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.

Four Ways Government Agencies Should Use Social Media

While I’m a frequent speaker about whether government agencies should use social media for crisis communication (they should), I was recently asked whether agencies should use it for non-crisis communication.

Of course they should.

Having worked in public affairs (that’s government talk for “public relations”), I have seen the frustration many agencies experience in trying to get their messages out to the mainstream media, or media representing their particular niche.

The Indiana Board of Animal Health and the Indiana Department of Agriculture have great relationships with the different farm newspapers and radio stations in the state. The Indiana Arts Commission has a tie-in with many of the arts media in the state. And the Indiana Office of Tourism Development’s Visit Indiana initiative works closely with the travel media in the region. (Full disclosure: I am a blogger for Visit Indiana.)

And many of these agencies are using social media, but they’re using it as a broadcast tool, rather than a communication tool. However, I have to applaud these agencies for using social media at all. There are still several agencies within my own state government that are relying on fax machines and emails to send press releases to mainstream media. I’m not saying they should completely drop that method of communication, but rather, they should add social media to their efforts. Part of the problem is the decision makers within these agencies who don’t understand social media, and therefore assume the public doesn’t use it. The other part of the problem is the IT departments who are worried that allowing people to access YouTube or Twitter will open a huge Pandora’s box of ills. (But will never switch to Firefox to combat this problem…)

So if an agency is on the fence about using social media or not, here are five ways they could use it for great benefit.

  • Use a blog to promote different programs, news releases, announce grants, release official statements, post job openings, and solicit feedback from the public. A blog is the easiest way to communicate with the public, because it’s created specifically for that purpose. No more asking your IT department or web developer to add a new page on your website. Just click the New Post (or New Page button, if you’re lucky enough to have WordPress on your server), add in the appropriate text and photos, click Submit, and voila! you created a new post/page. No programming, no delays, no excuses of “I’ve been backed up with a bunch of requests from other departments.
  • Create videos to educate the public about your different programs. Government agencies are notorious for starting programs, but often have no way to promote them. With a $200 Flip camera, or even someone’s point-and-shoot digital camera, you can create basic videos that can be uploaded to YouTube, Vimeo, and Viddler. You can even embed your videos in new blog posts.
  • Use social media as part of your media relation efforts. Post videos of press conferences to YouTube and your blog. Post press releases to the blog, and then announce them on Twitter. Encourage citizen journalists and bloggers to use your content in their own blogs, which will help promote your media efforts.
  • Maintain a network of professionals or citizens who are associated with your agency. If you’re in public health, maintain a Twitter account of public health professionals. Keep in contact with those professionals and follow what they’re doing. If you’re in agriculture, create a social network of farmers, animal producers, extension agents, and associated vendors. Let them provide support, answer questions, and create new opportunities with each other. If you’re in tourism, create a blog for potential visitors to learn about what your area has to offer.

What are some ways you think government agencies could use social media? How have you seen it done, or how has your agency used it? Leave a comment in the comments section and let us know what you think.

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

Why Lawyers Shouldn’t Do Crisis Communications

It irritates me to no end when the lawyers and MBAs feel the need to get involved in PR and marketing decisions. You can tell when they’ve had their fingers on a press release or written statement, because they come up with such gems as “We feel terrible for our customer. We are grateful that the customer is now recovering.”

This little beauty came from the owner of a KFC in Canada, after 15-year-old Kendell Lakin — heretofore referred to as “The Customer” — burned herself on a serving of hot poutine, after suffering an epileptic seizure and falling into the dish.

(Poutine is a dish of French fries covered with gravy. Not to be confused with “putain,” which is the French equivalent of the F-word. I’m sure French-Canadians have great poutine-putain jokes.)

The new social media society is all about people and relationships. We don’t refer to 15-year-old girls who burn their faces as “The Customer.” They have names, personalities, and pissed-off fathers. Calling them “The Customer” will piss them off more.

If you want to avoid looking like cold-hearted corporate monsters, stop depersonalizing people and reducing them to a genderless wallet.

(Note: I completely understand the need for attorneys. They keep us communicators out of trouble when we’re about to do or say something stupid. But while they do important work, they shouldn’t be in charge of the actual wordsmithing.)

