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Crisis PR Breaking News Journalism

Social media and breaking news: How to respond in a crisis

By Alex Johnson |

October 17, 2014 | 5 min read

They used to say the first 24 hours in a crisis were the most critical for an organisation, now it’s the first hour – if not sooner.

Twitter is often my go-to source for watching how a story unfolds and seeking confirmation that rumours and speculation may be true. But is this how journalists are using it? For those that make the news, how has social media shaped the way they source and report content – particularly during a crisis?

We conducted research with more than 30 international journalists and the key shift for them is the access social media provides to bystanders or those involved in an emerging issue. Over half of those surveyed said they use social media as a critical source to obtain eyewitness accounts, unofficial information, potential interviewees, video footage and images. For them, this medium pushes open a door to new content and views that in the ‘old’ days may never have been unearthed.

How then, in this melee of online voices, does the organisation involved make itself heard? The answer is by its ability to bring credibility to a story. One reporter from the Middle East commented: “There is competition (for journalists) to break stories, but with that comes more competition to be accurate and reliable.” Journalists are constantly scouring through sources trying to find those that can be trusted and they will often look to organisations involved to be the voice of authority.

And, for those organisations fearful of starting to engage on social media during a crisis, US broadcast journalist Roop Raj provided some food for thought: “The story will go to air. We don’t decide not to do a story, nor do we decide to minimise the length or the gravity of how we are going to tell a story based on whether or not an official source engages with us or not. We instead do the story in the absence of that official source.”

The survey also asked how organisations could use social media more effectively to communicate with journalists – unsurprisingly, to begin communicating more quickly and frequently were their top priorities. Getting online soon, and often, meets the media’s desire to secure verification of a breaking news story from a credible source. From an organisation’s point of view it also fills the information vacuum and provides it with the potential to help shape the narrative of the story.

Getting ahead of the game is critical in a crisis. Experience shows organisations genuinely one step ahead tend to be those that have planned for a crisis before it’s even happened. Four simple steps can put an organisation on a positive footing before the alarm bells start ringing.

Predict and plan

Plan how potential social media risks would play out and have the necessary resources ready to respond (from training those who would be involved to having the technical know how to respond in an appropriate manner).

Don’t be your own worst enemy

Social media is a medium that rewards personality, humour and irreverence so it’s easy for the lines between work and personal to become blurred. It’s important that those using an organisation’s social media channels are properly briefed and understand the boundaries in which they operate so ‘homemade’ crises can be avoided.

Train and test

Knowing who will respond on social media during a crisis is key but making sure they have had the opportunity to test themselves and their responses in a safe environment is even more vital. It gives them the opportunity to builds skills and confidence and develop the right tone of voice in the event of a real incident.

Monitor and respond

Social media is a powerful tool to communicate with the media and other stakeholders during a crisis, but only if organisations respond fast and position themselves as the most credible source of information. They must have the ability to monitor what’s been said in good times and bad.

As Roop Raj said: “Even after hours I continue to monitor news alerts, so even when I am standing in line at the coffee shop, I have pop ups on my phone. It’s something that is a part of my life, pretty much through the day."

Social media is on a journalist’s radar 24/7.

So for an organisation to respond effectively during a crisis, it has to be on theirs as well.

Alex Johnson is a consultant at Insignia Communications. You can follow her on Twitter @Alex_Insignia.

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