The report of my death was an exaggeration. -- Mark Twain, 1897
The explosion of social media has not changed human nature. The inclination to share rumors, speculation, gossip, and scandalous accusations—with or without credible verification—has been a part of human nature as long as language itself. The speed at which social media now moves such information through the horse industry is, however, both novel and alarming.
For example, the 2011 multi-state equine herpesvirus-1 outbreak traced to a cutting horse event in Ogden, Utah, vividly reflects the financial and emotional impacts a crisis event can have on the horse industry. Some information shared on social media regarding the outbreak was accurate and served a legitimate purpose. Other postings were exaggerated or outrightly false and generated erroneous perceptions and unwarranted overreactions.
Successful crisis communication in a world obsessed with social media involves individuals at all levels of the horse industry. Two decades of research by risk and crisis communication experts offer some feasible suggestions for all of us in combating inaccurate messages shared during crises:
1. Those with knowledge must communicate openly and honestly. The disastrous impact of falsifying or withholding public information is well known. Doing so endangers the well-being of horses and undermines public trust.
2. Know your network and spokespersons in advance. Although every industry is vulnerable to crises, relatively few regularly engage in crisis planning. Having a network in place and the means for credible spokespersons to communicate through that network is essential. Social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook give agencies and industry leaders an unprecedented opportunity to proactively establish such a network.
3. Acknowledge public concern. Even if we believe a problem making its way through social media is false, our failure to respond creates space for rumors to spread. We must often provide a substantial response to unsubstantiated problems.
4. Communicate early and often. Case studies and experiments reveal that sources are perceived more credibly if they communicate early in an event. Waiting until a story spreads widely to make a response significantly reduces credibility.
5. Acknowledge both sides of the story. Message testing research in crisis communication reveals an overwhelming advantage to speakers who acknowledge the accusations that are shared and then systematically explain why they are or are not true. Simply disregarding accusations presumed or known to be false and advocating your position is seen as arrogant and far less credible by audiences.
6. Give those who are alarmed something meaningful to do. Surprisingly, an extensive review of crisis messages shared through traditional and new media reveal far more content emphasizing the threat than recommendations for self-protection. Providing suggestions for avoiding the threat or seeking treatment greatly enhances credibility and can legitimately diminish the impact of a crisis.
Following these six suggestions based on considerable research may make the difference between success and failure in a crisis response.
This information was provided by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture's Equine Disease Quarterly.