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There’s no doubt about it—social media has definitely been a game changer in regard to disaster response and emergency management. This infographic from HootSuite outlines just how critical a role it has played in crisis situations. Gone are the days of mediated communication between business and customer, politician and community. Businesses, community service providers and government are now all on the frontlines and are expected to be responsive and present, especially in times of crisis. Unfortunately, just having social channels isn’t enough. They must be used properly and frequently to convey real-time updates and other relevant information to help quell rumours, panic and confusion; the public is watching and expects those in charge to perform their due diligence in times of duress.

The funny thing about a crisis situation is you never really expect it to happen where you live…until it does. The recent flood in Toronto was an eye-opening exercise in just how quickly things we take for granted every day, like electricity and transportation, can come unglued and where people look for news and updates, and perhaps most importantly, what really pisses us off.

Let’s examine some social insights generated by the Toronto flood, perhaps better identified by its hashtag #FloodTO, and identify some Do’s and Don’ts of how to engage on social when $%*# hits the fan. When over 61 billion litres of rain fall on Canada’s largest city, you can be assured someone is getting hung out to dry.

DO: Examine how other leaders, businesses and the public sector use social media to handle crisis situations and engage/mobilize the public in their own communities. In other words, do your research! There is lots to be gleaned from the successes and failures of others in comparable mishaps. Mayor Ford’s Twitter response to Toronto flooding was automatically compared to Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi, who is a social media superstar, and inevitably it wasn’t very flattering. Could Ford have taken a page out of Nenshi’s playbook? Certainly. Did he? No.

DON’T: Hide in your car when you’re the mayor or refuse to be accountable after normal business hours like GO Transit. Be available. Be responsive. This one seems obvious, but clearly it’s easy to overlook. Of course, the first instinct when things start to go awry is to stick one’s head in the sand but it’s the absolute worst thing to do when people want answers and there is a ton of contradictory information coming out. Be there to provide answers and reassurance. While Toronto Hydro was also lambasted for its overall communications, they did a great job of minding their Twitter presence and even employed the use of a special hashtag to denote blackout reports #darkto.

DON’T: Disregard the power of your social channels. Some of the more traditional folk still think “media” is only limited to television and radio; Rob Ford was quoted at a press conference post-flood admitting the need for better crisis communications. “Communications is a big one — but when there’s a blackout, TVs weren’t working, radios weren’t working. A lot of people were in their cars trying to get some information…” Guess what, they were also online! Sysomos tracked over 163,000 online mentions of the flood during the 12 hours immediately after the downpour, the bulk of which came from Twitter. There were on average 43 tweets per minute containing a hashtag related to the flood.

DO: Keep tabs on user-generated content. This content provides incredible opportunity to engage your community and interact, not to mention assist others personally. People are literally sharing their experiences on these channels and smart, progessive business understands the great potential of being able to reach out and respond directly. Implementing a social listening strategy is a great way to stay informed and create unique ways of reaching your audience and community. Here are some user-generated photos from the flood.

DON’T: Capitalize on crisis situations with surge pricing/price gouging, like on-demand taxi service Uber. Aron Solomon articulately outed the company with a blog post that went completely viral. While Uber did offer up an explanation on their blog, the damage had already been done.

So there you have it—some important reminders of what to do and what not to do when the world is temporarily turned upside down. Have you noticed any businesses or people who went above and beyond in a crisis situation? What have you learned about keeping your cool during an emergency?

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