Twitter as a window on our world–the Michael Jackson reaction

June 29, 2009

One of the primary and very significant roles Twitter is playing in our society now is as a trend spotter and an indicator of what is on people’s minds right now. The one big caution to using it for this purpose is  to remember that only 5% of the population uses Twitter on anything like an on-going basis and that demographically it skews strongly young. With those cautions, it is interesting to see what happened to the Iran elections discussion when the Michael Jackson death occurred.

What is important for crisis communicators and executives to understand is that the media, like the rest of the world who closely follows Twitter trends, is that Twitter will be used as a gauge for public interest. That means you may have a quiet crisis–like a product quality issue, service issue, management ethics issue, etc., and it may not have any great risk of reaching the major media. But if on Twitter it builds a head of steam, it is only a matter of time before it reaches the attention of the MSM. And of course, by that time, things are really rolling.

Any company or organization concerned about its reputation needs to be using Twitter as well as online mentions as a canary in the mine. Alerts should be set and even the smallest blips need to be carefully watched to see if they gain traction.

Here’s an interesting example, where a young woman (24) at a PR firm thought she was making essentially private observations about the quality of one newspaper vs. another in her community and it blew up in her face.

Twitter and social media are hypersensitive instruments. There is a phenomenon in physics called the “Butterfly Effect” which is based on chaos theory. Simply put, when dealing with complex systems like global weather, it is well established that very very minor inputs can have dramatic and drastic impacts on the system as a whole. It is said that a butterfly flapping it wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.

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