Social Media Triage: How to Create a Social Media Incident Command

illustration of an article

The number of current and emerging social media tools seems never-ending. By the time you master some of them, others quickly arise. As such, managing conversations on social media sites also becomes a never-ending challenge. Some would say it’s impossible. After all, in any given crisis, there usually are multiple responding agencies assisting the university with its crisis response.  Each agency uses multiple social media tools to reach multiple audiences with multiple messages.  And, as we all know too well, in a crisis situation, countless questions invariably arise, as do rumors and the proliferation of misleading or downright incorrect information.

These challenges are exacerbated by the fact that:

  • Few universities have strong social media policies.
  • Most institutional use of social media is decentralized.
  • Every department–and many faculty members–“do their own thing” in communicating with their respective target audience.
  • Most institutions have only a small public relations and communications staff to manage all these hurdles on a daily basis, let alone in a crisis situation.

And, let’s admit it, in a crisis, most of our staff are probably focusing the majority of their efforts on responding to countless traditional media requests, as well as crafting  messages to faculty, staff and students, and posting critical information to university websites.  It’s the nature of the crisis beast.

Tackling the Problem

Upon arrival at DePaul nearly two years ago, I learned there were 178 individuals on campus who regularly managed more than 183 different university-related social media sites.  I asked myself: How can I best leverage not only the tools these individuals use, but also the individuals themselves (most of whom don’t report to me) along with the messages they might send during a crisis situation? Indeed, how can I possibly orchestrate effective messaging with so many variables: target audiences, social media tools, and the individuals?

While struggling to find an answer, I attended a conference in Florida, hosted by the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida. I heard Karen Freberg, assistant professor at the University of Louisville, and Kristin Saling, assistant professor at the United States Military Academy, discuss an interesting concept: a social media incident command center, or SMICC. I learned that the American Red Cross, organizers of the Super Bowl, leaders at Dell and managers of America’s presidential campaigns, to name a few, already have established and effectively utilized such centers.

The purpose of creating an SMICC is to have a hub where social media communicators can analyze social media conversations and help translate communication needs and wants from various target audiences into meaningful and effective messaging by:

  • Monitoring and listening to social media traffic;
  • Determining which conversations are trending;
  • Identifying  rumors and misinformation as well as the need for additional information;
  • Engaging in conversations where appropriate;
  • Posting important information and pictures;  and
  • Determining geo-locations, key words and hashtags.

Steps to Create the SMICC

Upon returning to my campus, I immediately began taking steps toward implementing an SMICC.

  1. We developed a list of all of the university’s social media sites, their respective target audiences and/or purposes, the number of followers, the people responsible for managing those sites and contact information for reaching them.
  2. We developed and integrated an SMICC into the existing Emergency Crisis Communications Plan.  Elements of the SMICC plan include its purpose, structure and composition, responsibilities and the decision-making protocols under which the SMICC will operate.
  3. I appointed one person and one back up to be responsible for managing the SMICC.
  4. Many managers of social media accounts at my university already met monthly to discuss common issues, new tools and ways to leverage the university’s social media on a daily basis. I asked if I could present the idea of an SMICC to this group. I shared the basic concepts of issues management and crisis communications, and then I introduced the concept of an SMICC. Interest and enthusiasm were overwhelming.
  5. Future steps include:
  • Identify individuals to form the core group of the SMICC as well as back-up personnel;
  • Provide in-depth training regarding the university’s emergency response and crisis communications plans;
  • Identify a location where the SMICC can operate during a crisis – a hub where the SMICC team can come together to better coordinate social media monitoring and messaging;
  • Identify influencers who already are talking about our university, whom we might engage to become part of the conversation before, during and after a crisis;
  • Develop a database of these influencers, including faculty experts, whether from my institution or at other institutions; and
  • Identify editors who are willing to correct misinformation or dispel rumors when they arise.

There is no doubt that emerging media technologies and social media channels have introduced new challenges for crisis communicators. They also have presented us with significant opportunities to bypass traditional media gatekeepers and to directly engage with and communicate more effectively with our constituent groups. Creating a social media command center during a crisis situation can be the means for achieving that.