Crisis Communications Needs Social Media to Be First, Be Right, Be Credible

Crisis communications has one overriding mantra, one foundational principle that drives every emergency they respond to: “Be first. Be right. Be credible.”

If you’re not first, you’ll spend your time playing catch up for hours, days, or even weeks.
If you’re not right, your mistake will be repeated, or worse, cited as the truth.
And if you’re not first or right, you will never, ever be credible.

Crisis communication — also called CERC, or Crisis Emergency and Risk Communication — is what emergency first responders use to communicate with the media and the general public. It’s how the health department communicates warnings and updates during a public health emergency. It’s how Homeland Security communicates with the public during a terrorist attack.

CERC, compared to corporate crisis communications, is all about getting the right information out as soon as possible, and being seen as the source for news and information about an incident.

But it’s not happening anymore.

Five years ago, it was enough to just email a press release — which had been approved by a committee — to the mainstream media. Then you answered media calls and arranged interviews. You didn’t communicate with the public, you communicated with TV and newspapers.

But the definition of “the media” has changed. Today, anyone with a smartphone and YouTube is a TV journalist. Anyone with a smartphone and Facebook is a photojournalist. Anyone with a laptop and a blog is a newspaper reporter. The citizen journalist is the person with news to share and a way to share it. Quickly.

This makes the mainstream media crazy.

Not only are the citizen journalists breaking news before the media, they are becoming the first, right, credible sources of information, not CERC.

These days, news is coming from the people who are on the ground. They’re repeating everything they hear and see, and everyone else is passing it on.

CERC communicators need up-to-date technology if they’re going to stay up to speed. They need access to the various social networks if they want to reach the public. Using 4-year-old Blackberries and laptops is not enough anymore. And letting IT block all access to social media networks only makes the problem worse.

(I’ll save the discussion about why IT should not be involved in communication issues for another time.)

If CERC communicators want to stay on top of a situation, rather than being third in the race, they need to remember their roots. They need to use the technology that will make them first. They need to learn how to be right without committee approval.

Because until that happens, they’re not going to be credible.

Defining Two Types of Crisis Communication

Crisis communication has two different, distinct meanings. They require different approaches, different ideas, and completely different types of plans. And not knowing the differences between the two can create some problems if you try to use one approach in the wrong place.

There’s corporate crisis communication (CCC), and there’s CERC.

CERC — Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication — is what the government calls communication during a massive emergency, such as swine flu, a terrorist attack, or large-scale natural disaster. (And you can tell the government came up with it, since it’s so much longer and has more words than are truly necessary.)

Both are often called “oh shit PR,” but the difference is that in a CERC situation, a lot of people could die. With CCC, a lot of money could be lost. One type of emergency gives emergency first responders sharp chest pains and indigestion, the other makes the corporate lawyers pull out their hair. But they both say the same two words when something goes down.

Although these two forms have a lot of similarities, there are some important differences. And if you’re talking about social media for crisis communication, you need to know them, because they affect your strategy.

Corporate crisis communication

I’d like to say that it’s important to always tell the truth and to be as open and honest as possible. But the sad truth is that being completely open and honest can ruin a company. I’ve hassled corporate legal departments over their “wrecking” crisis communications, but they’re a necessary part of any response. They just shouldn’t control it. In CCC:

  • Transparency tends to go out the window. The emergency is usually something that will make the corporation (or individual) look bad, so the first instinct is to hunker down and contain the bad news. This often means trying to keep it under wraps. This hardly ever works.
  • The negative end result of a corporate crisis is a loss of money. It could be a hit to their reputation, credibility, or branding, but those will all effect the bottom line. And since that can be in the millions or billions, crisis communication is not something that should be taken lightly. Entire companies, like Chi-Chi’s restaurants, have been lost to bad communications. But it’s the attempt to avoid losing money that leads to bad communications.
  • Communication is about containment. Many corporate crisis PR professionals are focused on keeping their client from being found guilty or negligent. They’re not worried about whether people like them, they just want to win the pending lawsuits. So they’ll put out information that, while is not a lie,
  • The message is the biggest part of the response. There’s other stuff going on behind the scenes — product recall, legal preparations, brand managment — but the communication is what’s going to affect the public’s perception, and thus, their reaction, lawsuits, vendor relationships, etc. Information may be easy to get if you’re in crisis communication, but it’s not always easy to share.

Social media strategy: Guarded, but present. Correct misinformation, use Tweets and Facebook to communicate with customers in a brand management manner. Put on your best face, but don’t lie. Monitor the gossip sites, but don’t engage.

Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication

This is the area I came from. We wanted as much open communication as we could get. More was better, and there was no such thing as too honest. Our goal was to “prevent panic,” and make sure everyone knew what was going on. With CERC:

  • Transparency is crucial. This is information people need to know. Information about where to go for safety, supplies, or medication.
  • The negative end result of a public crisis is a loss of life. When I was at the Indiana State Department of Health, we trained for things like medication distribution during an anthrax attack. The goal was to tell as many people as possible where medication was available. Information has to be gotten out quickly and to as many people as possible.
  • Communication is widespread. The point of CERC is to get as much information out as possible, and to correct misinformation. There is nothing that should be contained or covered up.
  • The message supports the rest of the response. It’s the other stuff that’s going on — law enforcement, public health response, rescue/recovery, clean-up — that’s going to affect the public, and communication lets the public know what’s going on. If there’s medicine to be distributed, communication will tell the public where to get it, but it’s the Point of Distribution that will give it out. The problem with this approach is that the public information officers (PIOs) are trying to get information from the busiest people, which means it’s not always readily available or being put out as quickly as possible. This is one reason the PIOs have direct access to the Incident Commander, the person in charge.