Crisis communication folks need to seize the messaging away from the Legal Department. CEOs need to remember that hiding behind the stacks of legal books will only anger the public, not placate them. The madder they get, the deeper they’ll cut.

People who remember Chi-Chi’s restaurants will also remember what happened to it. After 4 people died and 650 people fell ill from a hepatitis A outbreak in Pennsylvania, the corporate staff avoided all contact with the news media.

In an article on Levick Strategic Communication’s website, they pointed out where Chi-Chi’s made a huge mistake that ultimately led to their bankruptcy and closure.

Right from the start, Chi-Chi’s made a critical communications mistake common among big corporations facing product liability lawsuits. In an effort to minimize risk, Chi-Chi’s top executives avoided direct contact with the news media. All communications with reporters came through antiseptic one-page statements that had a crisp “just-the-facts, ma’am” feel.

When Chi-Chi’s Chief Operating Officer Bill Zavertnik did finally arrive in Monaca more than two weeks after the outbreak was confirmed last November 3, he read a brief statement to reporters, took no questions, and then returned to corporate headquarters.

From that point forward, communications from Chi-Chi’s and its parent company, Prandium, in Irvine, Calif., came chiefly in the form of news releases and prepared statements written in language designed almost solely to avoid exacerbating the class-action lawsuits against the restaurant chain.

To make a long story short, people got madder and madder, and the class-action lawsuits are what killed the restaurant.

In other words, avoid saying stupid things like “We feel terrible for our customer. We are grateful that the customer is now recovering.”

You’re not going to avoid making people mad. But giving your apologies in some sanitized, half-hearted written statement that sound like they were hatched by some corporate lawyer will only make things worse.

In a lot of instances of corporate crisis communication, you’re going to need the lawyers to keep you out of trouble. But keep the pen out of their hands. They can edit, but they shouldn’t be creating. They need to leave it to the pros.

Five Essential Tools Any Crisis Communication Pro Needs

Social media is becoming more and more important to an organization’s response to a crisis. While my own crisis communication experience is with public health emergencies, like pan flu epidemics and the threat of anthrax attacks, other crisis comm pros are dealing with reputation management, negative publicity, liability lawsuits, product recalls, etc.

Thanks to social media tools, there is no reason a crisis communication pro shouldn’t have these tools in his or her toolbox, ready to respond to an emergency within minutes, rather than hours, or even days.

Whether you’re a government agency dealing with a massive emergency, or a famous athlete caught with his pants down, you need to be able to respond quickly and truthfully. You need to get ahead of the speculators and talking heads whose grinding of the rumor mill can do more harm than the actual truth.

Many organizations, especially government agencies, are still using old-school media to get their news out. The problem is they’re trying to reach a newspaper audience with timely news, but it’s changed in the last 30 minutes. Or they’re trying to reach the TV news by 3:00 p.m. for a 5:00 broadcast, while most people are still in their cars. And in many cases, broadcast media only spends seconds on your story, and the newspapers are only devoting a few precious inches to your side of the story.

With social media, you can bypass the media filters, reach the greatest number of people, and in many cases, get the news out before the mainstream media. This is especially useful if you have time-sensitive information, like medication dispensing points, product recalls, hours of operation, etc.

I’m not saying you should ignore the mainstream media (MSM), or quit using the old methods. Rather, consider adding social media to your arsenal.

    1. Blog: A blog is a great way to publish an entire news story. In many cases, the MSM will use your blog as a source. If you’ve done most of the legwork for them, they’re more inclined to use the information you provided. I had one newspaper in Indiana that would reprint my press releases verbatim, I thought about changing my name to “Staff Wire Report” just so I could get the credit.
      Strategy: Appoint a blog writer you trust, and give him or her carte blanche in reporting the latest news.


    1. Twitter: Twitter lets you reach people quickly and easily. Create lists of important people who will need to hear your news: journalists, fans, customers, vendors, etc. Don’t just use Twitter for barfing out news though. You can use Twitter to talk with people and establish relationships. If people like you, they’re likely to want to hear your news, making you a trusted news source.
      Strategy: Have conversations, provide information, correct misinformation, and answer questions.


    1. Facebook fan page: If you’re a B2C company, nonprofit, or government agency, you need a fan page. If you’re B2B, the debate still rages on. People get their news from different sources, and they get their social media from different tools. So you need to match their information-gathering habits. Since Facebook boasts over 350 million world-wide users, a lot of people are getting their news here.
      Strategy: Run your blog and Twitter feeds through your fan page. Follow the conversations people are having on the page, and participate in them.


