Evidence from real-life events bolstered by research demonstrates that people increasingly use social media to get and share information in urgent situations. At the same time, anecdotal experience also bolstered by real-life incidents shows that many organizations are not using social media well—or at all—to communicate in crises. In general, they either think it’s not an effective way to reach their target audiences at all, or only effective for product and service marketing purposes.

Here are three reasons why they should reconsider:

1. Listening informs smart doing.

The first communications action we advise clients to take in managing a crisis is to start intensive real-time media and social media monitoring, analysis and reporting. It’s essential to know who is saying what so that decisions are not made in a vacuum. Is information in the public domain accurate? Are persistent or important questions unanswered? Are influential voices weighing in? Is concern escalating or waning? Without at the very least having the immediate capacity to listen, timely and effective responses to critical situations will be delayed. So even passive engagement is valuable.

2. Other players are.

In any kind of physical emergency, first responders like fire and police routinely use social media to alert people to the danger and provide them with instructions and the latest information. Think back to the Calgary flood or the Toronto ice storm for excellent examples of civic leaders and agencies communicating with citizens via Twitter to keep them up-to-date. They quickly became THE sources of accurate information. Regulators in many sectors including, food, pharma, financial services and natural resources are doing much the same.

In organization-specific crisis situations, the absence of the key player is noted and quickly becomes a focus of negative attention. It’s also a lost opportunity. Using social media provides a platform for conveying other important messages of concern for those affected, about actions taken and perspective that puts the situation into context; messages that only the affected organization can deliver.

3. Opponents, instant experts and uninformed observers are doing it too.

Social media is very democratic, giving anyone with a following some influence over not only the “facts” but also the perceptions of what has occurred. This commentary can spread rapidly and broadly, leaving enormous and lasting reputation damage in its wake. Organizations that allow misinformation and innuendo to go unchallenged and uncorrected do so at their peril. If damage occurs on social media, it must at least be addressed on social media, although interaction may simply take the form of tweets and posts that link audiences to statements or that redirect them to corporate websites. It can also be used to correct or update the facts without getting into debates or arguments that serve primarily to add credibility to critics and opponents.

But an effective social media presence can’t be established in the midst of a crisis. Organizations need to create a presence on the platforms they choose in advance, find an audience and establish the rules of engagement that will govern online behaviour in an emergency. This is simply an element of good crisis planning.

It’s impossible to think of a crisis today that doesn’t start, unfold, escalate and / or resolve on social media. There’s no virtue in ignoring that reality and at least three reasons to embrace it.