Thursday, September 16, 2010

Your social-media plan needs its own crisis plan: 6 lessons from the #hopkinsshooting

We're all learning from experience when using social media as a communications tool, and when you learn from experience, you usually wind up with the bruises to prove it.
In the spirit of helping us all learn, I want to share what I watched unfold on Twitter today while many of us were keeping an eye on developments in the shooting that took place at Johns Hopkins University--a shooting in which the gunman shot a doctor (who is expected to recover), barricaded himself in a hospital room,  fatally shot his mother (a patient there) and finally himself.  Dozens of city blocks were shut down, as well as one floor in the hospital, throughout the day.
Some of the great communications team at Hopkins are among my clients, and like many with friends on the campus, I first sought to check on their safety.  Twitter was buzzing with rumors, links and updates from a wide variety of sources.  (The Baltimore Sun's crime reporter, Justin Fenton, did a great job reporting via Twitter and soon became a primary source for those of us watching events unfold.)  But because I hang with a lot of communicators and journalists, I felt good about my sources and shared what came across my stream.
At no point, however, did I share actual tweets from Hopkins.  Here's why: The ones I saw weren't about the crisis, but about ordinary feature-y topics that could've been posted anytime. Later, I saw this tweet from JohnsHopkins, the primary Twitter account for the university (which I follow):

It was sent in response to the tweet at the top of the post, from a reader who--like me--saw it as odd that the university was tweeting about seemingly mundane topics when a real crisis was afoot.

None of this endangered people on the ground, let's be clear. And I don't agree with those who feel that the only information we should listen to on Twitter during a crisis comes from the institutions involved.  Witnesses and smart observers can add to the understanding of what's happening, and do so on Twitter.  But I think this small example can serve as a reminder of at least six home truths we might want to add to our "lessons learned" about social media use during a crisis, such as:
  1. Your social media plan needs its own crisis plan.  Just as with any other planned activity, crisis can disrupt your social media strategy.  It's entirely possible to think through ahead of time a variety of scenarios and how it would look if you proceeded with your social-media-business-as-usual, then figure out what to do differently. Put that on your team's to-do list.
  2. If ever there were a time to unhook the automated tweeting, a crisis would be it.  Don't continue to post evergreen topics when the rest of the forest is on fire.  At best, it comes off as odd and dissonant; at worst, uncaring and callous. Think of it this way:  If you were in the middle of a news briefing with reporters about a shooting on your property, and paused every few minutes to announce mundane, unrelated news, how would it look?  Assign someone to cut off or alter the automated feed as soon as possible, as part of your crisis plan.
  3. Remember that, in a crisis, people are looking to you for information (and that's a good thing).  I know that the communicators at Hopkins were juggling two major tasks yesterday:  Keeping themselves calm in the face of real danger, and handling an onslaught of inquiries.  But those looking to you for information don't care that you prescheduled that tweet, honestly.
  4. Sometimes, old-school tactics work just fine in social media.  There's a longstanding dictum in crisis communications that suggests there's only one thing for a spokesperson to say during an emergency of the type we saw today, where there's a bomb/shooter/barricaded suicidal person afoot, if you are speaking from headquarters.  That one thing is as follows:  "Our first concern is for the safety of our employees/students/residents/citizens."  You can say anything you want after that, but it's essential to make clear that you know your priority is the people in harm's way. If I'd had to respond to that tweet-complaint about off-topic posts today in 140 characters, I might have tried this: "Thx 4 feedback. 1st priority 2day: Keeping students, employees safe, & handling ?s. We didn't take time to turn off auto-tweets in the rush."  (But I'd sure cut off that feed next time.)
  5. Your Twitter feed isn't just a way to push out automated announcements.  Let me say upfront that I've been following Hopkins since the start of its Twitter feed, and I don't feel that they approach it this way. But I do encounter dozens of communicators every time I speak about social media who are looking for the quick, canned, how-do-I-get-this-done-easy fix, be it hiring a firm to tweet for them or autoposting around the clock.  Crisis communication was among the earliest uses of Twitter, for a reason. Again, it's worth your time to consider what you'd do differently if a crisis blew a hole through your auto-tweet policy.
  6. Be useful on Twitter in a crisis.  Share updates that are public. Explain things that may seem odd (for example, why you can't disclose the name of the person who was shot, yet). If there's a hotline or other way to find information, post it.  And--especially useful to all, reporters and onlookers alike--explain why there are delays and when you expect to have another update. I'd much rather see a tweet that said, "University officials and police now meeting to update situation; we hope to have more to share after 3pm" than almost any other kind.  It suggests, for starters, that real people are back there listening to the real concern being expressed.
I've helped more than a few clients think through their crisis responses in advance, and have even created customized trainings so they could work through how different parts of their organizations would respond publicly.  But we're all learning on this territory, so I'd like to know: What else would you add to this list, if you were remaking how we handle social media in a crisis? And, just for the record, while I do have clients at Hopkins, they didn't contribute to, nor have they seen, this post in advance--but I welcome their insights as well.  I figured they could use one less phone call today, of all days.

I offer communications and social media strategy consultation; content development; and training in public speaking, social media and related skills, like writing coaching--and I welcome your referrals, at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

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