Social media in crisis communication: Start with a drill

March 23, 2009

Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Gerald Baron and Dr. John “Pat” Philbin, APR

The following article appears in the April 2009  issue of PR Tactics.

When the wildfires raged through Southern California in October, thousands heard the latest news on evacuations and conditions via Twitter. When Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston, Texas, people received a continuous stream of headlines from an on-the-scene reporter via Twitter.  When US Airways Flight 1549 splashed into the Hudson River, the first photo the world saw of it came through Twitter.  After a major event, the first news will often come through social media — particularly the platforms focused on instant distribution such as blogs and microblogs.

Twitter is one of the latest social media phenomena to attract the interest of communicators and public affairs professionals. This microblogging tool follows blogs, social networking sites (MySpace and Facebook), photo and video sharing sites (Flickr and YouTube) and topic discussion sites (Digg and Newsvine).  At a November 2008 conference for government communicators in Washington, D.C., organized by strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, FEMA introduced its new YouTube channel. Michael Dumlao of Booz Allen Hamilton mentioned three organizations he sees as “champions of social media” — the Los Angeles Fire Department, the American Red Cross and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard has been aggressively employing social media tools to distribute public information, including the addition of blogs to the agency’s public information Web sites. This follows the agency’s long-standing use of images, videos and YouTube for distributing stories about rescues, responding to oil spills and conveying information about law enforcement activities. The Coast Guard uses Twitter for instant updates (@coastguard) and has many followers including the White House (@whitehouse) and major news organizations.

There is no question that social media continue to alter the landscape of public information. Following the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, universities struggled to determine the best ways to notify students about emergencies. They realized that students often check their Facebook accounts more often than e-mail, and changed their communication plans accordingly to keep up with the latest social media developments.

Incorporating social media
Crisis communicators and public affairs professionals, like their PR counterparts, are struggling to incorporate social media into their plans. Perhaps the best way to do this is to incorporate social media into your next crisis drill or major communication exercise. When you plan for things that might go wrong, you also need to plan for the role that social media will play and how its involvement will impact your reputation.

Realistic drills are the best way of evaluating the readiness of an organization to respond to an actual crisis. An exercise like this provides an ideal opportunity to test the technologies that will be used to aid communication. Because news from mainstream and social media are technology-driven, using outdated tools is like marching into battle in a tight column directly into the muzzles of machine guns.

Communicators are already struggling to keep up with the technologies needed to manage instant Web updates, efficiently distribute thousands of e-mails to key stakeholders and communicate via text messaging to critical audiences — and now social media is thrown into the mix. It has become essential to use social media tools that facilitate the dissemination of information in multiple modes.

But how does your team work together to prepare your key messages and then quickly deliver them to multiple audiences? That’s why drills are so important. Besides an actual crisis, there is no better way to find out if your team and the technologies they employ will be effective in meeting these information demands than a drill.

Three key elements
Drills enable communicators to test three essential parts of any response: policies, plans and people. Using these elements, how can you incorporate social media into a communication drill?

Policy — Organizations such as Target formerly had policies that refused to engage bloggers or other social media outlets. However, when a controversy erupted with online complaints about the suitability of an ad showing a teenage girl with the company’s bull’s-eye logo on her underwear, they realized the policy had a serious problem.

It is important for organization leaders to understand that social media should be seen as an arena for conversation rather than merely a channel for directing messages. When social media is approached from a control perspective, the engagement is doomed to fail. There is only one decision to make regarding social media — and that is whether you choose to participate in the conversation or let it go on without you. Both have risks, but the consensus among communication professionals seems to be that engagement is essential.

Planning — How do you incorporate social media into your response plans? This starts with an understanding of what social media is, considering your options and knowing what kind of impact each of these may have on your organization. Social media impacts crisis communication in two distinct ways.

First, the conversation can affect your organization’s perceptions during an event whether you are involved in the conversation or not. Second, social media outlets and formats provide new opportunities to engage stakeholders and the media. Reporters are extensive users of social media during events. They track Twitter accounts, blogs, YouTube, etc. to gather first-hand accounts and gauge reactions. Third, many communicators are now adopting these tools to communicate directly with online audiences. More people are using these tools to supplement their traditional distribution methods.

Crisis communication planning today must incorporate monitoring, active engagement with relevant sites and the use of emerging forms of social media.

People — Are the people who will respond on behalf of your organization conversant with social media? Do they understand the social media culture? Are they capable of engaging in a way consistent with the values and priorities of that culture?

Many organizations, even those with astute PR leaders, have found that there can be a high cost to violating these cultural norms.  A drill is an excellent opportunity to evaluate the performance of your responders — but only if those doing the evaluating understand the role and culture of the medium. If the outside professionals who plan and manage crisis drills are not conversant with social media and how it impacts public perception today, then the exercise will miss the mark.

In a tight economy, budgets are restricted and more work is expected of fewer people. In these circumstances, it is hard to think of planning a major communication exercise. But disaster does not wait for good times, and neither should efforts to prepare for the worst.

Gerald Baron is the founder and president of Baron & Company, a marketing and PR firm, and the founder and former CEO of PIER Systems, a Web-based communication management system. He is a frequent speaker at PRSA conferences and is the author of “Now It Too Late 2: Survival in an Era of Instant News.”

Dr. John “Pat” Philbin, APR, is the senior vice president of PIER Systems, former head of external affairs for FEMA and former chief of public affairs for the U.S. Coast Guard. He has extensive experience in crisis management.


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