Providing new opportunities and challenges, social media are also used today for risk communication. Far from being easy, the correct use of social media requires multidisciplinary skills that take into account both technological innovations and the different social, cultural and economic factors that shape stakeholder interests.
Every organization have in place an effective strategy for risk communication – be it regarding health, environment or safety – as an indispensable tool to improve preparedness and response in the face of an emergency. An effective risk communication strategy not only helps to protect public and private safety, but it also increases the level of public awareness, confidence and preparedness. Although television, radio and newspapers are still the most widely used media for disseminating risk culture, the advent of the Internet and digital platforms have increased distribution channels and the contents broadcast, reducing the time required for sharing information, enabling instant communication and broadening the audience, also reaching younger generations who don’t rely on traditional media. Social media are perhaps the best example of the new channels used in recent years to develop new communication models which integrate the principles and fundamentals of emergency management. Despite this new development, the use of social media in this field is still a subject of study and controversy; the effectiveness of social media in risk and emergency communication is indeed continuously being evaluated.
To this regard, the report The Use of Social Media in Risk and Crisis Communication, published by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), contains interesting research which highlights how social media can be useful tool but, at the same time, can also contribute to creating new challenges to which risk communication experts are called upon to respond.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND RISK COMMUNICATION
In the so-called deficit model, risk communication was in principle understood – and in part still is today – as a tool for persuasion and for the transfer of information from an experienced and authoritative broadcaster to a passive audience lacking scientific expertise. According to Giorgio Sestili, journalist and science communicator, Head of Marketing & Communication at Deep Blue, “the ‘deficit’ model originates from the way public communication of science has developed since the second half of the nineteenth century”. Sestili explains that this is “a model that stems from an idea of science as a closed and autonomous institution with respect to society and citizens, one that detains all knowledge and shares unquestionable truths. Unfortunately, still today there are scientists and disseminators who, more or less consciously, display this type of approach.”
The emergence of multiple risk cultures, elaborated by different social groups and organizations, has made unidirectional communication obsolete, favoring a more open, bidirectional and negotiated exchange of information between different actors, aimed at creating relationships of mutual trust between citizens, institutions, organizations, industries, mass media and all the stakeholders involved, for building an active, participatory and informed public that is capable of making the best decisions, in line with the institutions in charge. “Since the early 2000s, in public communication of science and thus also in risk communication, ‘multidimensional models’ have gained ground. In these models different actors relate to each other in an inclusive and non-hierarchical way, and the importance of the surrounding sociocultural context is also part of the process” Sestili concludes.
Social media enable content creation, writing, design, and instant feedback regarding risks and the related experiences. Although they vary greatly in their purposes and approaches, digital services offer universally shareable tools that cross spatial, temporal and cultural boundaries, making them unique in their adaptability. Yet on the topic of the strengths of this technology, the OECD report acknowledges that the implementation of social media in risk communication carries some unresolved issues.
For example, the possibility of sharing unregulated documents that may have undergone changes in the course of their transmission is one critical aspect. In this sense, the use of social media raises several concerns in relation to privacy, consent and confidentiality, particularly with regard to the potential alteration of scientifically proven data and statistics. Furthermore, the relationship with modern technology differs as age varies: not all segments of the population are familiar with digital platforms, and some maybe not be reached when reporting an emergency.
THE 5 ELEMENTS OF RISK COMMUNICATION ON SOCIAL MEDIA
In order to understand how works risk communication nowadays, it must be seen into the context of a diverse and nonlinear ecosystem composed of different spaces: scientific space, political space and public space.
The sense-making in which risk communication actively intervenes takes place in these three domains through interaction and negotiation practices. This is where digital platforms come in: as a fourth space that allows information to be conveyed from one domain to another, bypassing temporal and spatial barriers. Adopting social media to communicate thus requires the development of a strategy in which the substance of the transmitted information remains unchanged and automatically initiates both social and political action, following a rational path.
If science has the arduous task of defining social and environmental issues and finding solutions for them, an Emergency Management and Communication Plan must identify effective models in social media to represent expert knowledge clearly and transparently, within the policy space as well as in the public space. It is therefore crucial to recognize that social media is a tool with enormous potential, but that it may also be extremely counterproductive for the purpose of increasing knowledge and awareness in the face of crises and emergencies.
