Oil, cats and social networks: lessons for health authorities

Institutions, public agencies and authorities can tackle different kinds of crisis by using social media. In the last few months, this has been done successfully in very diverse cases, both defending the reputation of a big oil company from a journalistic inquiry, and managing the response to a terror attack within a city. Even if the type and range of crisis is hugely different, the efficacy of a prompt and wise use of social network gives clues that could be useful when dealing with infectious threats as well.

ENI (Ente Nazionale idrocarburi) is an Italian big oil company that, in December 2015, got involved in a journalistic inquiry by the TV show Report, which raised suspects about the concession of Opl245, an oil bloc in southern Nigeria. The oil company did not accept to release interviews during the preparation of the TV show. However, they intervened on Twitter during the broadcasting, replying to each argument, providing data and resources, and redirecting followers to a dedicated page on their website. With more than 9,000 tweets, more than 3,800 unique users and a potential public of almost 10 million followers, ENI intervention has become a touchstone in terms of crisis communication and online reputation defence. The company managed to oversee the debate on social media, thus taking the TV show’s editorial staff by surprise; only later in the evening, they released an official response.

Regardless of the content of the debate, this example of crisis management by a private company highlighted the importance of influencers – people with a high amount of followers, who may create engagement on some specific topic – when sharing data through social media. In fact, tweet analysis revealed that Report was supported especially by “common” users, while ENI managed to gather a consensus mainly built on Twitter influencers, first among them Marco Bardazzi, head of ENI communication staff, who personally stepped into the discussion. As a result, attention shifted from the issue under inquiry to the ENI-Report diatribe. Classic rules about conflicting positions were overturned; information reached the public from two different sources, television and social media, and the network of influencers involved became crucial to determine the fate of the discussion. Such an event thus reinforced the idea that Twitter may be a powerful tool to manage crisis in real time. The past year offered us other relevant examples of that.

Managing public security on Twitter

On November 13th, Paris suffered a violent terror attack. In that situation, Facebook and Twitter quickly offered some dedicated tools to facilitate communication during the emergency. The Safety Check tool allowed Facebook users that were in the city to inform their contacts that they were safe. The day after, Facebook offered the possibility to include the colours of the French flag into the profile picture to display solidarity (an act that raised some controversies as many users wondered why a similar initiative was not undertaken few days before, following an attack in Beirut that killed 43 persons. Mark Zuckerberg personally answered to this polemics, always on Facebook).

Twitter reacted by dedicating Moment – a collection of the more important news selected by an internal team – to all the information coming from Paris. Citizens gave their contribution as well, spreading more than one million tweets with some hashtag - #PorteOuverte, #StrandedInUS, #RechercheParis – to help people finding refuge during the shootout or sharing information about missing persons. Something similar had also occurred on January 7th, again in Paris, following the attack at Charlie Hebdo, when information shared on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were in some cases so accurate that they became an issue for the secrecy of ongoing investigations.

An issue that Belgian police did not forget when, in November, launched a great anti-terror operation in Bruxelles, culminated in the arrest of 16 persons suspected to be connected to those responsible for the attack in Paris. In order to avoid information leaks and security breach, Belgian police asked on Twitter not to publish any information on the ongoing operation. Citizens’ response was singular and exceptional: they literally flooded the social media with pictures of cats linked to the operation but without any details, using the hashtag #BrusselsLockDown. As revealed by an Italian agency, this hashtag appeared in more than 196,000 tweets between 21st and 23rd November, reaching 282 million followers. By doing this, citizens not only recognized the importance of the situation and cooperated to protect their city, but also soothed the tension caused by fear. A behaviour acknowledged by the police, which published a tweet with a picture showing a bowl full of kibbles with its logo on it.

The search for key influencers

All these examples clearly show why social media, and Twitter in particular, may became extremely useful tools for crisis management in real time. For this reason, ASSET started to monitor public discourses on Twitter about the project’s main topics – i.e. infectious outbreaks, emerging viruses, influenza, vaccines – using a new algorithm that will make the identification of influencers’ networks easier.

Debora Serra

MMLAP and other EU Projects

Health system analysis to support capacity development in response to the threat of pandemic influenza in Asia
Making society an active participant in water adaptation to global change
Public Participation in Developing a Common Framework for Assessment and Management of Sustainable Innovation
Engaging all of Europe in shaping a desirable and sustainable future
Expect the unexpected and know how to respond
Driving innovation in crisis management for European resilience
Effective communication in outbreak management: development of an evidence-based tool for Europe
Solutions to improve CBRNe resilience
Network for Communicable Disease Control in Southern Europe and Mediterranean Countries
Developing the framework for an epidemic forecast infrastructure
Strengthening of the national surveillance system for communicable diseases
Surveillance of vaccine preventable hepatitis
European monitoring of excess mortality for public health action
European network for highly infectious disease
Dedicated surveillance network for surveillance and control of vaccine preventable diseases in the EU
Modelling the spread of pandemic influenza and strategies for its containment and mitigation
Cost-effectiveness assessment of european influenza human pandemic alert and response strategies
Bridging the gap between science, stakeholders and policy makers
Promotion of immunization for health professionals in Europe
Towards inclusive research programming for sustainable food innovations
Addressing chronic diseases and healthy ageing across the life cycle
Medical ecosystem – personalized event-based surveillance
Studying the many and varied economic, social, legal and ethical aspects of the recent developments on the Internet, and their consequences for the individual and society at large
Get involved in the responsible marine research and innovation
Knowledge-based policy-making on issues involving science, technology and innovation, mainly based upon the practices in Parliamentary Technology Assessment
Assessment of the current pandemic preparedness and response tools, systems and practice at national, EU and global level in priority areas
Analysis of innovative public engagement tools and instruments for dynamic governance in the field of Science in Society
Public Engagement with Research And Research Engagement with Society
Computing Veracity – the Fourth Challenge of Big Data
Providing infrastructure, co-ordination and integration of existing clinical research networks on epidemics and pandemics
Promote vaccinations among migrant population in Europe
Creating mechanisms for effectively tackling the scientific and technology related challenges faced by society
Improve the quality of indoor air, keeping it free from radon
Improving respect of ethics principles and laws in research and innovation, in line with the evolution of technologies and societal concerns
Investigating how cities in the West securitise against global pandemics
Creating a structured dialogue and mutual learning with citizens and urban actors by setting up National Networks in 10 countries across Europe
Identifying how children can be change agents in the Science and Society relationship
Establishing an open dialogue between stakeholders concerning synthetic biology’s potential benefits and risks
Transparent communication in Epidemics: Learning Lessons from experience, delivering effective Messages, providing Evidence