Social Media and Crisis Communications

(see my article on social media and crisis management pubished 6/1/09 on Human Resource Executive online)

Campus shootings and challenges faced by schools and universities in communicating immediately with students and staff have prompted these institutions to take a new look at crisis communication plans – and to incorporate social media into the mix.

At least one health care system – Innovis Health, a 21-location healthcare provider with sites in Minnesota and North Dakota – has used social media to communicate during a disaster. During floods earlier this year, Innovis used a blog and Twitter to let the community know they were still open. They realized only “accidentally” that social media was also a key means of keeping the employee audience updated and informed 24/7.

The need to update crisis communication/disaster plans to include social media seems to be an important “Duh!” for any organization. Whether the crisis is an on-site shooting, an incidence of H1N1, a flood – or any number of other events that make communicating with employees critical, and frequently, difficult – social media provides an opportunity to connect immediately, often and 24/7. 

Social media tools offer flexibility that intranets can’t match – employees can access 24/7 both to post and to read updates. The use of social media takes internal bureaucracy and politics out of the mix – “to make that update on our Internet, you’ll need to fill out forms X, Y and Z, submit them to IT and get into their queue along with the 100 other projects they have to work on…”

The time to start thinking about modifying crisis plans to include the use of social media for communicating with key constituencies – particularly employees – is now. Some important initial steps:

  • Get leaders and staff on board and begin educating them about social media tools – what they are, how they work, why they would be critical in crisis situations.
  • Select the tool(s) you will use – establish a home page and ask employees to sign up and “follow” or “friend” you so the groundwork has already been established should a crisis occur.
  • Train leaders and employees on the use of these tools so they are comfortable with them.
  • Develop some “dark sites” – content that is ready to be launched in the event of a crisis. While you certainly can’t predict every potential event, you should be able to identify some areas of risk that are specific to your organization/geographic location – e.g. businesses in California may have “dark sites” ready in the event of an earthquake; banks may have “dark sites” to deal with the potential for an armed robbery, etc.

In the “old days” companies had the luxury of time during a crisis to plan a response, consider and receive approval for “key messages,” etc. It took time for the media to “get wind” of the event and tell the world about it. Today, as we’ve seen in recent crisis situations – the “world” often knows before the media. And, unfortunately, before your employees. That’s not the optimum situation.

To ensure that you are able to communicate immediately, accurately and 24/7 with employees during a crisis take the time now to dust off your crisis communication/disaster plans and incorporate the use of social media into them.

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