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Use Social Media for Real-Time Communication During a Crisis

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Erik Deckers, coauthor of No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing, knows a thing or two about how information is released — or escapes — from its source to the rest of the world. Unlike the old days (that is, a couple of years ago), big business and professional news media no longer control the flow of news; now the public does! We need to be aware of how powerful the average citizen can be, with just a mobile phone and 140 characters.

For part of my career, I was the Risk Communication Director for the Indiana State Department of Health. That meant that I was the "Oh, crap," PR guy during any public health emergencies. Whether it was training for handling bird flu or an anthrax attack, dealing with salmonella in peanut butter or E. coli in spinach, or sending out the first press release that ultimately resulted in a national toy recall and international press coverage, I was the guy the media called.

Email and the BlackBerry were the tools of the day, and while they made life a little easier, it would have been nice if we could communicate directly with the public in real time. This was in 2006, when real-time communication tools were already starting to emerge. They weren't perfect, but they would have let us communicate a lot more efficiently than the stone knives and bearskins we were using at the time.

Now that social media has sped up the pace of how people communicate with each other, real-time communication is becoming even more important. Thanks to social media, ordinary folks are breaking news before the media gets the chance. Let's look at three examples of how people heard about an incident on social media before a single news camera appeared on the scene.

Death of Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden's death was announced on Twitter at least 20 minutes before the first news programs started carrying the story. The first tweet came from Keith Urbahn, chief of staff to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said, "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn." This offhand remark set off more tweets about bin Laden than any other topic in Twitter's history up to that point. This avalanche of activity-5,000 tweets per second around the world announcing and discussing the news-prompted Peter Shankman (a fellow Pearson author), to tweet humorously, "President: 'Tonight, I read on twitter that Osama bin Laden was killed.'"

2009 Swine Flu Outbreak

In April 2009, the U.S. had its first influenza pandemic in over three decades, since the Hong Kong and Russian flu threats in the 1960s and 1970s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that within 12 months, between 43 million and 89 million people caught H1N1 (popularly known as "swine flu"), but it was mild enough that the estimated number of deaths is between 8,900 and 18,300. While the H1N1 news broke via regular news channels (I saw it on TV at lunch that day), the news spread—uh, virally—via social media.

Many state and local public health departments were still using the email-and-BlackBerry method of communicating with the press, while questions by the public were largely going ignored. In the meantime, regular citizens were picking up where the health departments fell down. People were starting flu-related Twitter accounts and blog feeds. They were aggregating information and sending it out to other people, who were flocking to these senders for news of what was happening in their area. As a result, these citizen journalists became resources for information that the government agencies weren't able to provide.

Motrin Moms, Meet Twitter Moms

McNeil Consumer Healthcare, makers of the Motrin brand of pain relievers, created an ad geared toward mothers who could relate to the aches and pains that come from carrying a baby in a sling for hours at a time. McNeil released this ad in September 2008, calling the baby and sling a "fashion accessory," with the saying, "Carrying a baby may be tough, but it totally makes me look like an official mom."

Underestimating the power of social media, McNeil was caught completely flat-footed at being blasted over the ad by the "mommy blogger" community. A few influential mommy bloggers, with a few thousand Twitter followers each, were outraged by the ad, and wrote about it on their own blogs. The problem (for McNeil) was that among those few thousand Twitter followers were other mommy bloggers who also had a few thousand Twitter followers.

What's a few thousand times a few thousand? If you said "a crapload," step up and claim your prize.

The reaction to the "Motrin moms" ad was so fierce that, two days later, McNeil buckled and withdrew the entire ad campaign from circulation. McNeil sent out an apology to the bloggers, posted the apology on the Motrin website, pulled the ad from TV, and canceled all the print versions.

Lessons Learned

What's the lesson to be learned from these incidents? That social media has wrested control away from the authorities. Messages that used to be controlled by marketing departments, crisis-communication pros, and professional journalists have been taken over by the public.

In each of these cases, news leaked to the social media realm, where it spread like wildfire. It happened so fast that the traditional approach of press conferences, press releases, and waiting for the nightly news or morning newspaper wasn't fast enough. Even 24-hour cable news was a little slow.

News happens in real time, and real time is faster than it was even five years ago. Real time is 140 characters long (the maximum length of a tweet on Twitter). Real time is a cell phone picture being uploaded to Facebook—maybe 20 seconds. Real time is a "reliable source" telling the world (20 minutes before an official news network could) that an enemy of the U.S. was killed.

If you want to have some semblance of control over your message, or you want to be able to react in minutes instead of days, you need to start using the tools that the public is using. You need to use social media for your real-time communication.

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