Trying to sort out communications lessons from the tragic shootings at Fort Hood this past Thursday is a challenge. The enormity of the tragedy hasn't fully taken hold.
How does it come to pass that a medical doctor who had pledged to "first do no harm" kills the very men and women who would have willingly given their lives to protect him in combat?
All crises are human events and all journalism is about how events impact people. Despite the terabytes of information that we've been exposed to about the shootings, Journalists still have much to write about the Fort Hood Massacre. Making sense of what was happening through all the noise of early reporting was nearly impossible, but not necessarily all bad.
Salon's Glenn Greenwald blogged about the media orgy of rumors and just plain bad information that came out in the first hours of this story. I'm not sure that there was any more or less bad information during this breaking news than any other story. It's just that social media connected us to it faster and more broadly than in the past.
The clearest lesson came from watching traditional media embrace social media to "improve" breaking news coverage. Yes, Social Media did simply add to the noise at times, but this is how breaking news will work from now on. Communicators have to be ready.
From local media in Killeen, Tex. to International outlets like the New York Times, we had access to so much information that live television seemed slow and one dimensional. I would see something on Twitter and wonder how long it would take CNN to get to the "latest" info. Twitter lists allowed me to follow the story from dozens of sources in one place in real-time.
(If you want a nice primer on Twitter Lists, GHack sums it up for you.)
So what does this mean for communicators who finds themselves in a similar situation? I have a couple of thoughts.
1. Monitor Social Media sites and Twitter Lists
The time is now to put processes or procedures in place for monitoring Social Media sites during a crisis. You don't want to be learning how to search for Tweets or what a trending topic is when chaos is all around. Kevin Duggan at the Strategic Communications Blog has an excellent post on how news organizations and Twitter lists were used in connection to the Fort Hood Shootings. Finding people now that will Tweet about your company, industry or organization will save you time when time is one of your most precious commodities. No need to reinvent the wheel, you can add and expand already established Twitter Lists. Here's a good resource list of tools from Take Me To Your Leader.
2. Know and engage your advocates on Social Media
The key differentiator between the professional communicator and the average Tweep on the street is accuracy. Use your Social networks to your advantage. One bit of accurate info re-Tweeted can go a long way in countering the types of misinformation common to large crises. The Social Media Net will work, but you've got to be ready to use it. The time to establish these networks and begin to engage is now, not when the crisis strikes. (Hat tip to Kari Fluegel of United Space Alliance for helping my thinking on this one.)
3. Be clear with your leadership about their expectations of you and yours of them in a crisis
Your bosses need to know now what you will be doing when the crisis moves everyone to warp speed. You need to know how your bosses will react. Schedule a table-top exercise to walk through process and procedures. Review your crisis communications plans and make adjustments for Social Media's impact on your plans.
4. Set expectations/policies for your employees
Expect your employees to be part of the Social Media mix during a crisis... for good or ill. Heard of Tearah Moore? She is a Fort Hoot Soldier who was Tweeting from the scene. Ms. Moore even snapped a picture of a wounded solider at the hospital, sent it to Twitpic and let the world know the soldier had been "shot in the balls." I captured the screen shot below of her Twitter page during the chaos of Thursday afternoon, right after they announced that an Army Major was the shooter.
Mainstream media found her quickly during the tragedy and started quoting her Tweets. I started to follow her as did hundreds of others. (Her Twitter account is now protected.) She sent a Tweet out late Thursday telling people to stop following her because her Tweets were for her friends. Except she told one of her friends to pass on her phone number to the media. My sense is that she had no idea the tornado she jumped into, or how far or fast it would carry her 140 character missives. Sad. (Paul Carr of Tech Crunch has some sobering perspective on this in his great post.)
There are other lessons to be learned, and I'll write more about them in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.
This is an important one for all communicators to get right. While we still have time.