I hope that's what will be happening at the U.S. Coast Guard in the wake of its ill-timed training exercise last week on the Potomac River--within striking distance of the Pentagon, White House and the presidential motorcade--at 9:30 a.m. on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Because the drill included a mock attack that could be overheard on radio channels, CNN and Fox News reported a suspect vessel firing shots--and set off panic (including FBI and police response) and a discussion on Twitter that's still going on a week later, with thousands of people spreading the initial message, the correction, and finally, opinions on who messed up what. And while the Coast Guard issued a hasty statement (so fast that the initial version, now corrected, was riddled with typos) and maintains a useful presence on Twitter, it clearly got caught unawares by this incident.
Here's the thing: It didn't have to happen. In this case, while many observers shot the messenger, social media's not the culprit. Social media showed up all the avoidable cracks in this communications system. As a consultant who helps organizations think through strategies and communications crisis plans--and who sees too many groups or companies say, "we don't have the time or money to make a plan"--I look at this incident and others like it as an indicator of things to come.
So, let me ask you: Have you looked at what you can do to clean up your communications act before social media does it for you, in a very public way? If not, it may be time for an audit with that in mind. Here are some perspectives I took away from the Coast Guard incident about what parts of this game social media is changing:
- Your sense of timing: Anyone in spitting distance of your emergency, from passersby to listening-in news media, can spurt an alert without benefit of your information in an apparent emergency. All they need is a cellphone. What do you need? A faster monitoring system that includes what's on Twitter, for starters. You'll also need information and methods in place ahead of time, where possible, so you can move faster than ever before in responding.
- Your planning. This is no longer optional, and may be your only lifesaver if a similar incident came to pass. The Coast Guard might have looked at the 9/11 anniversary date and said, "No attack exercises on that day--too easy to be mistaken for the real thing." But failing that, it also could have issued an alert days ahead of time to major media, given the training's location in the nation's capital, letting the desk and key reporters know that training exercises would continue as usual and would include faux attack announcements. It could've tweeted that information more broadly, too, on the day in question...more than once. Anticipating how things may be seen and reported (by reporters or citizens) has to be part of your discussions.
- How your spokespeople are prepared: From your leaders to those actually handling the situations you may encounter--from security to maintenance--you'll need to invest in training, if only so that you know what their instincts are in an emergency and how to make sure they fit the situations you can anticipate. Failure to do this can lead to problems with optics (think showing up in a suit and tie at a flood scene) as well as more weighty problems (pulling guns on reporters to keep them away from a disaster), all of which have happened before. How will you respond in a variety of situations? Who'll handle reporters? Who gets access? How? How will you do that--and social media--if you're operating from the sidewalk instead of your office? (Handily, technology makes that last one easier, if you plan ahead.)
- How you'll use social media to share information. This isn't something you can start doing overnight, or on a whim during a crisis. I've been following the Coast Guard for months on Twitter, so I happened to see its response in real time...but like many others, I'd already passed on the CNN reports, which came out faster. If you've got your networks in place before a crisis comes up, you can use them to pass information to others. If you lack a social media presence, you won't have the traction to do that at that critical moment. (And by presence, I don't mean just one avid social media maven in your company or organization. All critical units need to be ready to participate in spreading the message to key networks.)
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