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Social media proves it not only connects, but can be a matter of life and death

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The horrendous news events that transpired over the past week unfolded before our eyes on the very same online channels that may have brought you to this blog. It is a reminder of the still underestimated impact of this digital medium.

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Schroder PR Account Coordinator Bailee Bowman

If you’ve watched TV news in the past week, you saw the constant coverage of the devastating Boston bombings as well as the tireless pursuit of the bombing suspects. If you were on social media this past week, you saw the same thing – but at a faster pace.

The Boston bombings have topped the charts as an example of how a tragedy can play out on social media. Online users kept each other updated to the second on the events and, as new information was available to reporters and Boston-area spectators, new information was posted on social media.

Following the bombing, more than 500,000 tweets with the hashtag #BostonMarathon were collected by a research group from Syracuse University and geotagged by location. The research team found approximately 200 tweets sent from the scene of the Boston Marathon bombings between 4:00 – 7:00 p.m. ET.

The #BostonMarathon map allows users to click specific areas of the city and display.  what was being tweeted from there. See the full map: Tweets from Boston.

The #BostonMarathon map allows users to click specific areas of the city and display what was being tweeted from there. See the full map: Tweets from Boston.

Photos of the crime scene circulated on social media channels and vigilantes-of-sorts began to identify suspicious individuals. When Watertown, Mass., police hunted down a confirmed suspect, journalists and residents live-tweeted the police activity from the scene and kept their viewers/followers informed of every move.

This saturated, unfiltered coverage eventually led to as much, if not more harm than good. Social media users made false accusations after examining photos and made up false headlines to try to take the lead in reporting. Those watching the situation unfold from afar experienced an information overload from reporters and bystanders who were revealing police tactics and possibly putting in danger a successful arrest of the suspect.

Suddenly, the medium that served as a watchdog, alerting the country of tragedy, became an unpredictably wild dog in the overall story. Social media has had a tremendous impact on previous events, but this time the FBI intervened. In a press conference, the FBI warned the country that only official information released by its organization should be considered as credible and to assume that all other information was not.

Maybe you weren’t aware of social media’s impact before, but with the FBI stepping in to dispel rumors, it is clear this digital medium had unleashed more power than the ability to tell friends, family and followers what you are eating for lunch.

At Schroder PR, I manage social media accounts for a number of clients. While I’m writing a press release or blog post such as this one, I also have an Internet window open on my computer screen and, out of the corner of my eye, I watch the aggregating of our clients’ social media feeds. In fact, it was with such a glance out of the corner of my eye a week ago Monday that I first saw the word “bombing,” breaking the news to me of the terrorist attack.

The impact of social media isn’t new or surprising to PR practitioners. So it is still somewhat surprising – although very welcomed – when clients ask us why it’s important to be on social media.

In future social media presentations, I’ll remember to refer to this past week to demonstrate the impact social media channels can have. It was an example of not only how powerfully social media can engage others but also how quickly the unfiltered medium can take a turn for the worse. As we tell our clients, social media needs to be managed and we are able to train our clients on the importance of a successful crisis plan.

While social media started out as a means to engage friends and family, it’s incredible reach has since been utilized by businesses, organizations and government officials to harness the innate desire of the public to communicate with others.

The diversity, reach and opportunities social media provides are everything PR practitioners dream about. Statistical research tells us that you may have found this blog post through the same search engine or social media channels that broke the news of the Boston bombings.

While many are still skeptical of the importance of social media in our lives, it is irrefutable that social media played a major part in our nation’s coverage of last week’s terrorist attack. That proves to me that the same channel of communication that drives traffic to business blogs such as this one, is also giving people vital information that could be a matter of life and death.

 – Bailee Bowman

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