How Crisis Communicators Rely on Social Media

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Mar. 18, 2013 12:00 am  

A mobile application allows Entergy users to get updates on where power outages are occurring and the estimated time for when those utilities should be restored.

Trips out to the car became a valuable part of the days Reagan Taylor spent at his in-laws’ house during the 2012 winter power outage.

Taylor and his family were without power to their Malvern home for nearly a week in December. And like most folks who have had to rely on friends or family for a place to stay during an extended period, finding some personal space was a welcome experience.

Perhaps even more critical to Taylor, he said, was that the car provided a spot to keep his phone charged. Like thousands of Arkansans, Taylor relied on the Internet, social media in particular, to stay updated on the progress Entergy Arkansas crews were making in restoring power to more than 190,000 customers.

Knowing how things were going in the field helped some impacted citizens like Taylor make the best of a difficult situation.

“It didn’t help get the power on any quicker, but knowing they were out there doing what they were doing, you knew they were going as fast as they could to get your power back,” Taylor said. “Not being home wears on you, but I thought they handled it well and did a good job of keeping everybody updated.”

December was Entergy’s first real-time opportunity to use a social media plan it was developing for crisis communications. Twitter and an online media presence became a valuable part of the roughly 200-page storm communications plan that Entergy spokeswoman Julie Munsell and her team followed.

In anticipation of the next significant event that Entergy has to deal with, they are continuing to tweak the plan. That included a round of social media exercises during recent disaster preparedness drills.

Using a smartphone to gather information is becoming a necessity during storms. It’s why Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club division set up power stations at stores in the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy hit.

“People needed the ability to connect with loved ones as much as a hot meal,” said Mark Scott, public relations manager for Sam’s Club. Even people who were not members of the wholesale club were allowed inside to power up their phones and computers.

Immediacy has long been seen as a key component of effective crisis communications. The longer you allow limited information, the more at crisis your stakeholders — in these cases, the general public — feel.

That’s why social media has become an important tool. It provides an avenue for nearly real-time delivery. It also allows communicators to speak directly with affected customers.

Chris Lehane, a political consultant, crisis communications expert and co-author of the book “Masters of Disaster,” said communicators would be smart to invest time and resources into how they use social media during times of crisis.

“Those who amass a significant Twitter following can employ the platform as a powerful vehicle to communicate quickly and directly to their audiences,” Lehane said in a recent email exchange.

Avoiding More Disaster

Because Twitter allows communicators to reach large audiences quickly, it can be a helpful tool in times of crisis. And because Twitter allows communicators to reach large audiences quickly, it can also be a damaging tool in times of crisis.

Type “social media disasters” into Google and you get 31 million results. While not all of the examples returned relate specifically to communicating with the masses during a storm or similar event, they do show how wrong things can go in 140 characters or less.

Even once apologies or corrections are made, incorrect information can take on a life of its own online. Information spreads quickly, so what a company distributes shouldn’t do more harm than good, especially in a time of crisis like the winter power outage.

(For advice from six spokespeople on how to handle crises, click here.)

Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, the Little Rock advertising and PR agency, has worked on just about any crisis communications situation you can imagine. The firm has counseled after airplane crashes, plant explosions, oil spills, train derailments, employee deaths, product recalls and personnel issues. It’s provided litigation support. And accuracy is always key.

Denver Peacock, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, handles strategic communications for CJRW. He points to immediacy and transparency as essential in crisis situations, but warns the immediacy can’t come at the expense of accuracy.

“You have to be very careful with the information you’re communicating to the public,” Peacock said. “But you also have to do it very quickly, as quickly as possible in light of the conversation. You don’t want to get out there with bad information and create a second problem, which is now you have to correct the bad information.”

Munsell said multiple Entergy employees were part of the process for sending each individual tweet. That slowed things down some, but it prevented bad information from getting circulated.

Communication with crews in the field was vital to keeping the public informed. From the field, it went to what Munsell described as a “war room” and then out to the public.

“That’s probably one of the most difficult parts during a storm because the status changes so rapidly,” Munsell said. “So it’s imperative you make sure information is accurate while you get it out as quickly as possible.”

Human Touch

Tweeting alone wouldn’t have been enough for Entergy during the winter outage.

That is why you saw the company open up information centers to customers. Entergy CEO Hugh McDonald held press briefings to help keep the public updated.

There’s even a documented case of McDonald showing up at a customer’s house after receiving an angry letter, which underscores an important point about communicating during a difficult time: people matter.

Sometimes emotional responses from customers on social media underscored that point. Information might be traveling through machines, but on each end of the exchange, there were people.

“Hey, after four or five days of no power, all emotions go out the window,” Reagan Taylor, the Malvern resident, said. “It gets old.”

Entergy reported more than 6,000 downloads of its app that week. It received 600 messages on Twitter and Web traffic tripled. Those totals represent a significant online presence for a company still developing its social media approach, but in reality, it’s a small fraction of the people who were impacted by the storm and outages.

There are multiple options in a company’s communications toolbox. Finding a way to maximize them all matters.

“Using Twitter and our online presence was a valuable tool, but not the only vehicle we should be using,” Munsell said. “People still want to communicate directly with a person. But there are enough people seeking interaction online that it’s important to make that part of what we do.”

Peacock echoed those thoughts. Human interaction — putting a face on the situation — is still critical when things aren’t going as planned.

Even in the case of a Twitter feed it needs to feel like humans are behind it. No matter how immediate or accurate the information coming from the feed is, customers need more.

“It’s even more important to have a human component to your response,” Peacock said. “You need to emote compassion when it’s needed. ... You look at some of the folks online that have done a good job of that over the years and it’s the ones that have had someone that is communicating a consistent human voice that have been the most effective.”



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