Monday, June 3, 2013

Crisis Response on Twitter: 3 Keys to the First Hour

Like it or not, Twitter is now the de facto place people go for breaking news. It is where the majority of journalists will find out about an incident at your organization. It is where people who saw, heard or felt the incident will let the world know of their experience. It's also the first place you need to post information on what's happened. Your response on Twitter during the first hour will set the tone for the rest of the response.

I think there are three keys to success on Twitter during the first 60 minutes of incident response.

Within 15 Minutes: Acknowledge.

Just one sentence will suffice. Here is the Tweet Southwest Airlines posted shortly after one of its planes went off the end of the runway at Chicago's Midway Airport on April 26, 2011.
“Gathering details regarding the event (at Midway) please standby for more info.”
Simple, clear, responsive. If you can get this first Tweet out faster, do it. 15 minutes is good. Ten minutes is better. And don't be afraid to send this Tweet out more than once during the first 30 minutes.

15 - 45 Minutes: Respond.

Is there a meeting place for employees? Have authorities been notified? Are you accounting for your people? Do you want anyone to do anything? Is there a phone number to call? As soon as you know what those actions are, let people know what's happening. This is how you establish yourself as a credible source for the entire response.

This Tweet, sent about two minutes after the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, was sent by well-known runner Josh Cox. Although he isn't an official from the Boston Athletic Association, he's a credible source who offered timely information during a crisis. (Note: the timestamp on this tweet auto-converted to Pacific Time, 11:51 am. It was sent at 2:51 pm Eastern, two minutes after the explosions.)

The official Twitter account for the marathon sent out the first post-bombing Tweet came just under two hours after the event, at 4:47 pm Eastern time.  It was a very helpful Tweet for runners and their families with the new location where people could meet up. This is exactly the kind of helpful information you can Tweet in crisis that is helpful to your stakeholders.

45 - 60 Minutes: Empathize. 

In most cases, you will have a pretty good idea that people have been injured or killed in an incident. You may not know any other details than there has been an injury or a death. But you can Tweet a general statement of empathy for those impacted by the event. Go beyond the boiler plate "Our thoughts and prayers, blah blah blah..." that has become devoid of any actual empathy. Express genuine emotion for those impacted by the event. What might just be a really long day at the office for you will be an event that will change some people's lives forever. Be worthy of that moment.

This is just the first hour and just Twitter. You still have all the other tasks and responsibilities, too. Issue an initial statement within an hour. Update your website (with a dark site or a crisis response site like PIER). Monitor what's being said on social media, get your team together, get connected with police, fire or other external agencies that are part of the response. There's a lot to do and it's likely you won't do it perfectly. That's ok.

People won't remember the small imperfections, but they will remember a strong response during the first hour of a crisis. Twitter is key to getting out of the gate strongly and giving your company the best possible change to succeed throughout the crisis.

Bill Salvin


  1. Good take, Bill, a way of proactively communicating, rather than just responding to, that many still overlook. There can't be many journalists left who don't use Twitter as a major source.

  2. Geoff, thanks for the comment. You are absolutely right that journalists use Twitter as one of their first sources of information. We used to have to get in a truck and get to the scene when I was reporting. Now, we just get the right hashtag and follow in real-time.

  3. Brief and brilliant counsel, Bill. Thanks.

  4. I appreciate your comment, John. Thank you.

  5. Luis Araujo (via LinkedIn)June 4, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    Bill- I'm tempted to say this is "tweet"!

    These are really good points to think about in the initial minutes of a crisis. Information is always good but sometimes genuine emotion sounds like the boiler plate version. How do you decide if that is what your team/organisation would like to say?

    That poses the question: Do you think of that before hand? If it's just not sounding right, do you just use a simpler version?

  6. Luis, always good to see your here. Looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks. On the emotion piece, I dislike the phrase "Our thoughts and prayers are with them..." or a version of that because it seems this is the only thing people say when people have been hurt or killed in a crisis. There are many other ways to express this in a way that doesn't feel boilerplate. You can think of them before hand, but ultimately if you tap into the emotion at the moment and keep the the concerns and feelings of your key stakeholders top of mind, you will usually say the right thing.

  7. Paul Rhynard (via LinkedIn)June 5, 2013 at 6:36 AM

    Yes, yes ... and yes. Empathy is so critical but when it's not being overlooked completely, it's being delivered in cliche's.

    My first major crisis event was the downing of one of our helicopters during a rescue in the mid '90's ... heartbreaking. My mentor at the time made a point of teaching me the importance of true empathy.

    I've always advised my principles to develop a genuine, personal statement of empathy, in their own words, using their own voice ... it matters.

  8. Thank you so much for your comment, Paul. Too often people equate being professional with being devoid of emotion. We're well beyond a "Dragnet Response" ("Just the Facts"). Real empathy matched with a sincere effort to respond to those impacted by the event is what makes a response truly successful. I've said many times in this space that all crises are human events. They require a human response. I really appreciate your comment. Thanks for reading.

