All of our hearts go out to Boston right now. I first saw the news yesterday in the afternoon while glancing at Twitter. Like many other people I was glued to updates throughout the rest of the evening, surfing Twitter, Reddit, and the Reuters Live Blog, paying close attention to “power Tweeters” with the scoop like Matthew Keys.
It absolutely blows my mind how much technology has changed our orientation towards major crises like these. You see that in incredibly positive ways (such as Redditors rallying to help and Google running a people-finder), but you also see a grab for attention. Publications pushing to be first, bloggers posting reflections within hours or even minutes.
Adweek, for instance, quickly posted a piece called “Boston Marathon Tragedy Shows Why Brands Need Human Touch” within hours of the event to upbraid major brand about posting automated Tweets and Facebook status updates during an unfolding crisis (the post was later taken down, likely because of the outcry over its timing). I saw a number of social media gurus, too, posting about stopping automated updates.
I manage social media for several clients, and because it’s part of my job to be thinking about making them look good on social’s 24-7 cycle, I was cognizant of the fact that beyond my own shock and horror at what was happening, it was my responsibility to look at what I had planned in terms of their social updates. I needed to adjust their plans on the fly.
At the same time, I have mixed feelings about calling brands out for posting automated updates. I have mixed feelings about posting anything at all to be honest. That includes messages of support and encouragement from brands which runs the risk of seeming self-aggrandizing.
Throughout my career in social, I’ve had the experience of building huge, highly engaged communities for brands literally by hook or by crook, through one-on-one interaction after one-on-one interaction, AND harnessing and fully utilizing automation and optimization technology at huge scale. Because of that I can say that none of the issues are cut-and-dried. But I’ve been thinking a lot about them, both in terms of how I interact with other in social and how I do so on behalf of the brands I work with.
Twitter and the news cycle
Twitter is an incredible tool for capturing news in real time. I had a chance to learn this first hand while working at SocialFlow, where I wrote and edited data-driven stories about the news for our blog.
The brilliant research team there studied the way news filtered out on social media during the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, the East Coast earthquake of 2011, and the KONY2012 saga and produced stunning analysis and visualization. I took that material and help to craft it into compelling blog posts.
It became clear to me looking at all of that data that Twitter is without a doubt our first and most valuable tool during a real-time event. While it does at times offer false reports, it also gives all of us incredible proximity and access to what’s happening on the ground. Social can also be life-saving, as I explored in Trends that Matter 2011: Geolocation and the Social Media of Crisis.
Twitter, however, is a unique case that’s tuned specifically to what we call “real-time.” During events like the marathon tragedy, it is literally taken over by the conversation. Facebook is not completely “real-time” in nature and does not follow the exact same pattern. We turn to Facebook to find out what our friends and family think about something. We turn to Twitter to track something second by second.
What’s Your Plan?
Have you had an internal discussion about what happens to your company’s social media during a crisis? I’ve had enough experience with this to have a feel for it — and I generally make adjustments on the fly — but it wouldn’t hurt to call together the relevant players and adopt a “wait and see” pause when a major news event takes place.
To hear social media gurus with large staffs tell me to never automate updates strikes me as incredibly arrogant.
At the same time, I have a deep-rooted feeling that Twitter works best when not automated. You definitely see that when Twitter ripples with of-the-second updates and nuggets of info during times when the information it conveys are literally matters of life and death. This is truly Twitter at its most transformative and world-changing.
Do I think there’s a place for automation? Absolutely. But I also think that some of your most effective brand-building and profile building happen when you cultivate a one-to-one relationship, a human “voice,” with your audience. That was true for me when I was building the Film Society’s nascent social presence and I see it working incredibly well for even multi-million follower accounts like Whole Foods’. I was at a conference over the weekend on food and tech of the weekend and I realized that all of the accounts that I saw as real models were thoroughly and completely human in the way they approached social, even if that meant they might not be achieving optimal leveraging of all their content at all times on all fronts.
In other words, be human. It’s human to feel, it’s human to make mistakes.
And sometimes it’s human to be at a loss for words.