UNO September 2018

The new paradigm for crisis and risk communications

We are experiencing a change in the communications paradigm. Society has become digitalized. Citizens, as pointed out by cyber-anthropologist Amber Case, have become cyborgs by virtue of their mobile extensions. Smartphones have changed how we obtain information and relate to our surroundings. We are connected from the moment we get up until we go to bed. True, we are changing the ways in which we establish these connections. Before, we interacted more through open social networks, which took up a lot of our free time. We are now more focused on seeking quality information, perhaps tired of spending so much time on these networks. Therefore, we now pay more attention to dark social, referring to closed, interpersonal instant messaging networks, according to a recent study by Buzzsumo.

The hyperconnected world in which we live offers enormous benefits in terms of instant access to information, wherever we are. We have access to such a large volume of information that we are unable to digest the details when thousands of fresh news items replace those the networks just served. It is this same hyper-connection that has made society hyper-vulnerable—hyper-vulnerable to misinformation, hoaxes, rumors and all kinds of cyberattacks.

Cyborg-citizens are also cyber-employees. Thanks to their mobile extensions, they have become unauthorized company spokespeople. We experienced this in May 2017 with WannaCry. Employees disclosed confidential information through dark social—the same employees who have become the priority vulnerability vector through which hackers gain access to the hearts of businesses through emails and, nowadays, essentially via smartphones. So, society’s digital transformation into a transmedia communications environment produces cyborg citizens who are genuine risk vectors. This is no longer a small enemy. Any of us can be the origin of a serious reputational crisis for a brand.

The continuum of the crisis we are in, to quote Jose Manuel Velasco, has led to a scenario of distrust in institutions, companies and their messages. General belief in the system has been undermined. Cyborg-citizens have grown suspicious and skeptical. Everything is now questioned and analyzed. The business model for crises in media has contributed to this. Underfunding in editorial offices has led to less rigorous reporting and serious errors in news productions that have affected all the media, including even known quality press.

Cyborg-citizens have organized themselves into a new system of digital communities. They chat within territories. The leaders of the communities they live in direct the conversation and act as standardbearers for their common cause. Adequately mapping these communities and having a good knowledge of their conversations are essential, not only to identify risks and opportunities, but also to forge alliances (especially with their leaders) and try to neutralize the enemy.

Cyberspace as the new battlefield during crises

Crises have mutated. They are nothing like they were 10 years ago, before the appearance of the first smartphone. Hyper-connectivity makes it impossible to separate crisis evolution and management from a digitized scenario. In fact, many crises are first made public through social networks. In other words, cyberspace is the chessboard on which the conflict will be settled, where cyberspace is considered to be the close connection between digital and analog space, where cyborg-citizens’ relationships are conducted.

Hyper-connectivity makes it impossible to separate crisis evolution and management from a digitized scenario

Our conversations can no longer be separated. They occur continuously, jumping from analog to digital and back. There are no online and offline crises, only crises settled in the analog-digital space through which we interact with our surroundings.

In this environment, crises are asymmetrical and mutate rapidly. There are no longer online and offline, local and national crises; they are all able to mutate rapidly due to our hyperconnected cyberspace. All crises are settled in a digitalized space, because citizens are cyborgs.

We have gone from a traditional conflict, where states strive to control citizens, to a new model. Earlier, conflicts were vertical and based on media control. It was an analog scenario, where data prevailed over emotions.

Crises are asymmetrical and mutate rapidly. There are no longer online and offline, local and national crises; they are all able to mutate rapidly due to our hyperconnected cyberspace

The new conflict model is multidirectional and digital. It is settled in cyberspace. Its evolutionary structure favors social distrust, the questioning of shared beliefs, changes in values and the undermining of the system. They are conflicts inoculated from the top down and bottom up, mutating rapidly through multiple platforms with global consequences, where the main viral vectors are emotions.

The major global crises are often hybrid. Major crises may develop through combined actions that may include, alongside traditional military methods, manipulation of information or economic pressure, coupled with cyberattacks to generally destabilize the system. The alleged Russian interference in the last U.S. electoral campaign is just one example of this.

The new crises are fast and self-replicating. The ability to grow exponentially and get out of control in just a few minutes makes an immediate response capacity essential to successfully implement any prevention policy or action. Constant risk monitoring through a complete early detection and alert system is vital for organizations. Technological solutions that analyze huge packages of data and automated screening processes are crucial.

Moreover, crises feed off and deepen one another autonomously. They often self-replicate in a random and uncontrolled fashion. Once again, this is an effect of the cyber scenario in which they develop, driven by cyborg-citizens.

Luis Serrano
Global leader of the Crisis and Risk Area at LLORENTE & CUENCA
The Crisis Manager at LLORENTE & CUENCA, Serrano is one of Spain’s top experts on communications management, crisis situations and the development of crisis action protocols for social networks. With a degree in journalism, he was the press manager for the Emergencies Centre 112 for the Community of Madrid for 17 years, where he actively participated in handling extreme situations such as the 11-M terrorist attack in Madrid. He has been part of over 100 incidents, accidents with multiple victims, health crises, etc., writing his experiences in his book, 11M y otras catástrofes. La gestión de la comunicación en emergencias. He also has extensive teaching experience in crisis management and emergencies. As a journalist, he worked in Onda Cero’s news services for seven years. [Spain]

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