Social media has been rising as a resource for organizations to communicate with audience members in a crisis. Likewise, more audience members are relying on social media for information in a crisis or even to reach out for help. According to a report from the Red Cross in 2012, “Three out of four Americans (76 percent) expect help in less than three hours of posting a request on social media, up from 68 percent last year.” At that same time the Red Cross also cited social media and mobile apps as the fourth most popular source for information in an emergency.
This data shows us that having a plan on how to utilize social media in an emergency isn’t just good policy–it’s essential. By observing how other organizations handle their own crises, we can form a plan on how to leverage all communication channels should the need arise. So when the nation turned its eyes to Purdue University during the January 21 shooting, I focused my attention there as well. As tragic as such incidents are, it is an opportunity to see how an audience looks to social media to share information, and how Purdue used its networks to get important information to the public. Hopefully few of us will ever have to deal with such a terrible situation, nonetheless it is vital to be ready should the time come.
How Purdue reacted
Four alerts during the crisis (including an all-clear message) were placed on the main Facebook page. According to the social media time stamps, the all-clear message was posted approximately two hours after the crisis began. Class cancellation and a candlelight vigil were announced after four hours, and a press conference was announced after five hours. The initial Facebook post from the flagship account had 229 comments, 194 likes, and 1,163 shares. The initial Twitter post had 1,386 retweets and 88 favorites. Key hashtags used on Twitter were #BoilerStrong and #PrayforPurdue. Both are previously established hashtags.
How the audience reacted
Questions from the social media audience ranged on topics from class cancellation and building closures to bus schedules and concerns about the home page, which was initially not updated, though posts suggested it contained information. Of course there were questions from parents, students, and others for additional information on the incident itself. I even spotted a tweet from a local news anchor calling for students who witnessed the incident to contact him.
Among the comments on the Facebook page were several photos of a person (presumed to be a suspect) being taken into custody with captions reporting on what may or may not have been accurate information on the situation. Later in the comments a photo was posted of an alleged second gunman (though it is likely that this was an officer or reporter). Full disclosure, I did not catch this post on Facebook in real time, so the poster’s profile picture may have been different, but current use of an image similar to that of the flagship account’s profile pic may imply to casual observers that these posts are serving as official news from Purdue.
What we can learn
People WILL look to social media for information. Purdue posted consistently, even when it did not have new information. This showed the audience that Purdue was listening and the situation had not changed. The messages posted were repeats of previous messages if not slightly altered versions. This is a good move because it leaves little open for interpretation within the text. These messages were also consistent with information being given across other media channels, ensuring that viewing multiple channels would not cause confusion. Consistent messaging is a must in any crisis situation!
We can anticipate that rumors will abound, true and false information will be shared from the audience, and that comments will be positive, negative, critical, sad, angry, religious, and political. Regardless of the content, it is crucial to share the concise information approved by your team consistently. This is what I would recommend using to counter any true/false information provided by the audience. For example, the photos posted showing the suspect in handcuffs or a second alleged gunman should not be corrected in terms of information, because that information is unlikely to be confirmed. Instead, respond to the photo or post with the current message being shared over the flagship account. In the case of Purdue, that would not be responding to the post with confirmation or denial, but with the correct action that the audience should be taking.
There was a lot to be observed from the Purdue incident, but here are key takeaways:
1. Consistent messaging. Make sure messaging is synchronized across all channels: website, social media, press releases, etc.
2. Repetitive messaging. This ensures the audience that you are listening and that the situation has not changed.
3. Listen. There is a lot of information on social media that can inform a crisis team where resources need to be focused, how the audience is feeling, and even gaps in information.
4. Utilize established channels. Established hashtags and channels were used to maximize reach. A crisis is not a time to launch a new hashtag. Use what is already used.
5. Cancel scheduled posts. Purdue did a good job of continuing to share information once the immediate crisis had passed. Had previously scheduled posts not been canceled, the audience could have become confused and angry. Put everything else on hold immediately after a crisis begins.
6. Learn. I am sure that Purdue reviewed their own responses and audience reactions to evaluate how to serve their community in a future crisis. As social media and audiences change it is necessary to continually adapt. What works today may not work tomorrow. What works tomorrow might not work next week. And what works next week might not work next year. Yet by continually learning from ourselves and other organizations, we can be as prepared as possible.