This post appeared originally on the IABC Calgary website.
Remember when the biggest question for organizations was how and when to release information about an unfolding crisis? That was back when consultants preached orderly protocols and the public mostly received their information on the evening news or the next day’s newspaper.
And now? Now, every crisis explodes onto our radar in a flurry of tweets, texts and visuals. By the time the evening news is broadcast, the public already knows what is going on via social media.
It’s an all-out, cross-channel, adrenaline-pumping free-for-all.
So, how do you deal with the fact that most of the information about the crisis is going to be reported by a random and potentially anonymous group of citizen journalists who have little or no training, context or accountability?
Anticipate and prepare
Although it seems like once a crisis hits, you can only react, there is actually quite a bit of work you can do in advance to prepare.
The most important thing is to arm your communications team with the technology they need to get the job done. Have dedicated laptops, smartphones and workstations fully set up and ready to go when there is a crisis. Ensure they have photo and video editing software and are capable of accessing internal shared drives and the cloud. They’ll need digital cameras (both still and video) with all the associated gear, including tripods and microphones.
A crisis is visually dramatic and social media audiences love visuals. Whoever has the best photos and YouTube videos will win the day. It only takes one citizen journalist with a decent camera to draw the audience away from your official channel. If you are prepared and react quickly with your own visuals, the audience will give you the benefit of the doubt and trust you more.
People believe what they can see with their own eyes over what you tell them.
It’s also essential to do your research beforehand to determine who the informal influential leaders are on the various social media channels. Build lists on Twitter (either private or public), research and understand hashtags, create interest lists on Facebook, link pages through reciprocal liking and at a minimum, at least have accounts on Instagram and Vine in case you need to use them in a crisis. It’s a given that you will need a YouTube channel and a Flickr photo sharing site. Ensure your Flickr licensing allows for sharing widely so that your photos can be freely circulated on social media.
Monitor and respond
Once a crisis is in full swing, it is not possible to ignore social media. You must dedicate resources to monitor the channels and respond quickly to correct inaccuracies that will inevitably circulate.
Send facts and information out frequently and across multiple channels. Have your crisis communications team access a shared online workspace like Basecamp where facts and messaging can be added centrally, then just copied and pasted into any medium.
All facts and messaging should be written in plain language. If each piece of information is written in 120 characters or less, it can easily be lifted directly and pasted into Twitter. Short facts and messages can be strung together where there is more space (like Facebook).
Ensure all photos are stored centrally (either in the shared workspace or in the cloud, for example via Flickr) with a short caption written as soon as they are uploaded. This can be done in batches to make it easier.
Whenever possible, you should respond on social media with a photo or graphic.
It’s essential that the approval process for information dissemination is discussed and outlined in advance of a crisis. There should be a clear chain of command for approvals that is documented, shared and understood. Without this, there will almost certainly be mayhem in the communications team and the audience is at high risk of receiving incorrect information.
Share and share alike
The biggest adjustment for most organizations in a crisis is recognizing that social media not only presents significant challenges, it also offers many new opportunities.
A crisis is a chance to build and leverage relationships with trusted partners. Recognize that you can’t do it alone and accept help when others outside your organization bring certain skills, knowledge and resources to the table that you don’t have or need help with.
Reach out to others and build that social network in a crisis.
Bring people together who may be working at cross-purposes but do not know it. Often, those on the crisis communications team have a birds-eye view of what’s happening and can connect people for even better results. Don’t get so caught up in your official role that you reject or ignore the unofficial efforts of others. Encourage and support them. Don’t shut them out.
Deliver the best content
Finally, a crisis is no excuse for bad content. Ensure everything you distribute via social media is well written. On the visual side, design for clarity, demand that your photos are shot to a high standard and make absolutely sure your videos are of good quality (audio too!).
For most organizations, this means setting quality standards year-round and making a concerted effort to hold everyone to those standards. A style guide that is never followed, the acceptance and distribution of sub-standard photos or poorly produced videos will be carried over in a crisis.
People don’t suddenly become competent at delivering good content during a crisis. If you don’t do it the rest of the time, you certainly won’t deliver good content when all hell breaks loose.
Pick a crisis communications team that is versatile and visual.
There are many free design tools on the web that can enable the quick production of graphics by those with basic understanding of design. Social media audiences will be all over it.
And don’t forget to capture and record everything you do for analysis and debriefing when the crisis is over. A daily (or even more frequently if necessary) Storify story is one way to sum everything up and capture your social media to refer back to later. It also provides a convenient way to track down metrics later.
Every crisis communication response needs to be measured and evaluated for improvement.
The access to stats is one of the greatest gifts of social media – but that’s a story for another day.