One of the huge changes in crisis and emergency communications is the emergence of rumor management as job one. Yes, job one. I used to say, repeating the Coast Guard policy, your job was to be the “first and best source” of the news regarding the crisis, incident or emergency. Now you can’t be. Social media and the internet will beat you every time unless the event is completely contained from any unofficial observers.
As the “official” source of information about an event, you should be the one to continually monitor what is being said about and be very fast to correct it with the facts. That means, we in crisis and emergency communication, need to fully understand the dynamics of rumors and how they gain traction. To that end, the Guardian newspaper in the UK, in conjunction with the London School of Economics, has done us a huge favor. They studied 2.6 million tweets related to the riots in London and tracked how the rumors started, emerged and were corrected. I admit, being a visual person, I love infographics and this is one of the most compelling ones I have ever seen.
The rumors tracked include wild animals set free from the zoo, rioters cooking their own food at McDonalds, the London Eye (giant ferris wheel) set on fire, and possibly the most dangerous, how a police beating of a 16 year old girl started the riots.
I’ve never quite understood the London riots as I have never quite understood the Occupy movement. But I’m beginning to think these events are more closely related to the emergence of social media than to any real motivation behind them. Could something similar be said of the Arab uprising? Is it possible that because it so remarkably easy to organize people for flash mobs and for spontaneous gatherings that we simply want to do that? That these gatherings exist more because we can do them rather than any real rationale or motivation? What restless, unemployed, hyperglandular young person wouldn’t thrill to be part of a huge, noisy gathering–just because it is there? Certainly beats being hunkered down behind their video games or lazying around watching sports all the time. But, that’s social commentary, rather than crisis communication, so I’ll stop there.