Capturing how social media has changed communications–a graphic

A couple of weeks ago I published on my blog a graphic illustration I created to try and capture how social media has so dramatically changed crisis and emergency communication. Apparently that graphic has resonated based on the response, including four requests to reproduce it in new books currently being written. Based on this, I put a bit more work into my original graphic and am publishing it here, along with my original post in emergencymgmt. You are free to reproduce this with attribution if you find it helpful:

Social Media Change graphic-Gerald Baron


I’ve been presenting at a number of conferences and webinars recently and for those presentations I wanted to try and capture in as simple way as I could what I understand to be the really big changes in crisis and emergency communications. Everyone is talking about social media and what that is doing to communications as well as response management. But I still find continually a mindset that demonstrates that what is really happening isn’t quite sinking in.

The above illustration is my effort to explain these changes in a single image. Some positive response from people I respect suggests this might be helpful which is why I am sharing it here.

The “Before” picture shows that crisis and emergency communications was a relatively simple, straightforward and linear affair. An event happens (the explosion), a response is organized (the vests) and a press conference is held (or press releases issued). The media asks its questions, then informs the world (the crowd) about what is going on in the event and the response. This is how the vast majority of emergency managers and a fewer, but still a significant majority of PIOs and communicators conceive of crisis and emergency communications today.

The “Now” graphic shows that it doesn’t go that way anymore. An event happens and the first to know about it typically is someone in the crowd. If that someone is using the internet in some form, usually a website we now call social media, they put the info on their site and its spreads through the network to others in the crowd who spread it further and further and further. Some in that crowd are members of the media, who now get most of their information that they rebroadcast from the crowd. They have their network (hey, that’s what we actually used to call the major channels) which reaches a lot more in the crowd.

Along the way, and quite awhile after all this is happening, the response is formed (vests). And after the response is formed, the PIO/JIC/Comms Mgr get busy and start telling about the event (the press conference and press releases). Now they tell the crowd directly through websites run by the JIC or companies/agencies involved and members of the media are part of that crowd. They combine (sometimes) the information from the response along with all the other sources they find in the crowd and do their rebroadcasting.

So the crowd, who is after all, the intended audience for all this information, is not merely the passive audience receiving the information through a mediator (the media). They are fully active in gathering that information, in sharing it and spreading it further. They don’t just take what the media says, but they add their perspectives and opinions which further clarifies (or muddies) depending on your perspective the central narratives or general perceptions about the event. The crowd also shows a great propensity to get involved in the response itself. In some cases, as in Deepwater Horizon, by making 120,000 response suggestions, volunteering, signing up boats for the Vessel of Opportunity program, etc. But also through crowd-sourced information such as crisis mapping and spreading word of urgent needs through those same networks.

This is what Admiral Allen talks about when he raises the issue of public participation. There is not much passive about this crowd anymore.

Clearly in this picture the role of the media has changed dramatically. Their influence and power to form perceptions is still enormous. But they do not have a monopoly on that. They, like other members of the crowd, are participants in a swirl of information and influence. The gather information from that crowd, repackage it primarily on the basis of drawing maximum audience share, and contribute to public understanding or misunderstanding in doing so.

For the crisis and emergency communication professional, these changes are very profound. The most basic is going from a position of controlling the information that goes to the media (at that point, they lose control), to a position of participating. The swirl of information and influence goes on and around and about them whether they participate or not. They do not set the agenda, they do not set the timing, they do not set understandings. But, they can participate and participate in very significant ways.

When I say as I have repeatedly in presentations recently, that the role of the JIC has shifted to being the first and best source of information about the event to one of rumor management, this is what I mean. The official source of information, that is the response itself, has to be impeccably accurate and completely truthful. It must be seen as the final word, the participant in the conversation that has the best and most complete information. Not necessarily the first, but the best and most complete. It must play that role, and this is where I have seen most of these efforts fail in the recent past. They pump out their information as if it is still “Before” but they refuse to counter the plenty of false information out there. Aggressive rumor management is not only the only significant role left for the the official source, it is in my mind a serious obligation. “A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth,” and it doesn’t have to be a lie. It can be media reporting that is seriously off-base, it may be agenda-driven untruths perpetuated on the internet, it may be simple fear-driven inaccuracies. These must be quickly identified and corrected with impeccably accurate information.

Would very much appreciate hearing your thoughts about this graphic and analysis. And, if you think it accurately reflects the new realities, share it with every emergency management professional you can. Because misunderstanding these new realities is certain to cause continuing difficulties in building public trust in major crises and emergencies.

2 thoughts on “Capturing how social media has changed communications–a graphic”

  1. A very good post Gerald. Social networks have transformed the need to rethink crisis communications. Practices normally associated with crisis response (engagement, monitoring and rumour control) should really now be routine activities for any organizations because reputations can be wounded, tarnished, destroyed, or cemented in mere minutes on social media platforms.

    The need for a speedy communications response has never been more evident. Still an ongoing learning process for many:

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