Social media strategy: Strong social media strategy. More people are getting their news on Twitter and Facebook than they are in their regular media. Put information out on social media at the same time you give it to the mainstream media. Correct misinformation directly, rather than through mainstream media. Monitor the citizen journalists, and engage when it’s appropriate.

Photo: Slworking2

The Role of New Media in a National Toy Recall

Never doubt the power of a few well-connected people, or a confluence of timing, technology, and information, to have a huge impact on events around the world. I got to witness one of these events firsthand, and even played a very small role in it. You may remember it. It turned out to be one of the biggest lead-contaminated toy recalls in 2006, and one of the first in a long series of Chinese toy recalls that year.

In June 2006, I was working at the Indiana State Department of Health as the Risk Communication Director. Basically, I was in charge of crisis communication, or as I called it, “oh shit” PR.

That’s because whenever some emergency or crisis came up, those were the first two words any of us usually said. We all did, the public affairs staff, the epidemiologists, even the Emergency Response department. Whether it was a Hepatitis A scare at a Pizza Hut in Fort Wayne, salmonella in a Wal-Mart in Johnson County, or a national outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter, we all had the same response when we first heard the news of the latest public health crisis.

I had been working on the job for about three weeks, when I was called down to Legal because “we have a problem.” My first “problem,” in fact. When I showed up, there were eight people sitting around a conference table. They filled me in.

As part of a summer reading program, the Monroe County Library in Bloomington had been giving away bendable children’s toys which were discovered to be dangerously contaminated with lead. The children’s librarian and the lead prevention nurse at Monroe County Hospital had sent samples a couple months earlier to the Consumer Protection Agency, but no one had responded beyond an initial phone call.

Rather than giving up, they then contacted the State Health Department, hoping that someone, anyone, would pay attention to the fact that they had just given out a bunch of lead-contaminated toys, and could we please help them get the word out to their community?

Happily, I didn’t utter my little mantra out loud.

Turns out, another library in another county had also been giving away these toys, which made this a statewide issue. So we decided to send out a press release to all the state media outlets, and see what happened. That afternoon, I answered a few reporters’ questions, and then forgot all about it.

Three days later, I received a call from the director of the New Jersey State Library Association.

It turns out the Muncie Star-Press had run our story, which was then picked up by a librarian blogger. The director read the blog and nearly freaked: they had been giving those toys to a statewide children’s reading program all summer.

Guess what I said, out loud, over the phone.

“You’re telling me,” he said. “What should we do?”

“I don’t know, I’ve been doing this job for three freaking weeks!” I wanted to shout. “This is my first real crisis.”

Instead, I ran through the talking points we had given out to the media, and gave him a few recommendations.

“Could you email that to me?” he asked. “I belong to a listserv group of librarians around the country. I think several of us have been giving out these toys. I can pass it on to them.”

I emailed the talking points and recommendations off to the guy, and then forgot all about it again. Two days later, I received another phone call from the Orange County Register.

The reporter said that several of California’s libraries had been giving away some toys that were found to be contaminated with lead, and since we were the ones who had started this whole thing, did we have any information we could give them?

I explained how the whole thing had started with the nurse and librarian in Monroe County, and how this was apparently being felt in a couple of states now.

“Oh, it’s more than a couple now,” said the Times reporter.

As the days went by, I would go online to see who else had been recalling these children’s toys. Within 24 hours of the OC Register call, the story exploded. Several librarians on the librarian listserv had called their local media with the same story. In a couple cases, someone in one city would read the story and tell their librarian friends in another city, who would then find the listserv information, and call their media outlets.

The tipping point came when the Associated Press sent a national story over the newswire, and local reporters called their local libraries to see if they had those toys. The librarians would go pale and whisper my two words. A quick check always revealed the very same toys for the very same children’s reading program.

A few weeks later, a check of Google News showed something I had never expected: a recall of 385,000 lead-contaminated toys from all 50 states, and more than 530 news stories in the United States, Canada, Germany, England, Italy, India, and Taiwan. And two field agents from the Consumer Protection Agency were suddenly very interested in some bendable toys they had received several months earlier from two women in Bloomington, Indiana.

As I look back on this story, I am struck by one very important lesson: this did not become a national recall just because of traditional media. They had help. What really kicked it off is that a blogger saw an article in her local paper and wrote about it. Then a guy on an email listserv sent it out to the other members. Old-school media played an important part, but it was the new media that really pushed it in the right direction.

All because a librarian blogger was connected to a guy on a librarian listserv. But more importantly, because a nurse and a children’s librarian decided that they needed to speak up about an issue in their hometown, and didn’t quit until someone heard them.