Here at the Department of Health, we always need to be ready in case of a health emergency. For example, last year we published our strategy for how we would communicate if there is another flu pandemic.
As a part of this planning work, I've been working on the digital aspects of getting prepared for health emergencies.
Lots of people have wise words to share on the topic of social media in a crisis, but I thought I would share my thinking to date.
Social media is totally invaluable when there is a crisis, you can quickly communicate to a wide number of people from wherever you are. People on the ground at the emerging crisis can also share first-hand experience and knowledge of emerging situations.
When a helicopter crashed into a building in a densely populated bit of London in Jan 2013, Twitter was first with the news.
People who witness an event or are affected by it can share video, images or audio that can help others understand a situation better.
Whether you plan for it or not, social media will be buzzing with opinions, fears and rumour. So you can’t put together a communication plan about crises without including social media.
Here are 9 things to think about:
- Make sure everyone who is involved in your emergency planning understands the need for as well as the benefits of social media.
- Know who can speak with authority. For health, the Chief Medical Officer is often an authoritative voice on a subject, but depending on the situation, there are other experts that can be used.
- Think about the kinds of crises that might occur and have a plan of action for each one. For us this means knowing how we will work with the other big players in the health system, such as NHS England and Public Health England.
- Make sure enough people know the plans and there is a way of contacting people if something breaks out of hours.
- Practice. Social media should be an integrated part of any simulations you do. There's no better test of whether you're ready than having a go, and it's brilliant for seeing which bits could work more smoothly. @susyatDH shared her experience of taking part in the excellent @socialsimulator.
- When a situation actually breaks, keep calm and get holding messages out quickly. This can reassure people that you’re there and you’re dealing with the crisis - and it opens the channels of communication. Then give regular updates as and when you can. It’s incredibly important to establish all the facts and make sensible decisions about what actions to take, but going silent on social media (while you’re busy doing this behind the scenes), looks bad from the outside. People need to know now that you’re working on the situation.
- Establish where the reliable information is for your different audiences. For us this would usually mean directing the public to NHS Choices, and health and social care professionals to NHS England or GOV.UK. So we would tell people this and make sure all the places people might go looking for info and updates are directing people to the right source(s) of info.
- Sharing eye-witness comments or material can be very useful, but if it’s from the public or other sources you don’t know, try your best to check that it’s credible before you share it, and get permission where you need to.
- During the crisis, make sure you monitor social media to see what people are saying. That way you can interject when there's misinformation flying around and you can point people to reliable sources. And by monitoring you'll discover what other information people need, which might mean you need to provide some new content.
No one wants a crisis to happen, but if we’re prepared, then we should be able to make fixing it run as smoothly as possible. This means professionals getting the updates and information they need and the public getting practical advice and reassurance wherever possible.
If you have guidance or experience to share around planning for a crisis, then please do share it with us.