Social media today is much more than just a marketing channel for businesses. It is a vital communication channel for organizations who serve the public, especially during times of crisis. When things go awry, hospitals, police, fire departments, utilities, states, and municipalities use social media to communicate with the public. The smart ones have a social media crisis playbook. Here are the top three elements every playbook needs.
Social Media Crisis Playbook Element #1: Communication Tools Staged and Ready
It is imperative that organizations be ready to communicate immediately when crisis strikes, both internally and with the public. As part of your social media crisis plan, ensure that you have send lists and groups set up prior to an emergency. By having the following information at the ready, you can make the best use of your energy and time:
• Emergency email lists to alert key staff, media, and agencies
• Phone bridge/hotline for real-time voice updates
• A real-time messaging channel (e.g. Slack) for quickly searchable internal communication
• External communication channels such as a blog, status page, and social media
During a crisis, people look to social media by default for information about updates and late-breaking news. It is vital that you have staged access to all social media accounts and tools so that you can immediately begin communication. You should specify these in a social media playbook. This way, you can prevent a panic like the one caused in Hawaii by the governor’s inability to communicate with his state during a missile panic because he couldn’t get logged in to Twitter.
Another tactic to consider is having a fail-safe status page that you can direct people to for more information. When a disaster strikes, you don’t want your status page to go dark because it is hosted on a server that’s now 12 feet underwater, or a data center that is inaccessible. It’s imperative to have a status page that is geographically dispersed, colocated, and redundant so that you can maintain an open communication channel with your audience.
Social Media Crisis Playbook Element #2: Consistent Updates to the Public
The worst thing that your organization can do during an emergency is to go dark. People are hungry for information so that they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. Your social media crisis plan should include the the following actions to help you get out in front of a situation. Consider the following:
• Coordinate with your PR department and legal team on crisis communications message templates that are preapproved for certain situations and distributed to your crisis team in advance, so you don’t have to scramble to access or update them.
• Don’t just make a hasty post on social and then go dark. Tell people when you will publish the next update—and be sure to state an exact time, such as “The next update will come at 5:30 p.m.,” rather than a relative time (“in 30 minutes”). You don’t know when your audience will see the update on social media.
• As important as it is to tell people where they can get assistance, it’s also necessary to tell them when they need to search elsewhere. For example, if an aid station is overcapacity or is cut off due to a wildfire, lava flow, or an active shooter situation, an update via social media is a great way to advise the public of alternatives.
By being prepared, proactive, and providing timely updates, you will also have the ability to control the narrative. Not only can this help reduce the requests your internal social team needs to field, it can also alleviate the public’s concerns.
Social Media Crisis Playbook Element #3: Using Paid Social Marketing to Amplify Your Message
Public entities may not be aware that organic posts often get buried by social media algorithms. So while a hospital may have thousands of followers, the likelihood is low that your message will reach them in a timely fashion. Over time, as people will begin to seek out more information, these organic posts will rise in the algorithm’s ranking.
One thing that savvy entities can do as part of their social media crisis planning is to have paid marketing campaigns staged and ready to go to help maximize the reach of their crisis messages. Setting up hyperlocal targeting in advance—and providing training on how to turn the campaigns on—can ensure that crisis communications immediately rise above the algorithm and are seen by your community.
Plan Today for the Emergency Tomorrow
While hospitals and first-responders routinely run on-the-ground tactical drills for emergencies, it’s equally important to prepare for communications on social media. I have experience helping hospitals and hospital management organizations develop social media crisis playbooks, social media strategy, and comprehensive social media governance, and I would welcome the opportunity to help you develop yours.