Social Media Crisis Communication Lessons Learned from Indiana State Fair Stage Collapse

At least 4 people died and 40 people were injured when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair before a Sugarland concert as part of the State Fair festivities.

As I flip around the three main TV stations (I have forgotten to check out WXIN, Indianapolis’ Fox affiliate), and watch Twitter, I’m amazed by the level of activity I’ve seen on Twitter. I’ve also seen some things happen with social media crisis communications that I never dreamed would happen when I was in that role at the Indiana State Department of Health. Other things I have seen (or not seen) don’t surprise me one bit.

  • The main sources of news are the four main news channels here, WTHR (NBC), WISH (CBS), WRTV (ABC), and WXIN (Fox), and the Indianapolis Star (@IndyStar). Several people are retweeting news they see on TV. Nothing is coming from any of the official channels, and TV stations are left to interview witnesses and replay the same cell phone videos over and over. One station looped the same video at least 14 times in 10 minutes.
  • Officials have been asking people to update their Facebook pages and send tweets to let loved ones know they’re okay. The cell phone towers were jammed, especially as first responders were also using cell phones, and people weren’t able to call in or out. A friend, Elizabeth, was searching for information on one of her friends, Jenn, and finally received word that she was okay, a la her Facebook page.
  • The first response agencies have done or nearly nothing with social media (compared to the London police, which updated people about the status of the riots via Twitter).
    • The Indiana Department of Homeland Security (IDHS)* has a Twitter feed, but has not updated it since August 8th. Their Twitter feed reads more like a list of press release announcements.
    • Mayor Greg Ballard’s Twitter feed has basic announcements every 30 minutes.
    • The Indiana State Police never even mentioned the tragedy, and the Indianapolis Metro Police Department haven’t updated since June 5.
    • The Indianapolis Department of Public Safety (@IndianapolisDPS) was providing basic information via their Twitter feed.
    • Other than @MayorBallard, there was nothing from official channels.

    While I don’t expect these groups to give us a minute-by-minute update via Twitter, if they are involved, they should be communicating with the public, even if it’s to tell people to tune in to local news for more information. If they’re not involved, they should at least refer people to the proper agency.

  • The first rule of crisis communication is to “Be first. Be right. Be credible.” The very agencies that people are depending on for this information were not. And now that social media has become more prevalent, the days of depending on emailed press releases written by committees and regularly rescheduled press conferences are way over (a press conference was originally scheduled for midnight, and then rescheduled to 1:30 am. But they could have kept the news media up to date with occasional tweets and quick blog posts).
  • I’m struck by the irony of the authorities asking people to use social media to give updates while they barely use it themselves. Hopefully this will convince the first response authorities start to use it themselves.
  • When I was in crisis communication, one of our roles was to respond to and squelch rumors and bad information. Not only was there not any of this happening from official sources, like IDHS, Indiana State Police, or even the Indianapolis Police, it was the Twitter users who were correcting information. This represents a major shift from who is the trusted source of news: social media has just shown that it’s the people, not the authorities.
  • The crisis communicators responding to crises like these need to start including social media in their own responses. Not only can they get news out to the public, they can respond to rumors and bad information immediately, squelching it, and getting out good information instead.
  • The news media would be smart to start streaming their news programs on their websites during emergencies like this. I was communicating with people in Chicago, Alabama, and even Toronto about the incident. All I’ve been able to do is send them to stories on sites, but they could watch this live if the stations would stream their emergency news broadcasts.
  • People on Twitter are affecting the news coverage, or at least are being heard. At one point, WTHR had shown the collapse of the stage (via a cell phone video) more than 14 times in 10 minutes. Shawn Plew tweeted this fact, and @WTHRcom responded and said they would mention it to the producers.
  • One of the reporters from WISHTV (the CBS affiliate) downloaded different videos from YouTube to his computer, so he could play them on screen with a double-click, rather than worrying about streaming from YouTube itself. He’s using a large screen TV so we can see the videos more easily.

If you’ve ever had any doubt about the need for a smartphone, or the power that citizen journalists wield, know this: all of the footage and images that all the newscasts are showing, and the ones that the national news outlets will be playing over and over, came from people and their smartphones. Not news cameras recording the aftermath of an event, but real action shot by real people who were on the scene.

Most of the information people were getting via Twitter was coming from anyone who was discussing the event, watching it on TV and passing word along, or even listening to the live stream of the scanner traffic online.

Once again, social media has broken the news, and gotten images out before the news broadcasts could. That’s not an indictment of the mainstream news, it’s a testament to the power of social media and citizen journalism. But it should show government agencies and corporations that they can no longer rely on traditional media to break the news or even discuss the story.

*The IDHS coordinates the efforts of the Indiana Police Department, emergency managers, fire departments, and other first responders. They would sometimes be involved in a large-scale event like this, even in an advisory capacity.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. Erik, thanks for sharing. Government agencies are still grappling with how to use social media to engage their communities. Over in Singapore, social media is more a platform for experimentation on using it to pitch corporate messages akin to traditional corporate websites. The lessons from the tragedy you had mentioned and the tsunami that hit Japan is a wake up call for all that in times like this, social media, powered by ubiquitous smartphones are the primary source of information.

