Crisis communications professionals, especially those dealing with environmental and man-made disasters, will often find themselves in a position where they need to relay information to the public fast. The great thing about social media is that it lets us communicate a lot of information immediately. And for the crisis communications pro, speed is often of the essence.
When I was the Risk Communications Director for the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH), we needed to communicate a lot of our information as quickly as possible. But the technology — at least the technology we had access to — meant being tethered down to a desk or finding a coffee shop that had passable wifi. And in 2006 – 2007, those were harder to find than they are now.
But the technology has caught up with the citizen journalists, surpassed the traditional media, and lets many crisis communicators become the direct source of the news, rather than waiting for the mainstream news people to catch up.
Here are five tools, both online and offline, that crisis communications professionals need to communicate quickly:
1. A smartphone
If you said “duh!” you’ve obviously never worked in government. In 2006, I was handed a Blackberry with the thumbwheel and keyboard. That was five years ago, and most of the agency people I know are still using them. The ones who have upgraded have upgraded to another Blackberry. The problem is, the good communication apps are being developed for the iPhone and Android. The Droid will let you take photos, videos, send tweets, and tap directly into your blog with apps from Posterous or WordPress, and they often cost as much or even less than Blackberry. Yes, the Blackberry will do all of that too, but it has fallen behind in the mobile communication arena, and may soon go the way of the dodo.
Mobile phones are now mini-computers that can make a phone call, not a phone that takes pictures and sends text messages. Sticking your crisis communications pros with flip phones or less-than-current technology hampers your crisis communications efforts severely.
2. Twitter & Facebook accounts
The problem with mainstream media is that you’re bound to their schedule and their filters. Not only do you have to wait until the 5:00 and/or 11:00 news to get your message out, they only spent 60 seconds on your story, and they missed three important points. Meanwhile, people are on Facebook and Twitter talking about the big emergency, and are asking questions that are either going unanswered, or being answered with bad information.
On the other hand, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are updated constantly. People ask questions, and you answer them. You provide people links to the most up-to-date news and numbers, shoot down rumors and misinformation, and get news out to the public without waiting until the media airs it several hours later.
3. A Posterous blog
This may not be your “official” blog, but Posterous is a great distribution channel. You can email photos, videos, and critical information to your Posterous blog, and have it automatically create a new blog post from all the content. Plus everything gets distributed to Flickr or Picasa (photos), YouTube or Vimeo (video), and your official blog. It can automatically notify Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn when there’s a new post up (or you can shut that off, and let your regular blog do that for you).
Writing a new blog post is a snap. Just open up Gmail or your smartphone’s email program, type in the subject line (that becomes the headline), attach the photos or videos, type in a few lines of text and you’ve got a blog post. Rather than waiting until you can get to your laptop and spending several minutes getting it up and running, you can do this on your smartphone in five minutes or less.
4. A WordPress blog on an external server
If you’re in a crisis communications position, you need a blog that is never, ever subjected to the whims, downtimes, and issues that a 3rd-party provider like WordPress.com or Blogger.com would face. It’s also important that your blog’s server exist outside your city, or even state. When I was at ISDH, one of the things we trained for was a nuclear attack aimed at the center of downtown Indianapolis, less than 50 yards from my office. If that happened, our subsequent replacements would need a way to continue to share information, since the melted slag of metal that was once our server was not an option. So our emergency backup was somewhere else far, far away.
I recommend a WordPress.org blog on your server because there are so many plugins and add-ons to increase the functionality of your blog — functionality that WordPress.com and Blogger.com just don’t have. Of course, you need someone who knows how to do all this, or at least an IT department who won’t insist that the blog needs to reside on the server in their building, just down the hall from your office (see Attack, Nuclear: Devastating Effects of). If they won’t help you, then go with WordPress.com or Blogger.com (or even your Posterous blog), until you get someone helpful in IT. Don’t let a bottleneck delay you; find a way to work around them until the bottleneck clears.
Mi-fi is the portable wifi hotspot that fits in your pocket. It’s smaller than a deck of cards, and will support up to 5 users. It’s always on, and extremely secure. For crisis communications pros who rely on their laptops, but don’t always have access to a coffee shop or McDonald’s, this is a must. It’s also easy to recharge, and can plug into any wall or car’s cigarette lighter, which means you can communicate while you’re on the road.
A Mi-fi is also useful when combined with a digital camera and an Eye-Fi card, a wifi-equipped photo storage card. Set it up to automatically upload all photos to your agency’s Flickr or Picasa account, and you can keep people up to date with what’s happening via these two photo sharing sites.
There are a lot of other online and offline tools a crisis communications professional should have, but these are the five I wish I’d had when I was in state government. They would have made life so much easier, and we could have gotten information out a lot more quickly.
Now, if someone can only find a cure for bureaucracy, then life would be perfect, and I would even consider going back in to public service.