Crisis Communications in the Network Age

Crisis communications have become tougher than ever and Google, Facebook and Twitter are to blame.

Google has shortened our patience thresholds and made waiting for information unbearable. And thanks to Facebook and Twitter with their ticker-like activity streams, we expect new information every time we refresh the screen. Everything else is so five minutes ago.

Those same expectations apply to anyone seeking information.  When there’s a disaster or emergency, people want to know what’s going on in real time. They want frequent status updates. And if you can’t provide up to the second updates, the takeaway is the lights are on but nobody’s home. And your reputation suffers.

During the BP Oil Spill, there were “leak cams” set up under water to stream to the Internet and people actually called the first responders to ask them to pan the camera to improve the angle.

“We had to remind them, it’s not a video game,” said Bill Salvin, president and founder at Signal Bridge Communications, who worked on the disaster response communications in the gulf. “They considered their requests to be just as important as the work being done to stop the leak.”

Technology has changed the way crisis communications are handled. There are hundreds of millions of people sharing information on social networks. Good luck being first. Unless your lucky, it’s not going to happen. And you’re not going to be part of every story either.  With hundreds of thousands of articles and blog posts written daily, there’s just too much information (#TMI) to be part of everything.  Which means there are also too many records to set straight.

During Hurricane Sandy, tweets about sharks in the subways were trending.  With so much information being shared so quickly, the crisis communications specialists at FEMA needed a way to keep the rumor mill in check.  People don’t trust information posted to the official FEMA accounts on Twitter or Facebook as much as they do on  So during emergencies, FEMA publishes a rumor control index on their website and share links on social media. By publishing to their own site, instead of just a social network, they used social media for reach and their own website for credibility to set the record straight in one central, online destination.

Still, the biggest challenge of managing crisis communications in the network age is preparing to whole organization to respond to requests for information on social media. If your entry level employees get asked questions from their friends on social media during a disaster or emergency, they need to be prepared to respond. As part of your crisis planning, you need to train the whole organization how to respond to basic questions.

When events are unfolding and everyone is searching for information, it is in the organization’s best interest to use as many of its employees as possible to support the crisis communications effort. The more people communicate on your behalf on social media, the greater the reach your message achieves. And the more polished your spokespeople, the more the media will scrutinize them. As long as everyone is trained to stay in their lane and not answer questions they aren’t informed about, decentralizing crisis communications is the only practical way to handle social media.

At the brand level, there are a few things you should do though.  For one, cease all scheduled and promotional social media communications during a crisis, including sponsored tweets and scheduled status updates. And whether your active in that network or not, make sure you own your name and common iterations like “sucks” and “fail.” You can use a service like Know ’em to save some time. And finally, build a community of support before the crisis occurs. “An emergency is no time to be handing out business cards,” says Marine Captain and public affairs chief Eric Tausch.

This post was written from a panel session organized by Greg Reeder, president of Third Edition Media at the Digital Impact Conference in NYC.