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New Dynamics in Social and Crisis Communications

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This chapter explains how the real-time and mobile nature of social media continues to change the way in which businesses must deal with customers and handle PR situations.

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This chapter is from the book

Social media has caused a fundamental shift in how we communicate with each other. And it has caused a fundamental shift in how companies and governments interact with individuals. It is no longer solely top down or broadcasting out; rather, multiple layers of conversations and interactions are happening all at the same time.

When I think of business culture, I think of Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 film Metropolis. It gave us the imagery of man as a machine. The movie The Matrix updated that view for the digital age. The language and mindset of business have been filled with industrial references. Businesses are engineered. A chain of command is followed. Corporations are faceless. People are judged by their inputs and outputs. In many ways, the human has been taken out of business. But social media is reversing this image. It has revolutionized how people connect and interact with each other, as well as how they interact with companies.

These open, interactive attitudes of social media and the traditional business culture aren’t exactly well matched. The traditional culture is one of which is closed, hierarchical, and structured where group-think rules. Most organization’s management teams have not been able to keep pace with the explosion of social media usage. Being authentic, transparent, and engaging are discussed a lot in the world of business. Social media has forced businesses to not just use those words hollowly but actually put them into practice. This has resulted in a clash of culture in many organizations, according to Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, authors of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.1 This culture clash prevents many organizations from understanding and embracing social media as part of their business. The lack of understanding and acceptance of social media smarts in good times, and it really hurts in rough times.

Grant and Notter say that social media succeeded by abandoning the traditional mindset of our machine-based organizations and instead embracing ideas that are much more consistent with what it means to be human. One example is that relationships matter in social media. So does trust. So do things like meaning, humor, transparency, authenticity, and creativity.

We are moving away from the “command-and-control” culture of the mid-20th century. That culture where information was controlled by the top and pushed down in a well-ordered way, is crumbling. That model doesn’t work with social media. And it won’t work in a crisis today. Organizations can’t control what is being said, but they can control how they respond. Having an open and transparent organization, according to Grant and Notter, may help an organization avoid a crisis to begin with, and it definitely helps when a crisis does happen.

Real-Time Rules

It’s important to remember that social media happens in real-time. Shea Leordeanu, who handles media relations for FedEx, says that the speed of social media often outpaces actual time. And this is very true. Social media is immediate. And Leordeanu knows about the speed of social media. In 2011, Leordeanu and her team led FedEx through a social media crisis after a video was posted to YouTube, showing a delivery driver hurling a package over a gate. In Chapter 4, we will hear more about how Shea Leordeanu and FedEx successfully handled their social media crisis.

The speed of information travel on social media is truly amazing. Using publicly available social media data, Scott Hendrickson, Ph.D., principal data scientist at GNIP,2 is able to show how an event unfolds on a social media platform, specifically Twitter. There are two types of events: expected and unexpected. We can look at examples related to natural disasters to illustrate.

With today’s weather forecasting, a hurricane can be considered an expected event, while an earthquake can be classified as an unexpected one. By looking at the data in real time—which Hendrickson says is about 10 seconds from the time a user creates contact and when data can be analyzed—we can see a pattern with an expected event. By analyzing social data, Hendrickson is able to show distinct patterns for people’s reactions to breaking events. A curve develops. In the case of hurricanes, there is a slow buildup as the hurricane approaches. The intensity increases, peaking during the hurricane and then falling off quickly after the hurricane has passed. This curve is a tall peak with a long hump. The peak may last 15 minutes, with a half-life of 1 day (that is, slow decay). On the other hand, with an unexpected event such as an earthquake, there is no buildup. A spike happens immediately. Hundreds or thousands of people observe the earthquake and start writing about it. The decay of social volumes takes longer.

Not only does social media move at hyperspeed, but it is also an amplifier. In the old days, you had to worry about unhappy customers telling their friends. According to Dunbar’s number, a person can maintain stable social relationships with an average of 150 people, and most people have only a handful of close relationships.3 But then social media enters the scene, and word of mouth now has a megaphone.

Social media has allowed us to connect far beyond the people we know face-to-face or “in real life.” In 2011 Pew Internet and America Life Project completed a study about social networking sites and our lives. They found that the average American has 634 connections in his or her overall network.4 The more someone uses the Internet, the larger their network. Due to self-selection on Twitter and LinkedIn, users of those sites have greater overall connections. And smart phone users tend to have larger networks. The data at hand wasn’t able to pinpoint why that is the case. I suspect it is to have the technology at hand enabling them to stay connected and allowing for more interaction.5

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