerns their organization (Schmidt & Chase 2013). While access to the perspectives of millions of individuals regarding crisis developments can be invaluable, there are certain drawbacks in relation to the factual nature of such information that necessitate investigation.
Additionally, while the benefits of social media implementation can be far-reaching, there also exists a distinct possibility that employing such avenues of communication might backfire, and should such consequences materialize, the damages can be quite catastrophic. Put frankly, one article articulates that in the digital world, bad news travels fast, so once a news story breaks on the web there can be challenges in maintaining control of the situation, especially if the information is inaccurate (Boeri 2013). In China in 2012 for example, a fire that killed ten people was touted as having a much higher death toll when users of Weibo flooded the social media website with speculation about the validity of such claims (Denis-Remis, Lebraty & Phillipe 2013). Elaborating on this dynamic though, Boeri suggests that organizations implement a RACI matrix concerning social media integration, where people are identified as Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed in relation to a given crisis, as well as concerning the implications of opting to exploit social media platforms (Boeri 2013). The premise behind such programs is that many times, suggestions for implementing various forms of social media websites in the handling, maintenance, or resolution of a given crisis situation are often provided without any substantial evidence as to their efficacy. Because social media is simply “in” at this juncture in the 21st century, recommendations might be issued on the basis that ‘eveyone is using it’, rather than providing concrete, evidence-backed research confirming or disaffirming the potential for improvement of incorporating such means of communication. This is neither an appropriate suggestion in professional settings nor a respectable one when such matters pertain to the well being of hundreds or potentially even thousands or tens of thousands of people’s lives.
Ultimately, the efficacy, efficiency, and applicability of social media platforms in relation to the management of crises is a discussion that is far reaching and not quite yet definitive concerning the net benefits or drawbacks of such policies. While many of the benefits of implementing a management strategy that takes advantage of social media platforms have been herein elaborated on, there are many facets of such a process that must be better examined to determine whether advantages outweigh potential costs, both from a managerial perspective as well as from a monetary standpoint. While indeed many of the aforementioned platforms are free to users around the world, there are costs associated with implementing such platforms on a company-wide, statewide, or national scale.
Additionally, further research should explore the possibility of implementing social media websites into the structure of crisis management processes with respect to how it might ultimately affect the efficacy and economic stability of organizations. For example, while there are few who can contend with the benefits of integrating social media platforms like Twitter into crisis management processes, many questions to what degree such implementations should be integrated. Whether such platforms should replace the primary methods for handling crisis situations or simply compliment the existing structures is a question that has yet to be determined. Furthermore, the costs associated with providing members or volunteers mobile cellular means of communication might represent a cost to that is simply infeasible for organizations like The Red Cross or F.E.M.A, even despite their national funding. Ultimately though, research is strongly inclined towards a more mainstream integration of social media platforms to aid in the management of crisis situations on local, national, and worldwide arenas.
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