Blending crisis and social media requires a steady hand

During the recent tragic shootings at the military base in Fort Hood, TX, many turned to social media and other online sources to follow the event and the aftermath.

During the recent tragic shootings at the military base in Fort Hood, TX, many turned to social media and other online sources to follow the event and the aftermath. And while a number of communications disciplines have moved online, those that work in crisis remain conservative in this area. Many maintain that these channels can be leveraged but the same rules must apply: get it out quickly, get it out accurately – and prepare before it happens.

The media and PR team at Scott & White Healthcare, which accepted patients during the Fort Hood shooting, had a media relations plan in place, but it also worked with its Web communications team to use outlets like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to share what was happening with the wounded soldiers in Texas.

"We could never have done all the updates we were able to do through social media if we didn't have our colleagues on that side of the equation, who partnered with us," says Rhona Williams London, director of media and PR for Scott & White. The team, though, also regularly does traditional crisis and emergency preparedness drills.

"Soldiers and their families are on social media, on blogs, and tweeting," adds Gene Grabowski, SVP at Levick Strategic Communications. "People need an outlet."

Larry Hincker, the associate VP for university relations at Virginia Tech University, often speaks about crisis communications, after the university experienced a campus shooting spree on April 16, 2007, including having plans in place for an emergency Web site with bare essentials.

"One of our experiences in the aftermath of April 16 was that you really can't communicate too much," says Hincker. "I think the important thing is to ensure that you are pushing your information out on as many different channels as possible."

Communicators in industries like the airline industry routinely practice crisis plans. Billy Sanez, director of corporate communications for American Airlines, notes that the company's crisis plan includes social media because it's an indispensible tool these days. Yet, no matter the channel, “speed is of the essence.”

“But the one extremely important thing is the accuracy of the information you're giving out,” he adds. “You always have to balance the speed with the accuracy. I know social media gives you these extremely fast tools, but you have make sure you have all your ducks in a row before you press enter."

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