  9. Susan Roschke (via LinkedIn)June 5, 2013 at 6:44 AM

    Good advice. And if you can have some of the boilerplate language prepared ahead of time, it can speed your response and make it easier on the person managing the Twitter account.

  10. Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts, Susan. I agree with you 100%. The other thing communicators can do to be prepared is to be intimately familiar with the organizations operational emergency response plan so that they know what actions the company will take in certain scenarios. This will speed the process of getting information out when the crisis cooks off.

  11. Blake Rhodes (via LinkedIn)June 5, 2013 at 8:33 AM

    Bill, another poignant and timely post. These are the same principles I was taught during the '90s, but it was the "first few hours" then and it was with press releases and news conferences. This truly shows that social media has made communications a 24/7, real time endeavor. I agree wholeheartedly on the empathy piece. I always use former Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl as an example of someone not showing empathy during the Valdez incident and never recovering as an example for my clients.

  12. Blake, thanks for reading. I'm glad you liked it. I love the Rawl clip. Even though it's more than 20 years old, it makes the points perfectly. Plus, I've not found anyone who so completely drives it into the ditch like he did. Social media has changed a lot, but it hasn't changed the key principles we learned back in the 90s. We just have to get to them faster. Thanks again!

  13. Annie Smith (via LinkedIn)June 5, 2013 at 8:41 AM

    Always good advice, Bill. And when you have leadership that values early communication as critical to its successful operational response, the communicator's seat at the table will be filled early and consistently.

  14. Hi Annie! Always wonderful to connect with you. You are absolutely right that this is a leadership issue as much as its a communications issue. I think the leadership piece is more challenging most times given that the instinct to go into the bunker is very strong when crisis strikes. Thanks for reading!

  15. Shelly Raffle (via LinkedIn)June 5, 2013 at 9:23 AM

    I think this should be the plan for ALL types of organizational communications, not just Twitter posts.

  16. Shelly, you make a good point. My post assumes that the plan for other types of communications is already in place, but maybe that's not a safe assumption to make. You have to have a plan for the first hour on all platforms and via all means necessary. I really appreciate your insight.

  17. Good steps, sure--but they don't have to be done entirely through Twitter. So many organizations leave their social-media presence in the hands of 20-somethings who style themselves as "social-media experts" simply because they know where and how to post online. But when what's critically important in some crisis is, rather, knowing *what* to say and *how* to say it, the risk of permitting some non-professional communicator to be in charge of these statements is too great to comprehend.

    Rushing the creation and dissemination of a public statement simply to get it onto Twitter ASAP is short-sighted. What matters is that a series of initial responses, including the expression of sympathy, is made within an appropriate time--not that they are made on *Twitter.* Your recommended timetable is perfectly suited for Twitter, but you've created an artificial, self-imposed set of dedlines.

    With expressions of sympathy, *what* is said--and how eloquently it is phrased--is much more important than the channel used to convey it. There's nothing wrong with an organization using its Web site as the nexus of all public statements. Simply let AP know what you're doing, and it will keep the news media informed of all your subsequent statements.

    140 characters--120 if you leave room for retweets--is simply inadequate for expressing a decent, full statement of sympathy. Why would anyone want their first public statement of sympathy to be just 120 characters, when they could, instead, post a moving reaction to a crisis using their Web site's entire opening page? (Or a separate crisis site?)

  18. Steven, thanks for reading and for taking the time to share your thoughts here. We're in agreement that putting a non-professional any where near a crisis response is bad. We also agree that social media is just one of the channels you must use to communicate during a crisis. Every avenue has to be used to be successful. Using your website is a great idea and I'd encourage that. In fact, Twitter can serve as a great directional beacon to guide people to where you have posted key information. In the initial statement you can say you're responding to an incident and include a link to your website.

    The reason you need to be on Twitter in the time frame I suggest isn't because Twitter is the be-all/end-all of communications. You need to be on Twitter because that is where your audience will be in the first hour of a crisis. Telling the AP is a great idea, but you can also talk directly to your key stakeholders by using social media.

    All deadlines, by their nature are artificial. Someone had to set them and people need something to plan to. Your crisis plan should be structured in such a way that it enables a 15-minute response. You should practice so that when the s*** hits the fan, you instinctively do what needs to be done. You should let your bosses know your plans so that they're not surprised when you issue a Tweet 15 minutes in telling people to stay tuned for more information.

    You can say a lot in 120 or 140 characters. It's 20-27 words usually and when spoken it takes about 12-14 seconds to say. That's a soundbite and we've been doing those for a long time. It just takes practice. (h/t to Peter Sandman on that breakdown).

    Thanks again for reading. I really appreciate your thoughts.

  19. If that first tweet includes a link to a page on an official web site that has a level of detail appropriate for the response, all the better. Remember that when crisis hits, people will also be searching for information via search engines, and you should be prepared to get current information to a place that people can see and pass along even if they are not on Twitter.