About the Crisis Leadership Forum

To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Hurricane Katrina. We overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership. This blog site is intended to continue this conversation.

To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.

To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Helpful Tool or Rumor Mill 2.0: The Role of Social Media in Crisis Communication

It’s commonly assumed that when it comes to communication that more is better. But if we look closely at what that assumption means regarding how people behave within organizations and how leaders function during crises, it’s relatively easy to find evidence suggesting that more isn’t better. In fact, too much information can greatly exacerbate ambiguity within organizations and, during a crisis, incite panic among external stakeholders.

Consider the current buzz surrounding the H1N1 influenza virus, the so-called “swine flu.” It’s getting a great deal of attention—as it should—from major news outlets around the world. For example, a Google News search of the keyword H1N1 at 1:10 p.m. EST on April 30 yielded 77,337 results within the last hour alone. Combine that coverage with millions of people sharing it and discussing it on social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and you have an incredible amount of information bouncing around cyberspace. Yet the question remains: During crises, are social media and Internet-based technologies helpful tools? Or do they make the problem worse by functioning like a high-tech rumor mill?

Certainly, arguments exist for both sides. The Internet and social media make information dissemination extraordinarily fast. Tech-savvy leaders during crises could potentially use sites like Twitter to provide stakeholders with useful updates that ensure wide dissemination of information.

It’s also plausible that people may become overloaded with contradictory or erroneous information, and that specific pieces of information may unduly influence people’s perceptions. Additionally, the Internet and social media may encourage users to gauge a crisis’ severity incorrectly and take inappropriate action. For example, it’s a distinct possibility that people may hoard personal stashes of the influenza medication Tamiflu, greatly hindering public-health efforts.

So how should leaders use the Internet and social media during crises? Or should they even use these tools at all? The answers to those questions are complex, but perhaps leaders could start by recognizing the Internet and social media outlets for what they are—tools. And like any tool, they are only as good as the way in which they are used. Maybe leaders should start with understanding the important messages they need to communicate, the audiences that they need to reach, and then wisely employ the most appropriate technologies accordingly.

At the very least, it behooves leaders to understand what tools are available and strategize how best they might use them before crisis strikes—remembering, of course, that (a) more information isn’t always better and (b) anything disseminated via the Web has the propensity to spread like wildfire.

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