    2. Jon,

      You’re absolutely right about people like the Mayor not tweeting. They should not, they should be dealing with the emergency at hand.

      But the person who SHOULD be tweeting is his PIO (Public Information Officer) or communication director. The PIO should have the phone in her hands, tapping away with every new update.

      When it comes to a unified command system like NIMS (National Incident Management System), they have a whole communication department of PIOs who handle the communication for the incident and NIMS system. And that’s who should have been tweeting.


    3. Jon Collins says

      I will also add though that as wonderful and powerful as social media is…I think law enforcement, the mayor, and governor were a bit too busy to be tweeting. Had they been tweeting…they would have been criticized for that publicly I’m sure. This was an all hands on deck situation…no hands really needed to be tweeting just so I, sitting at home on my couch, could know the updated fatality and injury count.

    4. Jon Collins says

      I too was amazed by the information and how quickly I could find answers via Twitter as opposed to the news outlets. I was watching the video of the stage collapse on WTHR’s Facebook page 15-20 minutes before they showed it live on their broadcast. So, there, it seems like while they are adapting social media, there is still room for more fluid use.

    5. Ryan Puckett says

      Interesting observations Erik. I have to add that I was struck by the lack of response by Governor Daniels on the night of the event. The reason I find this disconcerting is that the State Fair is a Indiana State Government event. Also, the Indiana State Police and the Indiana Department of Homeland Security are obviously heavily involved. Both are also under the Governor’s watch. Yes, Daniels was at the press conference on Sunday morning, but I think he should have been there for the first press conference on Saturday night. Mayor Ballard was there, why wasn’t the Governor there?

      Getting back to the social media side of all this, @MyManMitch hasn’t been updated since Aug 12 with a tweet telling people to come see @INFirstLady at the @IndyStateFair (Side note: @INGovernor has never tweeted and followed one person – @INFirstLady.)

      I really think there should at least been a statement from Gov. Daniels on Saturday night and Twitter is one place he could have done it.

    6. Cassie Dull says

      I myself was glued to the TV, my Twitter stream and the TV channels’ Facebook pages for 3 hours Saturday night. One thing that was tweeted that I think was 100% appropriate for the time came from @IndyStateFair at 9:21pm – “We are responding and will make announcements as they come.” In times of crisis like this, it is so critical to get this simple message out via social media. That simple act of letting people know that you are there and listening, even if you don’t have info to pass along yet, can calm the crowds and put you in a position of being an official “voice.”

      Although some disagree with WTHR’s continual loop of the video, you have to admit that it is pretty amazing that a firsthand video of the collapse was on air within an hour. Just a few years ago, we would have waited a day or more to see a video like that.

    7. Chris and Allison were my main sources of information. They were excellent at curating the various streams.

      Your thoughts on smartphones is on point. Also, texting uses very little bandwidth and will get messages out when the voice channels are full.

      Thanks for your insights Erik.

    8. Glaring takeaway: “Metro Police Department haven’t updated since June 5. While I don’t expect these groups to give us a minute-by-minute update via Twitter, if they are involved, they should be communicating with the public, even if it’s to tell people to tune in to local news for more information. If they’re not involved, they should at least refer people to the proper agency.” It’s hard for me to understand how agencies involved in public safety do not understand that in a crisis, frantic people are looking to them for info, even if it’s, “here’s where to go to find out more.” Too bad. Thanks for the good stuff again.

    9. The tragedy really hit home for me the use of Twitter and other social channels. We recently stopped cable service so I was on my phone getting weather updates from Paul Poteet when I saw a message from Jenn mentioned in your article stating the stage fell on people at the State Fair. Thats all her update said. When I saw a message from a state trooper friend saying nothing but “Tragedy!!!!” I knew something was up. The next thing I did was go to #instatefair hashtag on Twitter. Even if I had cable TV I probably wouldve done this first anyways. I saw real time updates from an Indy Star music reporter who was at the concert. I then found out about a police scanner radio website. I proceeded to tweet info being broadcast over the scanner. Shawn Plew (mentioned above) Allison Carter and myself seemed to be providing a service to numerous people who couldnt access info (or chose not to) any way other than Twitter. We all proceeded to “live tweet” the events of the evening. While it was extremely insignificant I felt I was helping in some way by getting info out there. Allison was reporting that the TV stations were going with info long after we knew about it online. Sure there were a few moments were false info got out but nothing harmful. It was truly amazing to see the citizen journalist you hear about in other countries during unrest come to my backyard during this tragic event. I agree more use of online and social media channels is a great way to get info out and find out needs real time during a crisis.

    10. Paul Lorinczi says

      The Police Departments in England did use Twitter to provide updates to people during the riots.!/nottspolice

      They did a pretty good job too.


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