Social media roles affecting information flow in a crisis still being defined


Twitter rocked the Dow Jones Industrial Average with a hacked news posting. Facebook served hundreds of people searching for loved ones at the scene of the Boston Marathon bombings. Then Reddit came under so much pressure and scrutiny for unbridled accusatory postings during the search for the Boston bombers that its operators apologized.

Social media in the crisis universe isn’t sure whether it’s an emerging planet or a flaming star, but its on fire for sure.

Allison Lichter, writing in Wall Street Journal, noted last week that Reddit contributors’ efforts to find the Boston bombers [FindBostonBombers] resulted in accusations of witch hunts and vigilantism.

The New York Times’ Bits blog today took on the Twitter issue. And its regular business pages discussed the Reddit mess. Reddit General Manager Erik Martin, shown looking particularly pained and dour in the accompanying picture, was forced to issue an apology.

“Activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”

Good apology. Doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. And, it gets in a plug [+1] for Reddit’s growth and reach.

Then, wrote the Times’ Leslie Kaufman:

Mr. Martin was unclear about how it might play out differently in the future. “We could have reminded people about our rules on the disclosure of personal information; we could have shut down the subReddit earlier than the moderators shut it down,” he suggested. (SubReddit is a name for a subject forum where a thread or threads of conversation develop on the site.)       

But, he added, except for higher vigilance and a moderation of discussion “tone,” the site was not ready to institute new rules of behavior. “Reddit is a sort of attention aggregator,” he said. “It can tell you what to pay attention to, but it is certainly not a replacement for news reporting.”

These are new frontiers that took an extraordinary event like the bombings to cross. Few envisioned them.

Yet the point of any crisis planning, management or avoidance strategy is to broadly undertake just such an assessment. Is it possible that innocent people, via social media, can get pulled into a crisis maelstrom they otherwise have nothing to do with? Could blame fall on the wrong company, CEO or crisis initiator? And if it does, compounding an already difficult time, what will a crisis manager do about it?

Even the most informed social media savant can only guess at where social media excess or liability may emerge next. But any crisis manager paying attention surely realizes that social media will compound and muddy the multiple issues that already need dealing with in a crisis.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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