Including Social Media in Your Crisis Communications Plan

illustration of online learning with computers and textbooks

In a 2009 interview with Academic Impressions, Cindy Lawson discussed some of the risks presented by social media in the event of a crisis, such as the potential for the rapid spread of misinformation.

This week, we spoke with Lawson again to learn more about the opportunities social media channels present in the event of a crisis. Handled appropriately and well, social media channels can empower campus communications professionals to disseminate critical information widely and virally during and after an emergency.

"Social media is the new inbox, with multiple channels linked to mobile devices. Social media allows you to be your own publicist, bypassing traditional media to communicate directly with your constituents. Politicians and celebrities are already doing this regularly."
Cindy Lawson, U of North Carolina Wilmington

Lawson recommends adding these items to your crisis communications plan:

  • Create social media "blind sites" that can go "live" in the event of a crisis
  • During a crisis, assign staff or volunteers to monitor social network sites, just as you would monitor traditional news outlets
  • Have a plan in place for using social media channels (housed on external servers) as a back-up in the event that other communications infrastructure fails

Being Proactive

For these channels to be effective, you will need to proactively cultivate a following, and position your institution's website and social media channels as the "go-to place" for information about the school. "Create online 'news info' interactive sites," Lawson advises, "to showcase your news and other timely content. Make it known that this is a place where students, parents, and media professionals can search for information and stories about your institution."

You want to make sure that your channels are the ones your constituents -- and the external public -- tune into. This both helps you direct the flow of information about your institution in an environment of increasingly free-flowing information, and also helps you protect your institution's reputation from any damaging effects caused by malicious impostors who may otherwise set up their own Facebook groups or other channels, using your institution's name.

What You Can Do With Facebook

Lawson recommends preparing a "dark site" or "blind site" -- a link on your university's Facebook page that can go "live" if a crisis occurs. "Or create several links," Lawson advises, "one for each of several different types of crisis (fire, health-related, hurricane, etc.). This is similar to what most universities do on their home page, but I am suggesting that you do likewise on your Facebook account."

Another option is to create a live university Facebook account specifically for crises. This page would always be live and would be a resource for disaster-related information for various types of emergencies -- "helpful links to the CDC, county health department, and other information related to health issues: what to do, where to go, etc." All the information that you would post on a crisis Web page should be replicated on your Facebook page.

What You Can Do With YouTube

You will want to use text messaging, Twitter, and other rapid channels for emergency notifications and high-urgency updates, but for longer, more crafted messages, online video can offer a key channel for both disseminating information and keeping the "face" of your institution visible. Lawson recommends posting online videos to offer expressions of sympathy and sorrow, information about or recordings of memorials and vigils, as well as updates from your emergency operations center.

What You Can Do With Twitter

Lawson notes that Twitter has numerous advantages for crisis communications. Twitter allows for easy, frequent, real-time updates, facilitating eyewitness reporting and allowing you to get immediate feedback on how your community is responding to a particular issue. Because the communication happens in real time, there's little opportunity for spin or camouflage and abundant opportunity for speedily correcting misinformation.

Lawson recommends using Twitter to prompt conversation rather than as a one-way communication channel -- this will also assist you in building a presence on Twitter prior to a crisis. Use the channel to:

  • Share news and resources
  • Pose questions around a key issue and ask for responses
  • During a crisis, monitor the information (or misinformation) relayed in the mainstream media and use Twitter to distribute speedy corrections (Lawson notes that the US Air Force was effective in using Twitter to correct misreporting on CNN related to the crash of a C-17 plane)
  • Relay frequent status updates during a crisis, and disseminate info as it comes in (Lawson points to the Red Cross's success in using Twitter to help coordinate evacuations, shelters, and food distribution)