Incidents of crisis can happen at any time, anywhere and affect any organisation. In the UK alone this year there have been several tragic terror attacks, severe weather systems that caused fatalities and incidents of “fake news” that resulted in widespread panic and casualties.
Having a defined, documented and well-rehearsed social media strategy, which supports and enhances a wider communications plan, is key to communicating timely, accurate and concise information to the public.
We asked a number of diverse organisations that we work with to share their experiences on what a “crisis” means to them and offer some best practices on how to implement a robust social media strategy to aid crisis management.
Yvonne George – Communications Specialist – Manchester Council
“On 22nd May 2017 at 22:31 there was a horrific terrorist attack in the foyer of the Manchester Arena. Our thoughts are still very much with the bereaved families and all those whose lives have been changed forever, they will never be forgotten in Manchester.
This was the largest and most complex incident Manchester has ever dealt with. Manchester City Council played a key part in the multi-agency response led by Greater Manchester Police (GMP).
The Council’s Communications team has a clear plan for major incidents and that includes the management of our social media platforms. Working with partners, we ensured that clear, concise and accurate messages were shared, not just to Manchester residents but across the world. As agreed in our plan, for the initial response, GMP’s messages take primacy and our first responsibility is to amplify these messages to ensure the biggest reach – ultimately to protect and inform people during those confusing first hours.
While we continued to share emergency services’ and partner’s key messages and content, it’s at this point that the Council’s social media feed became a trusted news source. Whether it was to inform people about the vigils, acts of remembrance, inform people about where to get help or to share messages of solidarity and reassurance, no one was waiting for a press release. It was simply too fast paced for that.
Again, as part of the plan – all scheduled content was stopped for a week. It was essential that the tone of our accounts reflected the city’s strength and public response.
Messages on social media were unprecedented in numbers and our social media monitors were remarkably prompt and professional in a period of extreme demand, supporting transparency at all times. The team managed messages around the clock making sure people and individuals were responded to and thanked for their kind words of support and strength. We gained over 30,000 followers, an 800% increase in engagement, thousands of DMs and on 23 May had over 1.8m organic impressions on Twitter alone.
The team attended all the civic events and the vigil, attended by thousands, gathering the content that the public needed and wanted to see. And, in the following days showed the moving scenes from the memorials in Albert Square and in St Ann’s Square from the Council’s social media feeds.
Manchester City Council’s Social media response was extremely well implemented. And as if we ever needed convincing, demonstrated the fundamental requirement for our social channels to engage effectively with citizens. It also highlighted the strength and professionalism of our team – who were at the frontline of the response providing support and compassion as well as vital content for our communities.
This Christmas, we’re inspiring the spirit of community and hope in Manchester with our This is Christmas. This is Manchester. campaign.”
Kayla Sheik – Head of Social Customer Service – Virgin Trains
“Incidents are almost impossible to predict but require immediate action when they do occur. In these scenarios, we focus on three key areas;
Proactive versus Reactive
In crisis scenarios, our messaging and our social listening switch from a more reactive to proactive approach. We focus on prioritising inbound messages in real-time and processing and actioning information available with accurate social listening.
Ensuring the correct and most up to date information is readily available on our website and on social is crucial. We work to push straight-forward enquiries to this information, freeing up more time to respond to the more complex or urgent enquiries.
During “Storm Doris”, we received approximately 8,000 inbound messages in one day, significantly above our daily average of 1,445 inbound messages per day. Efficiently assigning tasks, prioritising messages and allocating additional resources where needed allows us to get our customers where they need to go as quickly as possible.”
David Bailey – Senior Communications Manager – Staffordshire Police
“No one can deny the challenges the British Police Service has faced during many crisis situations during 2017. Every crisis situation is different, regardless of the area, the key to managing the crisis is the flow of accurate information and the tackling of false information.
You can’t really talk about crisis communications without addressing the now well-known phrase of ‘fake news’. I think police communicators should have t-shirts made up stating “Police Communicators – dealing with ‘fake news’ since 2011.
This is because the summer disorder (police speak for riots) in 2011 was the first time that the UK saw how social media could amplify what are an individual’s concerns or fears into a mass concerns and sometimes into a self-fulfilling reality. We listened to the concerns surfacing on social media and responded, explaining the reality, which was rarely what was feared.
With the tragic events of this summer, we have seen similar issues. It’s human nature to fear the worst, so when there are incidents like the terror attacks that affected Manchester and London, the community starts to have a heightened sensitivity to the more routine incidents emergency services deal with on a daily basis.