    1. Analytics: You need to measure your results and see what works. If nothing else, put Google Analytics on your blog, and set up some Google News Alerts. They only updates every 24 hours (Google News can email stories as they appear), but it’s free, and ideal if you’re not trying to monitor events in real time. is free and up-to-the-minute, although it will only record 500 hits in a day (you can upgrade to the paid version if you need it). We use Yahoo Analytics (paid subscription), because it has real-time updates, and we can graph everything out. To see what people are saying in the social media stream, try something like Radian6 or ScoutLabs.
      Strategy: Adopt at least one analytics package, and use it to monitor the success of your social media strategy. Compare it to your traditional methods, and see which tools are bringing you the best results. Plow more time and energy into the successful ones, and see if it’s possible to roll the less-successful ones into your new strategies.


    1. A laptop and wifi network card: I know, this one seems so painfully obvious, it’s ridiculous to even include it. But you’d be amazed at the number of organizations still running on desktops, or laptops without wifi. It’s great to be able to visit any location with free wifi, and logging in — I’m sitting at a Subway restaurant as I’m writing this — but what if you’re in an emergency and you’re in an area without wifi. What do you do if you’re responding to a local emergency, and the fastest Internet connection in town is the dial-up credit card machine at the gas station?
      Strategy: Bug your boss until you get a laptop and wifi card (Verizon has the MiFi, a mobile wifi hotspot you carry), and then learn how to use it; these other four tools are useless if you’re ever caught without a laptop and wifi. Use the mobile setup until it’s second nature. If you’re ever caught out during an emergency, you don’t have to pull out the manual just to figure out how to use the wifi card.


There are more tools available than you could ever hope to master, most of them supporting one of these five basics, but these are the ones you can build an entire crisis communication plan around. If you can figure these out, you’ll be miles ahead of those organizations and agencies who are still trying to figure out the fastest way to fax a one-page press release to 500 different newspapers in less than six hours.

Photo: Fire Monkey Fish

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.

Using Social Media for Public Health: Some Proof

I’ve been beating the drum lately about how public health and crisis communication folks can and should be using social media. (Also here and here.)

The problem is most decision makers think this is still just a bunch of kids and out-of-work job hunters playing on FaceSpace and “twittering, twuttering, whatever the hell you call it.” (Note: Playing dumb as a way to denigrate something you don’t understand? Not endearing. Are you that confused, or just trying to be funny?)

But the Pew Internet & Life Project (official motto: “we’re smart, and we can prove it with a ±2% error margin”) is backing this idea as well. Susannah Fox recently spoke at the National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing & Media, sponsored by the National Center for Health Marketing, Coordinating Center for Health Information and Service, and the Office of Enterprise Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, the National Cancer Institute and the National Public Health Information Coalition.

In other words, people who don’t take this stuff lightly. I used to be in the same field, and I know if the CDC and NPHIC are paying attention, then other people need to be paying attention as well.

Some interesting statistics from Susannah’s slide deck:

  • 79% of adults in the U.S. use the Internet. Of those people, how many have stopped getting their news from newspapers, radio, and TV? We had an LP tanker explosion at a major Interstate intersection. I heard about it on Twitter, not TV. And a newspaper would have been useless for up-to-date news.
  • 48% of African Americans and 47% of Latinos go online with a handheld device; only 27% for whites. Since African-Americans also have a very high occurrence of chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes, handhelds could be a great way to have them access important public health information.
  • Did you know there’s a website called Yeah, me either. But it’s for people who have “life changing conditions.” They’re talking to each other and learning from each other. (Know who that’s going to inconvenience? Doctors. They’re suddenly not the smartest ones in the room, the patients are.)

I could go on and on, but, well, there are only 7 slides in the deck (Rule #1 of good PowerPoint: Don’t use a lot of slides.)

But the moral of the story is that if you’re in public health, look at social media as a way to get your message out. Quit relying on the traditional media. Get out of 1987 and join us up here in the 21st century. A vast majority of the public is, but you’re still putting all your eggs in a newspaper-lined basket. Keep old school media in your toolbox, but quit reaching for it first.