Based on the above criteria, the paper Effectiveness of social media in Risk Communication drawn up by the Preparecenter states that risk communication on social media depends on the following elements:
- Degree of authority (individual/institutional)
- Type (range of expertise/emotional impact)
- Accessibility (timing with which information is communicated)
- Relevance (defining the reasons, the recipients and methods of communication)
- Degree of participation (the process of sharing and discussing with stakeholders)
THE 8 CHALLENGES OF RISK COMMUNICATION
When it comes to sharing information before, during and after a crisis, financial, legal, political and security issues come into play. It is therefore clear that the use of social media in risk communication is a complex and multidisciplinary field of research, and because of the issues at stake it must address challenges that evolve in step with technological innovation and changes in society. Specifically, a risk communication plan will need to address the following eight challenges:
1.MANAGING MULTIPLE STAKEHOLDERS AND COMMUNICATION CHANNELS: CHOOSING A MULTI-CHANNEL OR INDIVIDUAL APPROACH
Any organization must decide how best to deal with the wide range of stakeholders and channels that could potentially be a part of communication strategy. It is important to have comprehensive guidelines and strategies that provide precise rules and recommendations on how to interact with audiences.
2.ENSURING TRANSPARENCY AND RELIABILITY: HOW TO AVOID RESONANCE MISINFORMATION AND MANAGE THE EMOTIONAL RESPONSE OF THE AUDIENCE
Social media information conveyed by official channels must be clearly identifiable in order to increase the degree of trustworthiness and authority. A good example of this comes from Japan, where in March 2001 Twitter users were surveyed and updates on earthquake victims were monitored. The survey showed that to increase reliability of tweets during an emergency, management officials can announce information with an official hashtag or identifiable keywords. Creating official accounts that can be retweeted also increases the validity and trustworthiness of the organization on social media.
3.AVOID IMAGE DAMAGE: HOW TO LIMIT NEGATIVE EFFECTS ON THE ORGANIZATION’S REPUTATION.
Although this is not a desirable outcome, it is important to be aware that content on social media cannot be controlled. Any mistakes made by an organization and shared on social media should not be hidden since only correcting unrelated information can stop the spread of defamatory messages and protect credibility.
4.DESIGN MODELS THAT ARE ACCESSIBLE TO THE GREATEST NUMBER OF PEOPLE AND STRENGTHEN THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INSTITUTIONS AND CITIZENS
One solution is to make complementary use of traditional and digital media. By increasing the number of different channels used, it is possible to increase the likelihood that crucial information will be received by the target audience. It is essential that a strategy be planned in which information on different channels is coordinated, consistent and integrated.
5.MANAGE DATA SHARING AND TRAFFIC.
Using data mining or data analysis services, we can assess the effectiveness of users’ sharing activities and thus get a clearer picture of the flow of information exchange among target audiences. However, to avoid inaccurate estimates, it is necessary to consider the various temporal and spatial factors that affect the analysis. For example, emergency services need to consider that social media users are not always representative groups of the broader disaster-affected population.
6.PROMOTE OPEN DATA AND ENSURE ETHICAL AND RESPONSIBLE USE
Addressing the sensitive challenge of open data requires work on several fronts. First, legal expert skills are crucial for handling data privacy issues. A distinction needs to be made between monitoring a personal profile page and a huge number of pages. This is a complex issue where a clear and defined line must be drawn, both to protect business interests and to protect citizens. Laws, policies and guidelines should therefore be developed to ensure constant control in the use of social media during a crisis situation.
7.MANAGING THE HIGH EXPECTATIONS OF THE PUBLIC
The use of social media within an emergency organization does not require costly or time-consuming resources, but it can prove to be an effective choice for implementing an organization’s communication. The most important aspect is to determine when the correct timing for sharing information is, the target audience, and the the strategy’s goal. Once these aspects are defined, it is important to clarify what the organization can and cannot do with social media in order to outline a communication strategy that does not disappoint public expectation.
8.MANAGING ACCOUNTABILITY: WHO IS RESPONSIBLE AND FOR WHAT
Emergency services and authorities in charge must have a structured internal validation process determining what can and cannot be shared on social media. This protocol must be agile and without too many layers of validation in order not to hinder the rapid usability of information and responses on social media.