By Jason Medina (Tampa Bay Chapter)
Summary: No matter where a crisis strikes, it’ll unfold online and the digital “noise” can be overwhelming and distracting. This noise can also present opportunities for organizational communicators.
Melissa Agnes explained how social media has become such a large part of our society. We have an “insatiable urge – a need – to share,” engage and potentially inspire audiences, Agnes said. At the same time, social media amplifies the challenges and “digital noise” associated with an organizational crisis.
Scenario: A few years ago, there was a train derailment accident that caused injuries and deaths. One survivor immediately started taking pictures with her phone, posted them on social media and then called 911. Before company officials had a chance to assess the situation, they were bombarded on social media. What happened, where, when, how and was anyone hurt?
“This is today’s reality,” Agnes said.
There’s no such thing as a “social media crisis,” Agnes said.
- It’s an inaccurate characterization.
- Assumes that a crisis can only occur on social media.
- Social media IS media.
- Social media just amplifies the noise, challenges, intensity.
- Social media also amplifies “expectations.” If your company is using social media, you need to sustain the conversation.
Scenario: Within three hours of the Boston Marathon bombing, #BostonMarathon – one hashtag – had 500,000 tweets. Boston authorities – first responders, investigators – decided to use it to their advantage: monitoring for any pictures or videos that could help determine what happened and who was responsible. Authorities used hashtags to solicit help from the public. “The noise (can) becomes our friend,” Agnes said. Result: The two attackers were found within one week of the tragedy.
Agnes: “How can you filter through the noise in a crisis AND use it to your advantage?”
Three “rules of thumb”
- Actively listen and engage.
- Prepare in advance.
- Be proactive.
Actively listen and engage
- Organizations have a need to understand stakeholders.
- We have a need to understand how to use the tools.
- We need to understand metrics (examples: tone/sentiment, average daily traffic, etc). Sudden changes can be an indicator something has occurred.
- We have to establish channels and be comfortable working with crisis stakeholders.
Scenario: Summer 2014 Ebola scare: Emory University decided to fly two missionary doctors who had the virus from West Africa to the United States. Shortly after the announcement, social media exploded with criticism the university was “bringing the plague into our country.” Agnes cited Donald Trump, who had a large following on social media, as a key pundit. Emory didn’t anticipate the emotional reaction (aka: “Fearbola”) and was overwhelmed.
“Emotion trumps logic,” Agnes said. There was an irrational fear of the disease and ramifications of bringing the doctors to the U.S.
Emory could have stopped engaging – or even turned off – social media. Audiences would have just voiced their opinions elsewhere, which would have amplified Emory’s challenges. Instead, Emory decided to “understand the noise” and identified the underlying cause of the criticism: “lack of education – people didn’t understand the disease” or the safety measures Emory was taking to ensure the virus didn’t spread, Agnes said.
Emory implemented a quick two-day information campaign that included video, editorials and a press conference. Result: Sentiment became more appreciative, thankful for the role Emory was taking to stop the virus.
Agnes: “It’s really simple to listen and engage, but it’s another thing to do it when it’s intense and overwhelming.” The choice to engage must be made before a crisis – a good chance to meet the stakeholders and priorities vulnerabilities.
Prepare in advance
- Review/update the organization’s crisis action plan.
- Identify who needs to be engaged.
Crisis planning should use the Web/blog (not a social media application) as its base, and include a monitoring/assessment tool such as NEWBI, Google Alerts, Click to Tweet, GeoFeedia, HootSuite.
Scenario: Returning to the Boston Marathon bombing, Agnes acknowledged many of the government agencies had worked together, but didn’t agree on how best to use prevailing hashtags. It would have helped for them to monitor each other’s communications.
Agnes: “Every crisis has a hashtag.” These seemingly trivial words facilitate collaboration with stakeholders, helping filter through the noise – if used properly. People don’t necessarily follow an account as much as they do a hashtag. Conversely, Agnes said “do not marry a hashtag” – it may change as the crisis unfolds.
Scenario: Malaysia Airlines failed to use an effective hashtag after Flight 370 disappeared.
Scenario: When a cougar was sighted in Mountain View, California, the local police department thought through possible hashtags to alert the community. #MVpuma worked better than the alternative (#MVCougar), which could have been easily hijacked. Result: Cougar was located, tranquilized and returned to its habitat without incident.
- Sometimes, “you have to figure out how to create the right noise,” Agnes said.
- A United Nations study showed 6 billion people (out of 7 billion) have access to the Internet.
Scenario: Summer 2014 Ebola scare. Cases were increasing, particularly in West Africa: People there had limited access to resources; people there were unknowingly exposing themselves to the virus (cultural rituals); area known for low literacy rates.
Many agencies were trying to help, but the BBC took a bold step: they adapted the popular “What’sApp” application. The BBC saw it as an opportunity to meet the audience where they already were, and created an opt-in feature to share audio clips, graphics and texts in English/French, and based themes on the responses. Result: What was supposed to be a six-week campaign lasted from August 2014 to February 2015.
President and Co-Founder of Agnes + Day
President and Co-Founder of Agnes + Day, Melissa Agnes has developed an international reputation for crisis management, planning and training by helping global brands and government agencies prevent and manage a wide range of issues and crises. Her client list includes government agencies, cities and municipalities, healthcare organizations, energy companies, global nonprofits, financial organizations, the public and private sectors and many others. Agnes is a sought-after international crisis management speaker. Fluent in English and French, Agnes has spoken to organizations and audiences including NATO, Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Ministries of Foreign Defense, Ministries of Health, Oil and Gas Associations, PRSA, CPRS and other national associations, as well as a wide range of private and public companies, universities and nonprofit organizations. She has been honored to share the stage with members of the Ukraine government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. A go-to source for the press, her recent coverage includes VIBE Magazine, USA Today, Tech News World, the Montreal Gazette and more. Agnes is also a regular guest on Montreal’s leading morning radio talk show, CJAD, where she is referred to as “the official crisis manager of the Tommy Schnurmacher show”. Agnes is the editor of the highly acclaimed Crisis Intelligence Blog, and the host of the internationally recognized Crisis Intelligence Podcast. Published regularly and followed by different government agencies and Fortune 500 companies alike, her blog and podcast provide insights to help organizations manage issues and crises in today’s connected and real-time world. Agnes was named by CyberAlert as one of “the 30 top most influential bloggers in public relations,” and her blog was ranked sixth of the “60 of the best Public Relations blogs in the world” by Inkybee. Agnes has published numerous articles and white papers in trade journals including The Non-Profit Digest and Communications World, and is the author of two self-published ebooks: “The Corporate Guide to Leveraging and Managing Twitter in a Crisis” and “The Social Media Crisis Management Toolkit”. When she isn’t managing crises or speaking in front of an audience, Agnes enjoys adventuring around the world (usually on a sailboat), reading, writing and sipping champagne in good company.