You no longer have the luxury of time during a crisis

By December 9, 2011
OfflinePhoto of Patrice Cloutier

The tragic events of December 8 at Virginia Tech show us that things move at the speed of social media. You are either prepared to move at the same speed to engage with your audiences and use the tools they use ... or you will be irrelevant.

A place of learning was martyred again this week ... a few years after being the site of the most horrific mass-murder in US history, tragedy struck Virginia Tech again. This time it happened in the age of social convergence which means we all had an immediate "historical account" of what was unfolding. In this case, the story was told on social media.

A few lessons to be learned from this event. 

Time is a luxury you can't afford anymore. You need to move fast and do a multitude of tasks at the same time ... If you don't, you run the risk of not fulfilling your mandate in terms of public safety, serving your customers or run the risk of being irrelevant for your clientele, citizens or stakeholders. So, what do you have to juggle at the same time?

  1. You have to respond ... implement any plan you may have that's appropriate to the situation ... Oh, and by the way, do you have a crisis communications plan to go along with your response?
  2. You have to warn/alert your audiences of any danger, risk, business disruption, etc, ... how do you do that instantly and meet the needs and expectations of your clientele? It seems, the folks at Virginia Tech did this very well and that they had applied the lessons learned from the earlier incident.
  3. You have to monitor and analyze social and legacy media, both for operational and communications purposes. How else can you first identify false rumours and counter them?
  4. Finally, you have to communicate and engage with all your audiences ... very, very soon after warning them and implementing your response ... while you're doing all that monitoring ... a social media crisis engagement plan is necessary.
How can you achieve all that? A well exercised plan is the only way that includes a crisis communications component ...and one that is hopefully accompanied by the right piece of technology and software that can allow you to keep all those balls in the air. 

As you respond, put boots on the ground, react with the right strategy, objectives, equipment and personnel, you also implement your crisis communications plan that allows you to do all the rest.

When you alert/warn your stakeholders/audiences, you take into consideration how they get their information ... and while you should adopt a policy of "all audiences/all channels" ... it's clear that mobile devices are becoming the preferred conduit for the alerting messages ... including the growing use of social media. You also have to ensure you use the right tone and the right channels to obtain the behaviour you wish to see in your audiences.

When you monitor and analyze, you're trying to see what people are witnessing, posting, saying about the incident or situation. Operationally, you need to validate quickly the nuggets of into that are coming in and establish the flow of info to the right people within your EOC, site command post or crisis management team.
Social media is again the principal vehicle that allows for that instantaneous enhancement to your situational awareness.  In addition, your gauging how your response is being perceived by the public and your stakeholders your reputation is being affected ...nowadays, it can be mortally wounded in minutes. If you're not on social media are you finding out what's being said about you ... in time to do something about it?
Finally, when you've got a good picture and a sense of some of the key players shaping public opinion or leading how your stakeholders will react, how do you engage with them? After the initial warning/alert, you must constantly keep the information flowing ... your very existence depends on it. There will be hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations can you be heard among the noise? How are your social media and web properties integrated to allow you to communicate instantly? Do  you have a mobile-friendly website? You need a server that can handle a big surge ... or your website will be slow or freeze altogether. You need redundancy, you need resiliency (can SMS allow you to do that? Do you have well-established social media accounts? 
In the end, time is a luxury you can't affort ... you need to be accurate, yes. But you need to be there first ... Immediacy, crediblity, resiliency, relevance and reliability should all combine to make your channels trusted sources ... Don't impede your crisis comms process with anything that might slow down your engagement.


About the author

Patrice Cloutier

team leadOntario government

Patrice Cloutier is a communicator specializing in crisis communications and emergency management. Patrice was the principal strategic communications planner for the Integrated Security Unit that…


Excellent comments Patrice. I was pleased to see that the Virginia Tech folks learned from past experience and significantly improved their response during this past incident.

I also liked your comment about "Exercise". It is much better to find theflaws in your plan during an exercise and correct them than wait until the next emergency to find them.  Exercises also provide an excellent opportunity to familiarize your audience with your communication procedures. 

Thanks again for your excellent contributions to this blog channel. 

OfflinePhoto of Phil Gibson Phil Gibson said 3 years ago

Well said, Patrice.  Ontario's Dr. James Young used to say often that emergency managers have two choices at the onset of any crisis:  to manage communications around the incident (which implies being first off the mark) or manage a much larger and more complex situation if you don't handle communications well.  The tendency is to wait until you know all the facts before saying anything.  In today's fast-moving environment that amounts to a potentially deadly form of procrastination.   

Excellent points everyone.  Exercises are also an excellent way of conducting gap analysis which would be costly in a real scenerio, if left unchecked.  Phil's comment regarding "potentially deadly form of procrastination", is also a major point.  A large percentage of our population tweet, post videos on youtube, and use text messages. That percentage is outside of the regular media coverage. Having key messages and consistent communication regarding the incident are the keys to mitigating future problems, because if we do not communicate, the "15 minutes of fame" tweeters will.

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