Social Media, PR and Crisis Management

“The advent of Social media has taken crises and put them on steroids”

-Kevin Welman, Managing Director of Fleishman Hillard


As discussed in Going Viral, social media has changed the process of PR and crisis management. Before social media, in the event of a crisis, a PR team got a plan together and information flowed through many channels before reaching the public. Social media cut the middlemen out. The public, or anyone with a mobile device and internet connection, can instantly be the source of instant (mis) information (Baron, 2011). And once it’s out there it’s out there-no take backs.

PR can no longer wait until crisis hits. To overcome the avalanche of information during a crisis, they must already have a crisis plan in place, build their social media presence and community (The Red Zone, 2013) which will allow them to take control of the conversation and frame a crisis immediately (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). The media have also needed to readdress ethics and their role as information providers on social media platforms.

In considering this view of PR and crisis management, I will discuss ethical dilemmas the media must address in considering personal experiences during the environmental disaster, such as the 2005 BP oil explosion and the racially charged 2006 Duke rape crisis. I will also discuss whether I consider social media to be authentic, ethical reporting and if this knowledge will influence my reaction to a potential terrorist attack.

Ethical dilemmas of reporting personal experiences

One of the tenants under the Society of Professional Journalist (SPJ) Code of Ethics urges journalist to:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public (SPC, 2014)

The dilemmas professional journalist face is the pressure to keep up with instant news, feeding the public’s appetite for gossip (Innocentvictims6, 2009) and reporting with ethics and credibility. Former ABC news anchor, Terry Moran leaking an off-the-record video of President Obama calling Kanye West a “jacka**” (Innocentvictims6, 2009), is one example of a professional journalist presented with the dilemma of ethical reporting and failing to adhere to high standards.

obama jackass tweet

            Environmental disaster and racially charged Crises. During times of crises, the media will need to make the decision of reporting news that the public needs to know or news that violates privacy or increases the harm of individuals experiencing crises. Among its Digital publishing guidelines the, The Washington Post requires its journalist to:

…refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything — including photographs or video that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism (Washington Post, 2011)

To minimize harm the SPJ Code of Ethics guides:

… Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.

Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment (SPJ, 2014)

The SPJ and the Washington Post reporting guidelines can assist journalist when confronted with the dilemmas of using social media to share personal bias, opinion, unverified or intrusive information.

BP oil explosion. In the 2005 BP oil explosion 15 people died, 70 were injured and the organization blamed employees and managers (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). One dilemma that journalist can address in an event like this is sharing personal views on whose to blame. Considering the history of accidents at BP, a journalist may be inclined to share personal views on social media.

Duke Rape case. In 2006, an African American exotic dancer alleged that white Duke University lacrosse players gang-raped her (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). Dilemmas faced by journalists, in this case, can include taking sides based on race-playing into a Black vs. White dialogue instead of reporting the facts as they are known. Another dilemma faced could be revealing intrusive information or graphic information such as whether or not condoms were used in the act.

Is social media an authentic ethical source of news?

Social media is a means of sending and receiving information. As much as it can be a source of unethical unauthentic news it can be a sourced authentic and ethical news when high standards are applied. With social media, you’re gonna get the good and the bad and the key is to know the difference-media literacy. So if there was news on social media of a potential terrorist attack would I take it for its word? That all depends on the source and whether or not I considered them to be credible. If I saw the news on my Instagram timeline, I would fact check with an online credible news source as well as with a credible television news source.

In conclusion

Social media has changed PR and crisis management. Preparation, speed, and accuracy is the name of the game. Crisis in the digital age has taught us that crisis managers can no longer wait until a crisis hits to formulate a plan and put a twitter page up. Social media profiles and communities must already be in place to address the crisis immediately, to frame the conversation and provide the correct information in an arena where rumor can spread like wildfire. Social media also poses new challenges for the media to address ethical dilemmas they face when using social media to report the news. It’s important for journalists to hold themselves to a high standard of ethics when reporting personal experiences of those in crisis and sharing information on their own social media platforms.


Baron, G (2011, October 4) Social media and crisis communication: A whole new game [Video File] Retrieved from

Coombs.T. W., Hollady, S. J (2012) The handbook of crisis communication. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Malden, MA

Innocentvictims6 (2009, December 9) Media Ethics: Journalism and Social Networking[Video File] Retrieved from

Society of Professional Journalist Code of Ethics [SPJ] (2014, September 6). Society of Professional Journalist. Retrieved from

The Red Zone (2013, July 22) Planning well for a crisis ensures a better chance at surviving – Kevin Welman [Video File] Retrieved from

Washington Post [WP] (2011, September 1) Digital Publishing Guidelines. Retrieved from.


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