Crisis Communications in 140 characters or less.
By Alicia Whalen
Tuesday, 9th November 2010
Ink on your fingers from reading the daily newspaper and CNN as the source for all breaking news is almost a distant memory, as news comes to us now via Twitter and other Social Media channels almost instantaneously – and not through the same media filters of the past.

As events take place in real time, Twitterers are commenting, re-tweeting and sharing images making the Twitterverse the place to have access to the real story, or perhaps just commentary without the accuracy of old traditional media (although that could be debated I am sure).

News junkies, and the media themselves are getting their fix faster than ever, which means that when disaster happens, everyone will know about instantly – as it happens, leaving brands little time to send in the PR team to handle official statements and manage the messages.

So what happens when an emergency occurs that demands that a brand respond and or participate in ongoing commentary to help neutralize negative information, and help shape a more positive spin on events as they occur, and immediately after, without an active digital component to their PR strategy?

Those in the travel and tourism industry (and any industry for that matter) need to be ready and on stand-by to deal with emergencies from both a customer-service perspective as well as a media relations best practice. Specifically if you have a Social media presence – especially on Twitter – you need to be ready to use the channel to directly respond to media and customers or risk losing control of the message – or worse.

Take the recent emergency landing of an Emirates Airline to JFK airport in New York City. The plane originating from Dubai was escorted by the national guard back to the airport under suspicion that it was carrying explosives (this according to Twitter) Specifically it was reported via Twitter that:

@NYCAviation Emirates Jet lands safely in New York amid global Terror Alerts. This and about 4 other tweets per second we being shared within seconds of the jet landing.

Communications and PR professionals need to have a plan in place as to how to respond if they are actively using Twitter as a communications medium, and they need to be able to issue a statement in 140 characters or less. The reality is that any company that operates in the public eye needs to monitor and manage their online reputation on an ongoing basis.

Specifically if they are using Twitter, there needs to be a plan in place to use the channel as a brand voice, consumer response channel, and as a means to manage the now instantaneous news coverage that is now our media reality.

Whether it's a natural disaster like flooding or an earthquake, or a threat of terrorism, corporations need to include in their emergency preparedness plans how they will use their official voice in social media to counteract, as well as inform the public as to the status of the situation at hand.

This brings us to a discussion that is on the minds of every brand CEO, and should be…who manages Social Media and what kind of resources should be allocated? Is Twitter the job of Marketing, Public Relations or Technology?

If you are a brand like Emirates Airlines, and you are going Twitter as the brand, you will need to ensure that the Tweeter or Tweeters have access to senior level executives or a PR team that can jump in to help craft the messages required at a time of crisis. Emirates had not as of October 29th when the JFK incident took place tweeted since early January of 2010, amidst hundreds of Tweets per minute trending around the incident.

The danger in having a Twitter account, without proper management or strategy, is that when a crisis occurs and the Twitterverse is a buzz with comments about the incident (including those who are actually on site of the incident, media and the general public), the brand can be seen as non responsive – and this in the PR world is not a good thing.

Some suggestions for Emirates and all brands to consider in the future when under fire (I guess literally in this situation):

1. Prepare a statement consistent with other company official statements provided by the PR team that uses positive language such as "safe" and safety measures – and be sure to thank the authorities for handling the situation. Anything to neutralize the situation. These official tweets will then be re-tweeted and be visible as the "official" voice in all of the clutter on Twitter. Media also fact find using Twitter first using Tweeters with authority or official Twitter accounts as credible sources for information.
2. Monitor the Twitterverse through the crisis and on an ongoing basis to ensure that you can correct any facts, respond to direct twitter questions and address the media – directly via Twitter. A simple way to monitor a situation such at this one would be to go to Twitter Search and type in the word Emirates. All related tweets will appear in real time. (a more robust form of measurement is recommended as a long term strategy)
3. Communicate with the PR/Communications teams to ensure the message is consistent across all mediums.
4. Establish and use Hash Tags (such as #Emirates) to insert the official brand voice into conversation.
5. Respond to Tweets that are posing a question as the official source so that negative buzz can be minimized, or to correct information that is incorrect.

Having a Twitter presence without a defined strategy and an active brand voice to support it is a disaster waiting to happen. In the new media space, there is only minutes to craft a response in 140 characters or less and hope that by engaging in the discussion there will be a positive PR spin on the story as it unfolds.

Consider using this example who is Tweeting as the official voice of your brand, and make sure that if you are actively engaged in social media as a method of marketing and communications, that you have considered what resources you need to fully support your tweeters. They could make the difference between a positive or negative spin that may effect your brand reputation for years to come.

Alicia Whalen is the co-founder of "A Couple of Chicks.Com" an Internet Marketing, Distribution & Revenue Measurement Company. After 8 years developing search engine strategies and measuring online return on investment for large branded hotels, resorts and destination portal websites in Niagara Falls Canada, Alicia partnered with Patricia Brusha to develop an integrated, non-intimidating approach to Internet Marketing and Web strategy. 

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