There Would be a Crisis Without Twitter

Now that Twitter has become a staple in crisis response toolkits, it would be a huge loss if the social media platform went away. There are partial substitutes, but no real replacement.

Now that Twitter has become a staple in crisis response toolkits, it would be a huge loss if the social media platform went away. There are partial substitutes, but no real replacement.

Twitter has become a staple in crisis management plans and crisis response. So what would happen if Twitter disappeared?

Unlike its social media cousins, Twitter has had a hard time making money, giving rise to speculation if just flap into the sunset. Whether that is likely or not, the question about a Twitter-less future is an interesting one to ponder.

It has taken a lot of persuasion to convince a growing number of people that Twitter is the perfect tool for real-time crisis updates. Twitter remains the primary online watercolor where the media hangs out, pitching its own stories and sniffing for new ones to pursue. For public affairs professionals and crisis managers, it is the place to be if you have a fast or slow-breaking story to tell.

Chris Abraham of Gerris digital says alternatives are already starting to creep into use, and more may follow. “Over the last couple of years, mainstream news channels have been using Instagram as a source for soft news,” he writes. But there are more protected user profiles on Instagram than Twitter, which can limit its utility as a real-time news blaster. Facebook, Abraham adds, is a “walled garden,” making it an unpredictable vehicle for crisis updates. Snapchat has a user base skewed to younger people.

YouTube is the other current contender for a role similar to Twitter’s. The challenge is that many people don’t think of checking out YouTube to find out about real-time news. They are more likely to look there for Saturday Night Live or Daily Show news clips.

Abraham isn’t convinced of Twitter’s demise. “Twitter,” he says, “is more alive and vibrant than ever,” even if it has become somewhat less relevant for marketing and advertising. Marketers, Abraham explains, view Twitter as "loose firehose” that is as likely as not to turn a promotional campaign into a crisis. Tweeter-in-Chief Donald Trump’s use of Twitter is a case study of successful promotion, effective deflection and self-inflicted, loose firehose wounds.

The 140-character limitation on Twitter continues to spook many users or potential users, even though the restriction is actually one of the platform’s strengths. Users are forced to make their point succinctly and succulently to capture attention. For crisis response, that challenge is usually not a problem.

We recommend crisis managers and communicators use Twitter updates:

  • To alert the news media or affected publics to fresh updates;
  • To direct viewers to live streaming or a photo gallery showing remediation efforts in real-time;
  • To cue interested parties on the timing of in-person briefings or upcoming activity; and
  • To send customized content or news releases to targeted reporters or publications.

Other than a group email blast, no other social or digital media platform can do that work as effectively as Twitter. While group emails allow targeted outreach, many people, including reporters and editors, don’t consistently consult their email accounts frequently, especially for news updates. They tend to monitor their Twitter feeds for that.

So, if Twitter disappeared, it would leave a big hole in crisis response. There may be partial substitutes, but not a complete replacement.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.