Wednesday, November 25, 2009

No One Hurt in No Plane Crash-A Social Media-Crisis Comms Case Study

One of the huge perceived risks of Social Media is that anyone can say anything about your organization, and rumors or false allegations can spread like wildfire. It is a risk, but not an unmanageable one.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak about Social Media and Crisis Communications with a group of public affairs officers from the U.S. Air Force in Washington, DC. They shared a great case study with me of how they used Social Media last March to crush false stories about a crash of a C-17 cargo plane. There was no plane crash. It's an understatement to say that the crash of an aircraft is a huge deal for the Air Force.

Here's the timeline from last March 23:

  • 1:35 pm (EST) CNN reports a C-17 plane has crashed near Olney, Texas. The story cited "callers to police" as the source of information about the crash. 
  • 1:36 pm (one minute later) The story of the crash moves to Twitter. You can see that this Tweep has already checked the Air Force's official Website to confirm the information and didn't like that there was nothing posted about the "crash." That tells you a lot about people's expectations of organizations in the Age of Social Media.

  • 1:45 pm (nine minutes later) Message boards pick up the story. Note that the CNN story now attributes word of the crash to a spokesman at Shepherd Air Force Base. 
  • 1:53 pm (17 minutes after the first report on CNN) The Air Force posts to its main Twitter feed that there is no crash. The PAOs at the Air Force's National Press Desk also reach out to CNN and other key media by phone and email. What this tells us is that traditional media relations skills and tactics will still be important even as we add Social Media tools to our response kit.

  • 2:31 pm (55 minutes after the initial report) CNN posts a story that the search has been called off because the report of the crash was false. 
Every crisis is different (even crises sparked by things that don't happen) and every company needs to incorporate Social Media into its crisis plan in a way that enhances and quickens the response cycle. I believe there are three key things we can learn from the Air Force in this case:
  1. People expect your organization to be present in the Social Media space. Your presence in social media will be a key channel for getting information out in a crisis. Establish your presence now so people know where to find you when a crisis strikes. 
  2. Traditional means of getting out information during a crisis are still important. The Air Force didn't abandon its traditional means of getting to reporters. PAOs picked up the phone and called their contacts to get the word out that there was no crash. Traditional media are still important and relevant for crisis communications. 
  3. The risk of misinformation is manageable. As the Air Force's experience here shows, organizations that are engaged with their stakeholders and present in the Social Media space stand a much better chance of getting their message out successfully in a crisis.
Note: A huge tip of the hat to USAF Capt. Christina Sukach, (@csukach), Chief of Emerging Technology at the Air Force Public Affairs Agency for sharing this case study and Chris Isleib, (@cisleib), the Deputy Director for Media Operations for Air Force Public Affairs for inviting me to speak.  

Bill Salvin

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