What April's Adelaide earthquake can teach us about communicating

On 16 April, a few seconds after 11:28 PM, Adelaide was shaken by an earth tremor. Online discussion of this event began seconds later (the first Twitter posts are timestamped 11:28:10), conducted by people in Adelaide who were in front of their computers or holding smartphones as the ground shook. There was no mention of the tremor on the Geosciences Australia website for hours and the first mention of the tremor in the mainstream news media was at 8.29am the following morning in a news post from the ABC. By the time the mainstream media even realised something had happened, the event was already old news to the online community.

This is the way news spreads now.

Let’s say a flood hits. Information about where it hits, how bad it is, and how high the water is rising used to come from the emergency response folks. Now it comes from social media; from tweeters sharing information about the event from their perspective. Eye witnesses can provide a fairly accurate picture of what’s happening.

In the meantime, what are the officials doing to get the information? They are busy on their cell phones and radios talking to the people in the field to get to the scene, gather information, prepare a public statement, and contact the media—all hours after everyone has learned the news from Twitter.

We are in an era when the vast majority of vital information is going to come through unofficial channels. That includes reputation crises as well as emergency communications.

If something goes very wrong – or very right – for your brand or organisation, you can no longer expect to be in control of "The Message". All you can hope is to be an early participant in the discussion!

Postscript: Here's a tongue-in-cheek take on the phenomenon from popular webcomic xkcd.