Using Social Media for Crisis Communication

by Brett Pollard on April 28, 2011

Recent storms are a reminder to update crisis plans

We’ve had a particularly violent storm season this Spring in the St. Louis area, but this past weekend it turned destructive.  For the 4th time in a week the local warning sirens were blaring on Friday night while I was at a local retail store.  All customers in the store were quickly herded to the back as rumors spread of the impending storm.  Phones were buzzing with text messages and mobile data users were checking on Facebook to gather information.  It turns out we were directly in the path of a storm that had just caused severe damage at Lambert St. Louis Airport.

Fortunately, the storm passed – sparing the store and it’s occupants.  On my short drive home, I squinted through the dark to see if anything in town had been damaged.   I didn’t see anything that was cause for alarm and was relieved to find my house seemingly unscathed.  It wasn’t until early the next morning I realized how close the town came to a catastrophe.

It turns out, just east town a tornado had touched down causing widespread damage in the rural surroundings.  I couldn’t help but think “what if”?  What if it had touched down right in the middle of town where it is densely populated with residential homes and commercial buildings.  Our hospital, which had moved patients into the hallways, lies straight west of the most damaged area.  So does the fire department/EMS building.  With no disrespect to those affected by the damage, we were very lucky.

Looking back on the incident, I’m reminded of an article I read some time ago on Ed Bennett’s blog.   Ed had detailed an example of how Innovis Health in Fargo, North Dakota used social media in it’s crisis communications efforts when flood waters reached historic levels and caused extensive damage.  For several days, Innovis was the only hospital in Fargo fully operational and had the added responsibility of overseeing helicopter evacuations.

Every hospital has a crisis communications plan. Does yours include social media as a tool? – Ed Bennett

In this case, a firm managing the Innovis social media presence used a WordPress blog and Twitter feed to communicate with the press and fellow Fargo residents.  These efforts allowed the hospital to inform the public while keeping the phone lines open for medical emergencies.

When I started writing this article last night, I was unaware of the violent storms wreaking havoc across several southern states.  As of 5:30 EST, CNN is reporting the storms have caused nearly 300 fatalities – most of which have been in Alabama.  You can imagine what challenges local hospitals are facing as their own crisis communication plans are being implemented.  Only time will tell what role social media may have played.

With the right tools in place, I don’t think there’s any doubt social media can play an important role in crisis communication.  The rapid growth of mobile applications only increases the potential for reaching a large audience in a very short period of time.  The quicker accurate information is delivered to a broad audience, the better.  Do you have a social media crisis communication story to share?  If so, please feel free to leave relay your experiences in the comments section.

Other Crisis Communication Resources:

From Twitter to Megaphones: 9 Lessons Learned About Crisis Communication

Expert Roundtable on Social Media and Risk Communication During Times of Crisis (pdf)

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