Preaching about the use of social media tools during crisis is much easier than actually doing it. Especially for smaller agencies with limited staff. But, does that mean it can’t be done? Absolutely not. Because of the recent Ferguson, Missouri debacle I’ve heard from chiefs who now understand the importance social media platforms play in today’s emergency, and are now asking HOW to do it.
Well, I have a few ideas and tips. But before reading further, please watch and listen to this OUTSTANDING example of crisis communications by the Omaha Police Chief and compare it to Ferguson, Missouri’s crisis communications. It should help frame what I’m talking about next.
Today’s effective public safety leaders;
Learn Twitter. Twitter is the fastest and most intense social media platform. It takes an investment of time and effort to learn how Twitter works and build a network of followers to help spread your message during a bad day. But, it is now critical that your agency has a robust social media presence and network in place BEFORE the crisis hits.
Continually communicate. This doesn’t mean holding a dog and pony show media briefing or putting out a two page press release when something bad happens. It means leaders today are listening, acknowledging and engaging-all the time. Spend 15-30 minutes each day checking your social media feeds. Respond to folks, share their messages, and be as SM visible as possible. If you don’t have a smart phone, get one. It makes it seductively convenient to check your SM feeds.
Beware the middleman. During crisis, citizens don’t want to hear from the “talking head”. They want to hear from THE LEADER. Punting to a junior staffer can be a BIG mistake. They want to hear from YOU, and delegating that responsibility may damage you and your organization’s credibility. Today’s effective crisis leaders directly engage, providing fast, accurate and continuous information. Two excellent examples of highly effective public officials who directly engage during crisis are U.S. Senator Cory Booker whose prolific personal use of Twitter during major winter storms was highly effective and Boston Police Department Deputy Superintendent John Daly whose use of Twitter during the Marathon bombing is widely recognized as one of the most effective uses of social media during a disaster.
Give up control. Actually, this isn’t true. Today leaders in high visibility events don’t control who says what. Everyone is now a reporter. But, unlike professional journalists they say whatever they want, throwing stuff on the wall until something sticks. Today’s leader is continually engaging, building a Teflon transparent wall of public trust. Get your message out there fast, and watch to see if it sticks. If it doesn’t, keep throwing.
Start a conversation NOW! Today’s key to crisis communications is having a network of agency advocates, including local and regional media before the next disaster. Establish a social media relationship, and engage. Make it a regular habit to check your social media feeds to see what people are saying about your agency and community, and even more importantly see what is going on in their organizations. Sharing people’s successes, stories and events is a great way to keep the conversations going. What’s that? You don’t have time? You can’t afford not to. Make the time.
Follow other leaders. Successful leaders today have a strong social media presence. Follow them, read what they post. Look at who they follow and read their stuff too. Chances are you will become a better leader because of it.
Don’t be a robot. I hate sterile, cookie cutter media releases, posts and tweets from public safety agencies. Jack Webb’s famous quote from Dragnet “Just the facts Ma’am” was engrained in my fire service psyche for years. But, I connected better with the public when I shared how I was feeling about a situation. Effective leaders today publicly express emotion appropriately. Empathy, sadness, pride, disgust, relief, love, fear, are shared feelings that can humanizes the agency and response efforts.
Beware the attorney who says “Don’t say anything.” Legal counsel’s highest priority in crisis is limiting agency liability, and silence is viewed as a primary protective tool. Silence often makes things worse (just ask the folks in Ferguson), as the vacuum of information fills with speculation and rumor. Fast, continuous and empathetic messaging can help limit liability.
Our culture has changed because of social media and mobile technology. Public safety leaders who continue to ignore this fact may be unnecessarily jeopardizing their credibility when their day comes. Don’t be one of “those guys”.