Predictably twitter exploded with eyewitness tweets (from passengers and employees of the airport/airlines) and concerned chatter from folks and busybodies like me. Even though it was the wee hours of the morning in Asia, social media in South Korea & China literally went abuzz with news of the crash.
Asiana Flight 214 shortly after crash landing. Photo credits: Krista Seiden
I monitored the response of the principal stakeholders to the unfolding crisis. How would they communicate with the public in such a time of crisis? In particular I was keen to find out how the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of the United States would handle this communication challenge.
The NTSB states on its website that it is “an independent federal agency charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents, promoting transportation safety, and assisting victims of transportation accidents and their families”.
Let's review their actions in the aftermath of the crash vis a viz their mission statement.
Immediacy - the NTSB had taken to twitter within an hour of the crash. It was clear that they had taken charge of the operations in the heat of the confusion. It did not have to wait for the White House to issue directives. It did not wait for Asiana Airlines or the airport authorities to do so. Its first press release was put out that same day.
In all it left no one in doubt about the facts of the case as they emerged. The initial press release stated that its chairman would lead its “go-team” tasked with overseeing the investigation.
It listed the names and phone numbers of two public affairs specialists that would co-ordinate media-related activities in San Francisco. But perhaps what is most instructive was the last line, '...for the latest information related to the investigation and any press briefings, follow us on twitter @NTSB or www.NTSB.gov'.
The NTSB understood that giving timely, accurate information would go a long way in 'assisting victims of transportation accidents and their families'.
Accessibility - as the relatives and indeed the world waited impatiently for any and every news, the NTSB had over 90 tweets and 4 press releases about the incident over an 11-day period. They responded to mentions, made clarifications and provided facts in real time.
Handling Errors - 6 days after the crash, an NTSB intern confirmed inaccurate and offensive names as those of the pilots of the flight. It was a major blow to the NTSB's otherwise impeccable handling of the aftermath of the crash.
The NTSB was able to avert legal action from the airline following a swift public apology for their error. The apology was also contained in a press release that is still on the NTSB's website.
Also Read "Handling Backlash on Social Media".
Government can Work
Though NTSB is a federal agency in the US, its website has up to date information on the status of all ongoing investigations.
The page about the San Francisco incident contains media contact details, videos of the 5 media briefings till date and related photos on photo sharing site Flickr.
The website leaves no one in doubt that this organisation is serious about its mandate. In all of these the website is not singing the praises of the Chairman of the NTSB. Rather it focuses on communicating the activities of the entire investigation team.
How can other organisations make the most out of a potentially messy situation?
Bad things do and will happen. At such times, “truth is usually the first casualty”. It is not uncommon for the blame game to start. Finger pointing and name calling become the order of the day – with most forgetting the reason why they are involved in resolving the crisis in the first place.
Preparing to communicate effectively on social media during a crisis starts with having a reliable and authentic social media presence. It is not uncommon to find that official social media channels sometimes close on Fridays and re-open on Monday mornings. There is no public holiday on social media.
Like the Boy Scouts motto, “be prepared”. This is the time to ensure that the organisation’s website is regularly updated with relevant, accurate and easy to find information. “You do not start digging a well when you are thirsty”. The time to get your digital channel strategy right is now!
Before the crisis, the communications team should create a list of possible issues that can lead to crisis within the organization. They also need to create holding statements that can be shared with the public when crisis first breaks.
From experience, the best solution remains having a senior communications specialist within the organization take charge of all communications related activities.
Known as the single official spokesperson during the crisis, information about this “media contact” such as names, email address and mobile number(s) should be available on its website and social media pages. “A tweet in time saves lives”.
Having a reliable and authentic social media presence presupposes that the organisation has a team that regularly listens, experiments, applies learning and have started engaging at some level with their stakeholders on such platforms.
During crisis periods, the team would need to dig deep into their experience to keep up with the vast communication need that might arise.
See Also "Managing Expectations".
Senior communications specialists should take some hands on social media lessons. Improving their social media competence can only enhance their ability to execute this very crucial assignment as seamlessly as required. This is not the time to leave everything to the intern or analyst!
The NTSB got its crisis communications strategy right. It is now up to you and I to make it happen for our organisations – not tomorrow but today!