Much of the discourse around contemporary communication, as it relates to and is influenced by technology, centers around how technology is eroding communication and leading to worse interaction between people. Social media, for example, is often assumed to be a net-negative influence on the caliber of communication of modern society.
While social discourse in particular has been heavily influenced by nefarious actors, such as non-human (bot) users, intentionally misleading content and engagement/metric driven platforms, the field of crisis communication has benefited from new technologies.
Crisis communicators still face the same obstacles of nefarious actors that other fields face and have a similar track record of poor response to emerging challenges, but communication in crisis environments have benefited from, more than was hurt by, the opportunities presented in emerging technologies.
New Tech Tools
Not only do technology users have access to virtually limitless information at the click of a button, but every day offers new ways to connect people with their networks, and opportunities for individuals to grow their networks and foster new communities.
Social media also offers up to the minute analysis on the important issues of the day, compared to daily or weekly coverage from newsrooms past. Gone are the days where breaking news was distributed in the next day’s paper. Now, issues are dissected and discussed in detail, and their impacts explored, well before traditional newspapers have gone to print.
Erasmus University professor Joep Cornelissen defines the purpose of risk communicators as needing to respond quickly and decisively to crises impacting an organization. New technologies offer the ability to respond quicker than ever before, disseminating an organization’s message directly to their network.
Through targeted emergency alert systems, an organization can alert impacted parties to a threat through email, text and social media, all at the touch of a button. Organizations (and governments in particular) can leverage interworking local and national public safety systems to enhance security, dependability and fault tolerance, cost effectiveness, interoperability, spectral efficiency, and advanced capabilities.
The functionality of smartphones allows risk communicators to include hyperlinks to more information, or expanded information right in the body of their message, so impacted parties know what they are facing, and what to do next.
The increased functionality of personal electronic devices also allows individuals to stay in better contact with each other in the event of an emergency. Smartphones have become such an integral part of our belongings that it is easy to forget that not long ago, phones were relegated to wired connections in the home or workplace. Now, there is rarely a situation where an individual would be completely unable to be contacted, either through phone, text, or email. Those situations still exist, such as in remote areas without reliable cellular service or in the event of a drained battery, but there are exponentially fewer due to the prevalence of smartphones.
Overall, organizations communicating throughout an emergency have more effective communication plans when they accounted for metadata and multimedia in their information dissemination, which are now accessible to more people through the prevalence of portable smart technology.
The Risks of New Technologies
Erasmus University professor Joep Cornelissen also outlines the challenges he sees arising from our technological age as being primarily associated with people having better access to information, and the ability to share their own perspective more effectively. For example, if an organization in a crisis tries to control the flow of information, such as by trying to limit the spread of information that may be harmful to their brand, the new ability for individuals in the general public to quickly and efficiently circulate information can impede an organization’s crisis communication plan.
Cornelissen also mentions people being generally more aware of risks associated with organizations and industries, due to improved access to data and online communities focused on niche issues. For example, most organizations are now forced to maintain crisis communication plans in the event that an executive becomes embroiled in a scandal regarding sexual harassment or misconduct, as online communities such as #MeToo have increased the public’s awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment. Additionally, access to years of data further increases the possibility that a photo or recording of an individual committing an act was captured and stored and is accessible to be circulated publicly.
While the risks that Cornelissen mentioned should certainly be considered by crisis communicators, they are limited in scope to risks that may impact the brand of an organization. These risks have limited capacity to impact public safety in the event of a crisis, though new technologies certainly have the potential to cause risks that have a wider potential to harm public safety.
In the same way that Cornelissen mentions for individuals having the ability to share their perspective of a crisis (that may hurt the public image of an organization who is trying to control how information is disseminated), nefarious actors have greater networks to share intentionally false information that can confuse the public in the case of a crisis.
For example, after the 2017 shootings in Las Vegas, false information soon began to circulate about the potential demographics of the shooter and his reason for committing the act. In the flurry, several news organizations circulated incorrect information to members of the public, needing to later redact the false reports.
In an active threat situation, those same members of the public may be blind to a dangerous situation when they are faced with the true shooter, or potentially overreact when faced with an innocent individual who matches the false description, putting more people in harm’s way.
Responding to Obstacles
As the technological ability to communicate effectively has advanced, so too have the capabilities of nefarious actors to spread misinformation in crises. Crisis communicators need to be aware of the risks outlined by Cornelissen about the potential harm to an organization’s brand, and the increased potential for intentional misinformation to disrupt emergency response or derail a crisis communication plan.
Big tech and social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google have been slow to respond to their role in these issues, though are now starting to take action. Twitter, for example, has recently begun adding warnings and disclaimers to high profile tweets spreading misinformation. While the trend is just beginning and has started far too late, Twitter’s actions are promising and point towards social media platforms taking a more active role in stopping the spread of misinformation.
Further than the action of big tech companies, individual users are growing more aware of intentionally nefarious actors through the form of bots and misleading content, and are changing their behaviors to match. The response may be slow, but bots and large-scale misleading content is also a relatively new phenomenon. With further information and digital literacy campaigns, users will become more aware of how to spot nefarious actors and react accordingly.
To Cornelissen’s concerns about the capacity of new technologies to harm an organization’s brand, brands also have improved capacity to respond to public outcry.
Through social media, brands have new avenues to insert themselves into networks and communities, building stronger ties with their consumers. Brands can also release public statements that they are sure will reach intended audiences through many of the same avenues that emergency communicators use to broadcast emergency messaging — new technologies.
Finally, new technologies provide a two-way street of communication. Yes, consumers can more efficiently uncover and share damaging information about organizations, but organizations can more effectively hear critical information and personal preferences from their stakeholders. For example, with the recent surge for consumers valuing social justice, Nike decided to partner with former sports star and now social justice advocate Colin Kaepernick to promote the Nike brand. Nike capitalized on the prevalence of the Black Lives Matter movement’s success on digital platforms and used their social media to convince racial justice supporters to support Nike.
Any new technology or social disrupter can be challenging for organizations to navigate, and recent technological tools for crisis communicators have been no different. Societies and organizations need time to adapt to changing technologies, and to figure out what exactly is changing.
Social media in particular, has taken time to reveal the dangers of nefarious actors, and both individuals and institutions have taken further time to develop strategies to respond.
Crisis communicators still face these same obstacles even though they are more familiar, but the positive tools provided by new technologies still outweigh the negatives. Good crisis communicators are better because of new technology.
Justin Draper is a Canadian fiction and non-fiction writer who focuses on themes of politics and culture. He is currently completing his Masters degree in Communication and Technology at the University of Alberta.
Follow Justin on Twitter at @JustinDraperYEG