Social Media can be useful in emergencies

If any of you live in the Middle Atlantic states like I do, you experienced two natural disasters last week that are pretty much unheard of in this part of the country. On Tuesday, we got the 5.9 magnitude earthquake centered in Central Virginia that was felt as far away as Chicago. This weekend, we got Hurricane Irene, which ravaged the entire east coast from North Carolina to New England.

Perhaps it was somewhat apropos that the newest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has an article on how Social Media can be integrated into emergency-preparedness efforts. Dr. Raina Merchant, Dr. Nicole Lurie and Stacy Elmer write:

“Since these new media are so pervasive in communication (more than 40 million Americans, for instance, use social media Web sites multiple times a day), it makes sense to explicitly consider the best way of leveraging these communication channels before, during, and after disasters. “

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other government leaders relayed information to their constituents via their Twitter feeds. Businesses posted information about early closings on their Social Media feeds. People shared photos and videos of the two disasters – many admittedly just for fun, but others to genuinely inform. And in the chaos that emergencies such as Hurricane Irene bring, clear communication is vital.

The important thing the Christies and Bloombergs of the world need to remember, however, is that they need to listen to what their constituents are saying on Social Media during these emergencies as well. Don’t just use it as another means of shouting your talking points. If electricity is down or someone is in a bad cell phone reception area, Social Media may be their only way to communicate. One of my graduate school instructors, Leigh Fazzina, used Twitter to get rescued when she was injured in a bicycle crash in a wooded area with no cell phone reception. And Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker regularly monitors Twitter to identify potential and actual problems in his city and either address them himself or direct people to the agencies who can address them.

Study: Majority Think Voicing Opinions on Social Media Can Influence Brand Business Decisions

ROI Research is out with a study that confirms what plenty of business and communication leaders have been saying for years: Social Media influences consumer buying decisions.

According to the study, 52% of respondents strongly or somewhat agree that expressing opinions on Social Media can influence business decisions made by companies and brands. MediaPost’s Jack Loechner documents the more detailed findings. Here are some highlights of what products the study found consumers discussed on Social Media:

* 74% of respondents who purchase entertainment products discuss them on social networks
* 53% follow travel companies/brands on social networking sites for coupons/discounts
* 43% follow electronics companies on social networking sites for offers to win “points” or online currency redeemable for products
* 42% discuss automobiles on social networking sites to compare prices
* 32% have made a sports-related product purchase as a result of seeing something posted on a social network

Fortunately, most businesses of any size are catching on. While not every business should use Social Media in exactly the same way, it’s where the customers are, even increasingly older ones.

U.K.’s proposed Social Media ban is too late

Social Media played a significant role in two of the major political uprisings of recent years – the post-election protests in Iran in 2009 and the demonstrations in Egypt this past spring which ultimately led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. And it is reportedly playing a major role in this week’s massive riots in London and across the United Kingdom – to the point that, according to MediaPost’s Erik Sass, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that they should consider laws allowing officials to ban people from using Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media platforms if they believe they are using them to organize riots or otherwise plotting violence.

Cameron also reportedly said that U.K. home secretary Theresa May will meet with executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Research In Motion, which makes Blackberry devices, to determine the feasibility of a social media ban.

Let’s put aside the obvious civil liberties argument here. There is another problem with this action that is more pertinent to this blog’s discussion of communication technologies – it’s too late.

The horse is already out of the barn. The riots have been going on for a week. Even if officials can develop a means to block people using Social Media for these purposes without inadvertently violating the freedoms of those not doing so, it’s too late to make a difference.

Plus don’t forget that, if these people can access Social Media, they also likely have text-messaging and other communications tools to set up riots, flash mobs and other illegal behavior. Even the most basic mobile phones can do that. Blocking their access to Facebook and Twitter is akin to playing Whack-A-Mole: as soon as you knock one mole down, another pops up. Are they going to take all mobile phones away?

It is sad to see the images of these riots on TV and the societal problems in the U.K. that appear to have led to them. But blocking Social Media access, in addition to being hypocritical (after all, we applauded the people of Iran and Egypt for rising up), simply won’t work. It’s way too little way too late.

 

Groundswell, Social Media should be part of business education

I recently completed another semester of grad school (only one class and my capstone to go!). One of my classes was in Social Media and the Groundswell, the phenomenon of customers communicating with each other through social media and using that communication, instead of only what advertisers shout at them – to make buying decisions.

The course textbook was Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. While reading this book and taking this class, two things became very apparent:

1. Tapping into this groundswell and using it to engage your customers in your brand and product is becoming an increasingly important skill set for business leaders, particularly those whose products are aimed at a younger audience.

2. Many of today’s business leaders are deficient at – if not outright lacking – this skill set.

To this end, I’m going to make the same argument here that I made in one of the class discussions – that training in social media and the groundswell should be a part of any MBA or other business undergraduate or graduate school program. It obviously is a must for communications professionals, and has been for a few years now. But this knowledge needs to be a must for business leaders as well.

It can be taught as part of an existing course. It can be taught as a new, separate course. For current business leaders done with formal education, it could be done as a workshop or series of workshops with the local chapter of the American Marketing Association or a similar entity. But it must be taught.

Tapping into the groundswell is not as easy as it seems. It requires patience. It requires strong listening skills, even when the groundswell tells you things you don’t want to hear. It takes a high degree of sincerity about caring about your audience’s needs and desires. It takes humility and a  willingness to put aside your own pride and ego and preconceived notions. And you need to know what to look for, how to interact with the groundswell and how to interpret the information you obtain.

Younger business leaders may already have these skills. And certainly the next generation of business leaders will have a greater appreciation for the groundswell than the current one. But the current generation can’t simply pass this task off on a communications agency and forget about it.

Engaging the groundswell must be done throughout the organization, from the CEO on down to the entry-level brand assistant. Everyone must be behind it and understand it or it won’t work. In fact, the CEO in particular must be tuned into the groundswell and be able to represent the business in that environment.

No question the groundswell represents a major change to the way businesses relate with customers. But like it or not, the groundswell is here. Businesses need to adjust. And undergraduate and graduate business programs need to adjust as well.

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