In today’s expansive world of smartphones and instantaneous social media reporting, incident commanders no longer have the luxury of controlling communication with the public and media. As a result, a company must establish an incident management communication plan that includes a facet for assessing and distributing communication through social media.
Social media communication has advanced from its origins as a picture-sharing medium strictly used by young adults, to a comprehensive, informative, and responsive communication tool. Companies must incorporate these platforms that instantly validate observations, enable shared experiences, and provide valuable information.
Public relations planning that includes a social media element must be developed as part of an overall incident management plan. In order to sustain a positive, productive, and profitable relationship with stakeholders and communities, proactive corporate visibility and timely communications is essential. Established Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and company websites can be used as sources of incident communications. Employees, the press, and communities want to know the details of “what happened”, “who/what was impacted”, “why did the incident occur”, and “what will happen” in the near future.
The more timely and detailed the information, the less chance the public and media outlets will have room for interpretation. In order to regulate inaccurate perceptions, an incident management communication plan must contain the following elements:
- An initial brief, focused, and factual description of the situation: Even if the situation is ongoing, the current facts must be presented barring any information that may cause further harm.
- Initial response action details: Identify the “who, what, when, and where”. The “why” is often speculative in the early stages of an incident. Refrain from communicating the “why” until all the facts can be evaluated and confirmed.
- Ongoing processes established to minimize and counteract the emergency: Identify what process and procedures will be in place in order to restore the scene to a “business as usual” scenario. This may include, but is not limited to:
- ongoing security measures
- safety mandates, such as shelter in place or evacuations
- supply chain disruptions
- employee directives
- request for assistance/volunteers
- A statement of commitment to return to “business as usual”: Companies must communicate their intent/attempt to return the affected area to its original or improved state. If ‘business as usual” will be delayed or altered, details of those terms must be communicated when logistics and associated details are confirmed.
- An expression of empathy to those affected by the incident: If an incident affects employees, stakeholders, and/or the community, a company should make every effort to “be human” and show compassion. However, communicating “acts of compassion” speak louder than words.
- Access to subject matter experts to answer media inquiries: Experts that understand the details of the incident and how it relates to operations can often provide specific, factual information. These individuals can often be representatives that explain “why” an incident occurred. If a company does not provide expert analysis, the public and media may seek out alternative sources that may not have all the necessary deductive and accurate information to the specific incident.
- Timing for follow up information: Companies should only promise what can be delivered. A companies should refrain from predicting response times. While exercises should give incident commanders a general sense of time frame, each scenario is unique. Companies should provide employees, the press, and the public with incremental times for situational updates. Those times should be hard scheduled but should not interfere with the response. Even if additional factual information is not available, the public information officer (PIO), or the designated representative, should maintain communication.
Social media engagement has become one of the “lessons learned” from the 2013 West, TX fertilizer plant explosion. Frank Patterson, Waco-McLennan County emergency management coordinator, called the incident a “CNN event”. “We didn’t use social media. It ate us up,” said Patterson. Misinformation and rumors surrounding the explosion saturated the Internet.
It is imperative for a PIO or representative to effectively manage and engage in media communication and social media chatter. For larger companies or if operational risks and worst-case scenarios have the potential for a considerable impact, it may be advantageous to establish a communications team that includes a social media monitoring facet. Regardless, companies must be tuned into the vast digital network of social chatter. While the specific incident circumstances will define a response strategy, basic communications processes typically remain consistent. Viral rumors and antagonistic communications can often be inhibited with a timely, factual, and proactive incident management communications campaign.