The Tricks & Treats of Facebook in a Crisis

By Gerard Braud


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Is Facebook your friend or foe in a crisis? The frightening truth is it really depends on a lot of factors.

(Don’t be afraid to look at Facebook in an all new light when you join us for this special Halloween webinar.)

Let us start with a discussion about your brand page. Do you have one? There are three schools of thought when it comes organizational brand pages.

First, many organizations don’t have one because the leaders within the organization are afraid too many people will say nasty things on the page. Secondly, some organizations have brand pages set up by excitable communicators or marketers who think Facebook is the best invention since sliced bread (or pumpkin pie).  The reality is your organization may not be the kind of place the average person wants to “Like” and read about in their Facebook newsfeed. I personally have no desire to follow my bank, hospital or electric company. Thirdly, there are organizations — especially in the realm of fun consumer brands — that people “Like” to have in their newsfeed and love to engage with.

Regardless of which of the three categories applies to you, when a crisis happens, Facebook sometimes becomes one of your best communications outlet for getting actionable information to key audiences. But here is the scary part — It can also be a place where the world gangs up on you because of how you are communicating during the crisis.

Let us look at three types of crises and how they played out on Facebook, and what you should do to be prepared in a similar situation.

The most frightening thing I’ve observed this year was the use of Facebook by individuals who quickly set up a Facebook page and publish more information about your crisis than your organization is publishing on all of your communications channels.

WilliamsOlefinsOn the morning of June 13, 2013 there was a tragic explosion and fire at the Williams Olefins Chemical plant in Geismar, LA, about 50 miles from my home, which killed 2 workers and injured 114 more. Before the company had a single news release issued, or before they provided any images or videos posted to the web, either community members or employees published a Facebook page with more details than the company ever gave.

GeismarThe owner of this “Fan” page has not responded to my requests for an interview. A friend who works for Williams had told me long ago that the company does not allow the communications department to use any of the advanced crisis communications procedures that I recommend. Instead, their corporate bosses subscribe to FEMA’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) which relegates the task of communicating details about the crisis to the Louisiana State Police.

I personally hate NIMS. A state trooper can only communicate response details. The trooper isn’t able to communicate empathy to the community, nor is there anything about NIMS that meets the needs of employees who know people who have been personally affected. Furthermore, NIMS provides no social media presence.

For the record, my crisis communications plans dictate that the company in crisis must communicate with the outside world within one hour or less of the onset of the crisis. My priorities in such an event would be as follows:

1) Use a modified, pre-written news release template from my crisis communications plan, as my script for a live news conference with all media who have gathered at the scene of the explosion.

2) Post the identical pre-written news release to the corporate website.

3) Send an e-mail to all employees, media and stakeholders, with the identical information in text and with a link to the company website.

4) Create a short YouTube video with the identical information.

5) Post a link on Facebook with a link to the website and the video.

6) Post a link to Twitter with a link to the website and the video.

7) Add photos and videos to the corporate website and to Facebook as the event continues to unfold.

Throughout your crisis, your official website is the most secure location for official information. Social media can be used, but must be monitored and facilitated to handle comments. Using social media requires you to have ample staff.

In this case study of the Williams Company, eye witnesses did a better job of providing information than the company and the state police.

Don’t let a similar situation be your demise.

Next, consider scary weather and Facebook. In many weather events, the electricity goes out and people are displaced from their homes. When the lights are on and people are at home, they tend to migrate to Google on their computer for information about a crisis. But when the lights are out and people may not be home, they generally turn to their mobile phone and Facebook becomes a big player.

Likewise, if you are trying to function in an official capacity without electricity and you have difficulty accessing your corporate website, Facebook becomes a great communications option for you, because you can access and update it via your smart phone.

Weather events also become a time when a brand page is really needed and all the more reason to set one up on a clear sunny day, even though you might not usually attract many “Likes” during normal times. Trust me, your “Likes” will go up exponentially during the crisis.

This year we’ve had serious forest fires, floods, deadly tornadoes and pre-season snow storms. In every case, organizations have seen their Facebook followers spike. A quick way to see proof is to visit a Facebook page of an electric company in a region affected by a natural disaster. On the “about” link you can access the analytics that allow you to view the spike in “Likes” during the crisis.

Furthermore, in a weather event, your organization may be a small part of a big story, fighting with bigger players for media attention. Facebook circumvents the media and allows you to take details straight to your primary audience.

Finally, consider that some scary events can quickly turn your Facebook page into a bitching page, especially if the synical audience on social media thinks some aspect of your crisis has been handled poorly.  A good example is a shooting at Middle Tennessee State University on February 14, 2011.

MTSUshootingWhen a gunman was reported, the University used their text message system to alert students of the potential danger. But prior to the crisis, the University apparently did not do a good enough job of managing the expectations of the student body to make them aware that mass texting systems often take 20 – 30 minutes before everyone gets their alert message. This is the kind of thing that must be managed on a clear sunny day with proper information and a test text, rather than creating a crisis within a crisis on the day of your crisis.

During the Middle Tennessee crisis, the University’s Facebook page lit up, with more comments about slow text alerts than there were comments about the event.

So upon further consideration, is Facebook your friend or foe in a crisis?

There are some scary things happening on Facebook during crises and you can’t afford to get tricked by them. Take steps today to be prepared.

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