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

9 Things Government Agencies Can Do To Improve Emergency Communication

I was sitting in a local restaurant a couple weeks ago when I saw the news that a swine flu outbreak had been confirmed in Mexico and California. It was the news I had been afraid of for the last three years, after spending more than a year as the Risk Communication Director at the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH), training for a flu pandemic, and learning how to communicate to the public during a major crisis.

So I waited for an official response from the ISDH, since we had worked on this for so long. And I waited. And waited.

I didn’t hear anything until Sunday, and after that, I didn’t hear as much as I had hoped for. I got most of my news from the national news outlets, and occasionally the Indianapolis news stations and Indianapolis Star. I saw barely a blip on social media, and a Google search for local information showed that more information was coming from the county health departments, rather than the state one.

It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback, but as a professional communicator and someone who helped develop the ISDH’s crisis communication plan, I can see where there is room for improvement. So, these are nine tips any state agency, or even large corporation, can use to communicate during an emergency or crisis.

1) Jump out in front of the communication wave. When the first news of the swine flu — excuse me, H1N1 — hit on that Friday, there was no news from the state until Sunday afternoon, 48 hours later. After that, they seemed to spend the rest of their time playing catchup, rarely pushing news out to the media, and letting the local health departments get their news out first. As the state’s voice for public health, the ISDH should have been the primary source for the news, not the locals.

The core principles of CERC (Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication) are Be First. Be Right. Be Credible. They’re the guiding principles anyone trained in crisis communication understands and practices. By missing out on the first one, the ISDH never had the chance to be the other two. (You can download a PDF of the CDC’s CERC – First 48 Hours Checklist here.)

2) Create a series of communication and press release templates. Or at least a formula. Most of the initial communication in any crisis is pretty standard. You can guess what the situation is going to be (“swine flu has been found in the state; this is what we know; this is what you can do to prevent getting it”), create a basic press release with some fill-in-the-blank answers, and fill them in when the crisis finally hits. This will save time in trying to write one in the heat of the moment. If you just have a formula, you will at least know what information should go into the press release, and can write it with a minimal effort.

3) Call the emergency what other people are calling it. People and the media started referring to this outbreak as “swine flu,” and it was only financial concerns from the pork industry that made the news people change their designation to “H1N1.” Calling it the “North American Human Influenza” strain will not improve your search engine rankings, and will only confuse the public. At the very least, stick with “H1N1,” so people in the news media recognize what you’re talking about. Use the language people use, not the scientific jargon the scientists are using.

4) Set up a Twitter account for only one agency. The ISDH and the Department of Homeland Security (IDHS) split up an account, which made it unclear to the public who was actually controlling the message, and who was the best resource for information. As a result, nothing was posted very frequently, and the ISDH missed out on a valuable communication outlet. Twitter would have been a valuable tool in the communication toolbox, but it was used improperly and too infrequently, and thus, they missed a huge opportunity to counter public misperceptions and misinformation.

5) Follow the public on Twitter. The ISDH_IDHS Twitter account only follows 21 people, while it has 500 followers. The 21 Twitterers they were following? News sources — some local, some national, including the Associated Press, New York Times, and a health reporter. Problem is, the AP has had no updates that I could see, the health reporter rarely uses Twitter, and the New York Times is, well, in New York. What this tells me is that the ISDH is getting their news from the news sources, not the other way around. Meanwhile, I created a group on TweetDeck for people talking about swine flu in Indiana. I answered questions, referred people to resources, and countered bad information. Something the ISDH should have been doing from the outset.

6) Use social media to communicate directly with the public. It’s important to use traditional media, because they’re still an important way to reach people. But newspapers are failing, there are too many radio stations, and TV news is not always on at a convenient time, while people use social media all the time. They use their computers throughout the day, when they can’t watch TV or listen to the radio, and newspapers are only published the following day.

7) Create a website specifically for the event. An issue-specific website will contain updates and much-needed answers, and it becomes the information clearinghouse for everything related to the issue. The Indiana State Health Department (ISDH) created a website at http://h1n1.in.gov, but it doesn’t have very much information, and usually points people away from the site to sites like the CDC. In essence, it says “we’re not the experts, everyone else is.” So much for “being credible.”

8) Get an issue-specific domain name. If possible, purchase a domain name with the issue and your state or city: www.indianaswineflu.com, www.fortwaynehepatitis.com, etc., and send everyone there. An issue-specific domain name helps with name recognition and search results.

9) Use a blog. Seventy-seven percent of all Internet users read at least one blog, so these things are here to stay. They’re a great way to create short, quick updates that don’t require five levels of editing and committee approval. Post press releases, figures and statistics, and answers to frequently asked questions. Tie that domain name into the blog, and you’re all done. Blogging can be done in 200-word posts that can be done quickly and easily, by anyone who has a modicum of writing skill. In the crisis communication model, a single writer can work with a subject matter to write a post and be done with it. Or in some cases, write one paragraph updating the number of confirmed cases and tagging on the boiler plate language of prevention and flu hotlines, and you’re done. Takes 10 minutes tops, and the public and the media now has a source for news they can rely on.

Another CERC principle is to create the communication plans and procedures NOW. Don’t wait until the emergency is on you to start these things up. The relative weakness of the swine flu was a shot across the public health bow. And for the most part, public health responded admirably. While the number of cases are growing, we’re not facing a raging outbreak, because of the extensive planning and response by the CDC, the Public Health and Emergency Response, and the local health departments and hospitals. We’re not out of the woods yet, and there’s still a lot to do, but it’s not too late to respond to this threat, and there’s plenty of time to get ready for the next one.