In January I blogged on the Ebola crisis and how social media was becoming integrated into emergency operations. I asked readers if they had examples from their work and organizations of this kind of integration. The following is a great case study provided by DePaul University Communications.

Integrating Social Media into Crisis Communications

By Christine Gallagher Kearney

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Integrating social media into crisis communications planning is essential. Teams need to be trained in advance to understand roles and responsibilities, and also need to comprehend the nuances of communicating across different social platforms.

At DePaul University, in the Office of Public Relations and Communications, we asked ourselves how we could improve our crisis communications readiness.  With input from my colleagues, I developed a training curriculum dubbed “90 days to ready” that centered on getting to deeply know our crisis communications plan, social media and all.

We set out to achieve two goals:

  • all team members will be able to understand the elements of the crisis communication plan and their individual roles; and
  • all team members will be able to successfully execute plan elements during a tabletop exercise.

Every Thursday morning during those 90 days, our team gathered for an hour to collectively work toward the two goals. Each week we focused on a different topic, including: emergency kits, protocol for emergency Web communications, crisis-related university policies and procedures, and the social media incident command center.

Early on in the training, a crisis communications flow diagram was shared with the group to help everyone understand how messages flow during a crisis situation. As a way of keeping the experience engaging, I regularly used real-life examples of what to do and what not to do during a crisis (e.g., Malaysia Airlines response to the disappearance of flight 370).

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The culmination of the training was a carefully planned and executed tabletop drill. The tabletop, based on a real-life scenario, provided our communicators with many challenges to respond to in real time.

In an effort to demonstrate how complex an actual crisis would be, colleagues assisted with the exercise facilitation by calling tabletop participants in the roles of parent, journalist, student or donor. (All participants were asked in advance to bring their smartphones and laptops to the exercise.)

I also incorporated simulated tweets and Facebook posts into the tabletop exercise scenario, so that when the exercise was under way, my colleagues would have to respond to, not only traditional media simulated calls and emails, but social media tweets and posts as well.

The tweets and posts ranged from students claiming they heard gun shots on campus to photos of a dorm engulfed in flames posted on Twitter. I created some tweets and posts that were deliberately misleading. My communication colleagues had to quickly but efficiently sort through the incoming messages and determine the correct response.

Adding the simulated social media tweets and posts created an intensity and pace reflective of a real crisis response situation. Everyone was thinking, acting and speaking in crisis mode by the end of the 90-minute exercise.

The post-tabletop evaluation results were positive and indicated that the participants had indeed fulfilled the two goals we set out to achieve. Responses included:

  • We have a good sense of our roles and how to communicate with each other.
  • I understand how a crisis might unfold and the first steps we would take as a team.
  • It was most valuable to see the whole team’s roles play out in real time with many distractions.

In the end, integrating social media into crisis communications response is non-negotiable in the 24-hour information cycle. Tabletop exercises are practical and effective tools to test and measure readiness.

Gerald Baron | Emergency Management | March 16, 2015

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