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Technology and social media: A two-way street.

By Rob Shimmin.

In late July, the UK’s PR Week published its 2016 Communication Directors survey. Top priority for 52% of respondents was protecting the company’s brand against crises and issues and 72% felt their organisation managed issues and crises well. What’s interesting is a glance over to the responses around social media. The survey said: “Despite the huge, and growing, importance of social media in the communications mix for any company in 2016, only 17 per cent of those surveyed said their organisation had been completely effective in meeting this challenge.”

‘Completely effective’ is a lofty target, but how might companies and for that matter emergency services up their game in the way they use social media in a crisis? At its most basic level, crisis managers see the power of social media as a channel to distribute information in a crisis quickly, with the ever present fear that with expediency comes potential loss of control.

In this article, I want to consider technology and social media’s potential as a two-way street when managing a crisis. An engaged public can be a hugely powerful force in resolving a problem, the challenge is getting them engaged in the first place and then harnessing that energy effectively. Let’s start with human nature and the good in us that triggers our desire to help when something bad happens.

Harnessing the conscious desire to help

Giving blood. In the immediate aftermath of 911 a call went out for Americans to give blood. Like a lightning rod, there was an opportunity for the desire to help to be turned into action. The result was the swamping of blood donor booths, vital resources were diverted to managing the influx of volunteers, time and energy was wasted disposing of vast quantities of unwanted blood and the credibility of the American Red Cross was damaged. So the public were engaged but the input became hard to manage. The learning from this has to be ‘careful what you wish for’. It’s hard to predict what’s going to fizzle on social media and what’s going to go viral. If a call to action will create problems should it go viral it’s worth reconsidering the need to launch it.

Safety pins. On 23 July this year the UK public voted to leave the EU. The UK’s Indy100 quoted a UK Tory Member of Parliament Simon Hoare saying a “racism genie” appears to have been let out of the bottle as a consequence. He may be right. The National Police Chief’s Council reported a 57% increase in reports to an online hate crime reporting site immediately after the vote as compared to a month before. The sense was the majority of attacks were aimed at immigrants with the gist of the message being…we voted leave, go home. An American woman living in London has come up with an interesting conduit for that pent-up desire to do something to help. Wear an empty safety pin to symbolise solidarity against racism.

What works well with this call to action is that it gives a voice to the normally silent majority and may do more than simply identify a safe person to sit next to on a bus. One learning from the study of herd mentality is that there is safety in numbers. If safety pins became so prevalent that it became clear those advocating racism are in the minority, there may be progress towards silencing it.

I’m safe. Working for Ogilvy years ago I got a call from my CEO ‘congratulating’ me on the highest single monthly mobile phone bill in the history of the company. I’d attended a one-day meeting in Chicago on September 11th 2001. The vast majority of calls were inbound from the UK with friends and relatives checking on my wellbeing. Today, the instant desire to know loved ones are OK when disaster strikes is more easily catered for with Facebook’s “Safe” button.

It’s hard to quantify the easement of pressure on call centres managing calls from relatives unable to reach loved ones via a mobile phone network that’s fallen over through call volume. Data takes a fraction of the bandwidth of a call.

Dashcam data. The TV show ‘You’ve been framed’, encourages the public to send in home video clips of fun disasters. Incredibly, the £250 payment per clip has remained unchanged since the show launched in 1990 – why is that? GoPros, dash cams and smartphones are now so prevalent that volumes of clips have gone through the roof. That means that wherever there is a crisis or issue that can be helped by digital witnesses, the public are likely to have something to offer. Take the attempted abduction of a jogging serviceman close to RAF Marham on 20 July this year. Someone, somewhere will have either the vehicle or the abductors caught on a dash cam. Similarly, the crash of a vintage Hunter jet at the Shoreham Air Show elicited calls from the Air Accident Investigation Branch for any members of the public to share their footage to help piece together the last movements of the aircraft.

Trusted peer group. It’s said customers expect companies to have problems from time to time, it is how they deal with them that builds loyalty. So how best to harness that loyalty when you need it most? I’ve worked on a number of crises where a global brand has been hit by an issue, the share price has collapsed and public confidence is at an all-time low. Often the challenge is how to reassure a minority of worried customers without ‘spooking’ a majority of unconcerned customers.

You have to work fast with specific actions to shore-up trust but social media can be a powerful weapon in demonstrating that trust is returning. Seeing friends and family posting their ongoing support of the company provides more reassurance than any CEO saying “Don’t worry, it will be fine.” You can spend a fortune on above-the-line media to show you’re ‘alive and kicking’ but often a fraction of that spend directed at encouraging customers to share their recent purchase can drive the message home with far greater credibility.

Harnessing help from those giving it unconsciously

Giving blood, wearing a safety pin or showing your allegiance to a brand under fire are all conscious actions that harness the desire to help. Sometimes we can help without any conscious effort. It’s amazing the amount of data we generate in our wake as we go through our daily lives. Smart phones and wearable technology are driving opportunities for individuals to contribute data that can inform decisions in a crisis. This is interesting because it’s unconscious help and with it comes a host of concerns around privacy.

Jawbone quake data. Take a look at this fascinating graph. It shows the percentage of wearers of Jawbone who were awake at given points through the night of the biggest earthquake in Northern California’s Bay Area for 25 years. The locations shown are at differing distances from the epicentre and show clearly where people were woken by the quake and where they pretty much slept through.

In some ways you could argue that this was a brave release to send out. It adds colour and data to an event but also reminds people that they are generating data that’s ‘potentially’ personal to them. Where the trust comes in is in believing (correctly) that Jawbone is not interested in which individual woke up when, just the big picture of wakefulness vs distance from the earthquake.

The privacy benefit trade off.

I paraphrase, but a one-liner I’ve always liked is: “If the product is attractive and free…then you are the product.” Often the data kicked off by use of a product is sufficiently valuable to enable the provider to offer it ‘seemingly for free. Apple Pay, debit card and smartcard technology are all helping transport system providers build an increasingly vivid picture of the paths and timings taken by the tidal waves of commuters moving in and out of our cities. It is essential and anonymous data used to help reduce bottle necks and incentivise off-peak travel and can also be very helpful in times of crisis.

I remember driving towards London on 7/7/2005 and seeing a dot matrix motorway sign with the unforgettable message: “Avoid London Area Closed”

Options were limited at this point, but imagine if I could have received that message by text before I even set off? The trade-off for such valuable information would be me giving up a little privacy. Lose an unregistered Oyster card and the value on it is lost forever. Share a little information about yourself and not only do you get the money back but you open your door to very helpful alerts and advice on transport options that will get you to work faster. Sometimes the single biggest way to help in a crisis is to heed an early call to simply stay away from an area. Early contact of those likely to be on their way can speed that process.

So as you plan for your next crisis, think laterally about who might be inclined to help and why. Think about how technology and social media might be harnessed to engage a public showing signs they’d like to help you resolve your problem.

Shimmin Communications

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