The recent fatal train crash at Lac-Mégantic in Canada highlights how unofficial social media pages can easily usurp official channels of communication during a disaster situation. Immediately after the crash some of the only places that concerned friends and families could get up-to-date information were the Facebook pages that were created immediately after the crash by people who wanted to help.
The official website went live shortly after the grassroots sites, but not before huge amounts of misinformation spread across the social media networks.
Alarmingly, a list of missing persons was posting on the unofficial for the general public to update. People were doing this rather than report a missing person to the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the provinces police. The list contained a lot of errors, causing unnecessary distress, and was eventually removed. The unofficial Facebook page received 25,000 likes and many more visitors than the SQ site. 10,000 more.
To prevent this happening in future, the emergency services will need to communicate and respond instantly to a crisis. Rapid response training will have to include a social media crisis management plan.
Monitoring will be key to this plan. Being able to monitor the chatter on the social networks not only allows the comms team to find out information about the event, it will allow them to dispel rumours and abate panic.
Posting and tweeting regular updates to keep the community informed and responding to enquires will also play an import role in managing the crisis. Social media management tools should be employed to help manage and control the communications process. The comms team should also restrict social media access to those authorised to handle the task, thus avoiding the dangers of mixed messages and misinformation. Keep a social media audit trail of who posts and what they say. This will be useful when you need to prepare a post-crisis report and it will also provide a training tool for new members of the team.
Set up a page giving emergency contact details and make sure this page is updated regularly.