Flash mobs and social media: Today’s new communications crisis

Until recently, the buzz words “flash mob” alluded to a fun marketing stunt where a group of people assembled in a public place to perform a choreographed routine (think the overplayed AT&T TV commercial that’s set in Grand Central Station). Unfortunately, “flash mob” has taken on a negative connotation thanks to numerous violent flash mobs locally, nationally and internationally during which participants engaged in looting and assaults.

Such actions have triggered debate about whether municipalities should shut down social networks and cell phone service (a.k.a., free speech) in order to assure public safety. Here are some recent examples of the types of solutions that have been suggested or employed:

  • Officials of BART, the subway system connecting San Francisco to the rest of the Bay Area, shut down cell service to stations in order to thwart a protest they feared could turn violent.
  • England’s prime minister has said he’s considering blocking Facebook and Twitter to help contain and prevent riots in London and elsewhere.
  • In Ohio, Cleveland Heights imposed a curfew for minors in select business districts after a violent flash mob descended on a street fair, and Cleveland City Council proposed legislation that would make it a crime to summon a flash mob via Facebook, Twitter or other social media.

Perhaps the act of determining and putting into place solutions to prevent and curtail violent flash mobs feels so overwhelming because of the technology involved to organize such events. “We fear what we do not understand,” do we not? For example, in many cases, parents, government officials and law enforcement agents are light years behind familiarity and adoption of social networks compared with teens and young adults.

In actuality, violent flash mobs share similarities to other types of demonstrations and organized protesting that communities and companies must be prepared to confront. The medium for organizing the protest may be different, but the principles for crisis communications planning are the same.

As with any crisis prevention strategy, the first step is to create a plan. One aimed at preventing and dealing with violent flash mobs for entities such as communities, shopping centers and public transit stations should include four crucial components:

  • Create and communicate a “flash mob” policy. Define what is acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior regarding crowds and how participants will be handled if a situation is perceived as an imminent threat. Consider posting this “flash mob” policy to preclude events before they occur.
  • Partner with authorities. Decide when and how to act in alignment with applicable laws of the municipality and/or policies of the location to disperse a violent flash mob.
  • Monitor social networks. Dedicate resources to stay ahead of online flash mob organization efforts.
  • Create an “online neighborhood watch.” Engage in dialogue with customers/citizens, law enforcement agencies and city governments.

Free speech and public safety are not lighthearted topics and certainly warrant further discussion and brainstorming. By engaging in preventive actions, organizations and municipalities can be better prepared to handle any threatened organized effort.

If you'd like to learn more about this subject, please contact Lisa Zone at 216-241-4629 or

To discuss crisis communications, contact Matt Barkett at 216-241-3073 or

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