Crisis communications and fake news

Below is a blog that I was asked to contribute to Social Sign In as part of a series of blogs from a range of companies they work with on:

Social Media Best Practices for Crisis Management

3 Dec 2017

“No one can deny the challenges the British Police Service has faced during many crisis situations during 2017. Every crisis situation is different, regardless of the area, the key to managing the crisis is the flow of accurate information and the tackling of false information.

You can’t really talk about crisis communications without addressing the now well-known phrase of ‘fake news’. I think police communicators should have t-shirts made up stating “Police Communicators – dealing with ‘fake news’ since 2011.

Fake NEws logoThis is because the summer disorder (police speak for riots) in 2011 was the first time that the UK saw how social media could amplify what are an individual’s concerns or fears into a mass concerns and sometimes into a self-fulfilling reality. We listened to the concerns surfacing on social media and responded, explaining the reality, which was rarely what was feared.

With the tragic events of this summer, we have seen similar issues. It’s human nature to fear the worst, so when there are incidents like the terror attacks that affected Manchester and London, the community starts to have a heightened sensitivity to the more routine incidents emergency services deal with on a daily basis.

The vast majority of the ‘fake news’ that police have to deal with is based on the fears and perceptions of the public, in the absence of information from a more trusted source. This is why the police service has become experts in crisis communications in the social media age. We’re not perfect, and we can never be everything to everyone, but we are the trusted or primary source of the facts.

During crisis situations, there is often a discontinuity between the immediate desire for information and facts by social media audiences and the speed in which those facts can be established and shared. What the police service does is ensure we share accurate information as quickly as possible, which builds trust that the service is dealing with the incident and is committed to getting the known and trusted information out to those that need it in a timely fashion.

The reality is that until we have skilled police professionals at a scene of an incident we don’t really know what we are responding to. This is why the language we choose to describe activity is important. For example, ‘we are responding to reports of….’ is regularly used. This phrase communicates that we are finding out more, without causing too much alarm. What we need to avoid in crisis situations is losing the position of trust built up over years and months of successful communications with the public.

trusted-sourceThe emergency services’ role in crisis communications is to be the trusted source, the rational and instructive voice, and we use social media to achieve this, to amplify the facts and not the rumours. You can only achieve this if you understand what the key concerns are and how to address them. Working with partners, the media and the community directly helps to understand audiences and to develop strategies.”

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