Why a security alert at JFK airport shows that social media rumours don't just cost your reputation

A recent security alert at JFK airport in New York caused significant delays and a total shutdown of services, but could social media have amplified the panic and what's the cost to the public purse of public reporting on such incidents?

The Guardian report which described scenes of chaos and disruption highlighted that the use of social media could have been to blame for making a 'routine' security alert into something much more damaging not just for the airport but a whole city and beyond.

The ultimate aim of any of the emergency services and public sector when there is a possible threat is to keep people safe and if this means full evacuation of a major transport hub, then so be it - saving lives is key regardless of whether it was going to happen or not. You only go on the information you have at the time and as ever, it's better to be safe than sorry.

However, does the contributing noise from social media often cause this response to be heightened and how can that rumour spread be dealt with effectively? Once you start adding up the financial cost of a threat to security, it's easy to see how leaving social media to perpetuate fear is not only damaging from a reputational point of view, but also the dent it will have on the public purse.

I've seen first hand how incredibly challenging it is to deal with rumours online and the subsequent impact of it. A joke tweet saying there's going to be a fight somewhere has escalated into significant resources being physically sent to the scene of the crime that was never to be - cost to the public? In the tens of thousands as a starter.

In a climate of fear when the public are rightly nervous about every disruption or change in the routine, you can't blame people for being vocal online and wanting to warn or tell their story.

But how can you stop rumour getting the better of your organisation? Two key things have always worked well - getting the correct information out as soon as possible to the right people and not being afraid to tell people that they are wrong.

The 'right people' are not always the media - they are those key influencers in the community who will have a far wider reach than your national media or your head of the organisation. Which is why it's key to build up those relationships before something goes wrong. You need to call on those people to help you when you're struggling. 

There are practical steps you can take; set up searches straight away and start responding. Even if you don't have a clear line, be sure to engage with people straight away. Don't stay silent and be the voice of authority. You should be seen to know the facts. Work closely with your partners and ensure you're saying the same messages. Get together and quash the rumours together - you'll save time and effort and ultimately scrutiny for your response in the long run.

Regardless of platform, facts are key - get them out quick, get them out often. Use them to tell people to stop. We've seen it happen in large scale terrorist events and we have seen it work, but it takes a concerted effort where preparing in advance can make all the difference. 

A significant event may seem overwhelming online, but it can be managed with a decent framework in place and the confidence to deal with the issue at hand whilst thinking about saving lives and saving money. 

Christine Townsend is the founder and CEO of MusterPoint and has had over fifteen years experience in managing media and major incidents for the emergency services. Read more about why she's passionate about social media in the public sector in the Huffington Post.

MusterPoint enables you to work with agencies collaboratively on your social media, warning and informing and media handling. Contact us to see how it can help you save money and manage your online engagement effectively.