The vast majority of the ‘fake news’ that police have to deal with is based on the fears and perceptions of the public, in the absence of information from a more trusted source. This is why the police service has become experts in crisis communications in the social media age. We’re not perfect, and we can never be everything to everyone, but we are the trusted or primary source of the facts.
During crisis situations, there is often a discontinuity between the immediate desire for information and facts by social media audiences and the speed in which those facts can be established and shared. What the police service does is ensure we share accurate information as quickly as possible, which builds trust that the service is dealing with the incident and is committed to getting the known and trusted information out to those that need it in a timely fashion.
The reality is that until we have skilled police professionals at a scene of an incident we don’t really know what we are responding to. This is why the language we choose to describe activity is important. For example, ‘we are responding to reports of….’ is regularly used. This phrase communicates that we are finding out more, without causing too much alarm. What we need to avoid in crisis situations is losing the position of trust built up over years and months of successful communications with the public.
The emergency services’ role in crisis communications is to be the trusted source, the rational and instructive voice, and we use social media to achieve this, to amplify the facts and not the rumours. You can only achieve this if you understand what the key concerns are and how to address them. Working with partners, the media and the community directly helps to understand audiences and to develop strategies.”
Darren Caveney – Owner – comms2point0
“At comms2point0, we mind the GAP when it comes to managing a crisis effectively on social media. This acronym breaks down as follows;
G Good governance
Not the sexiest of topics when it comes to social media but one which must be nailed and managed to ensure your organisation is in a good place to respond to a crisis.
Picture the scene: A member of staff goes rogue and begins posting on one of your organisational social media accounts. Reputational damage ensues. Your Chief Executive rushes into the office and asks you to take it down immediately. “Sorry, we don’t have the password” is going to make for a really uncomfortable coming few hours, days and even weeks. Don’t let it happen to you.
The advice? Ensure that the communications team has access to the passwords of every single social media account, especially when they change, and that these passwords are logged securely for accessing at times of crisis and are managed centrally through your management platform. This governance requirement should be clearly stated in your organisational social media policy.
Telling the story of what is happening around your crisis can be the simple difference between a good or disastrous outcome. It’s vital to use social media effectively to make announcements and to engage with those concerned or impacted by the crisis. We’ve all seen examples of this playing out well, and very badly.
Good, clear, timely honest and open updates across social media will help to reassure that your organisation is on top of the crisis as well as showing that you are being honest in sharing the latest information to anyone affected by the incident. If your crisis is big and impacts on enough people you can expect it to appear on Twitter and Facebook in a very short time. You’re going to need to be all over it to bust myths and point people to the correct information. Stay quiet on social media in a crisis at your peril.
Plan for your crisis to happen out of hours. It seems like the crisis gods always choose out of hours for an incident to land. And this can test even the most organised of organisations.
There are many things we can do to help this. For starters don’t let your out of hours response be a single point of failure – oh Dave is on call this weekend so he’ll pick it up. Don’t assume. Pre-prepare for what will happen in the event of a weekend crisis landing – think who, what, where, when and how so that panic doesn’t kick in. This should all be clearly laid out in your organisation’s emergency or business continuity plan and make sure this plan is reviewed at least once a year, especially as staff come and go.”
Andrew Purchase – Marketing Executive – West Midlands Combined Authority
“When an incident occurs which is likely to cause significant disruption to services, we focus on two main areas; communicating information and advice to customers and working closely with transport operators in the region.
The need for information when incidents occur can be staggering. When the discovery of a WW2 bomb closed the main expressway and disrupted rail and bus services here in Birmingham City Centre, the visits to our disruptions page on our website increased by 1,714% over two days. Ensuring this page contained the latest updates was vital to our crisis management strategy, not only for those directly visiting but to direct those on social media. We put in place out of hours cover to keep providing information that would help customer journeys. Focusing resource allowed us to drive down response times, and to keep getting the right messages and information out at the right times. Results showed we made 70,000 more impressions than an average day on our @networkwm Twitter channel.
Staying in close contact with operators in the region during incidents allows us to better understand what’s going on at ground level and what the needs of customers are. They also help us to maintain the information available so it is the most up to date. To complement this, we retweet and share operator information on social media, as well as publish our own content around the incident, to position us as a reliable, up to date, one-stop shop for public transport information in the West Midlands.”See More