Watching the aftermath of the Boston Marathon tragedy really hit home for me. Boston was the place I called home for 11 years. I have family and close friends who live there. As a proud graduate of Boston University, I remember enjoying sunny afternoons on Patriots’ Day cheering on the valiant runners as they came through Kenmore Square on their way to the finish line. I was deeply saddened to hear the news that one of the victims killed was a BU student. During my days as a broadcaster in the area, I often stood right at the finish line just steps away from where the explosions went off, waiting to interview local runners as they reveled in their accomplishment. It’s hard for me to comprehend how such a joyous event can turn into a horrifying disaster in the blink of an eye.
Over the past few days, I’ve been consuming the news coverage, reading the latest online reports and viewing the responses stream across Facebook and Twitter, and it amazes me the power that social media has over traditional media channels. This coming from an old TV guy. At the time of the blasts, people began sharing the images of the chaotic scene across social media channels. It continues today with a tremendous outpouring of support for the City of Boston and the victims of this unspeakable tragedy. Folks from around the globe – celebrities, politicians, even the rival New York Yankees have joined together to demonstrate to all this city’s unity, strength and resilience. Seeing hashtags such as #BostonStrong, #PrayforBoston and #OneBoston littered across Twitter reinforces my belief that social media is not just another medium to promote the news, but a means of connecting human beings especially in the face of adverse conditions.
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) April 17, 2013
Thoughts and prayers with my hometown Boston today.
— Mark Wahlberg (@mark_wahlberg) April 16, 2013
— Governor Christie (@GovChristie) April 17, 2013
As PR and Social Media Managers, it is often our responsibility to handle communications when a crisis occurs. One can’t even imagine having to deal with a catastrophic event like the one that unfolded in Boston, but regardless of the situation, it’s our job to have a communication plan in place to control and effectively respond to a crisis as quickly as possible. Disseminating accurate information in a timely manner during a crisis is a priority, but social media has certainly changed the game. Too often media outlets put a priority on getting the news out first rather than getting it right. The Huffington Post learned this the hard way when it incorrectly reported that BU graduate student Zhou Danling was one of the fatalities of the Marathon bombings, when it fact, she survived the ordeal. They’ve since posted a retraction. This rush to report and scoop your competitors mentality can backfire and has certainly drawn its share of criticism.
I hate to sound like an old fart, but when I worked for AP many years ago, we had sourcing rules and breaking them got you fired.
— Steve Wildstrom (@swildstrom) April 17, 2013
CNN simply reported what they believed to be true. First Reports are sometimes a negative side effect of 24 hour news media. Lay off.
— Nick Nash (@NickNash) April 17, 2013
@NickNash But that doesn't mean we should blindly accept it, like sheep. There used to be a journalistic code of ethics…
— Amber K (@SousLeRadar) April 17, 2013
You can never be too prepared when it comes to crisis management. Having a plan in place will help you deal with a terrible event like the one we saw this week. Here are a few guidelines to remember when dealing with a crisis situation:
- Plan ahead – Don’t wait until crisis hits to put a crisis management plan together.
- Act like a human being – Express empathy and concern when victims are involved.
- Activate appropriate mechanisms to keep the public and media informed on an ongoing basis.
- Integrate social media into your plan – Be quick, but get it right.
- Keep your message simple and clear.
- Select a primary spokesperson to represent the organization throughout the crisis process.
- All communications should go through one channel.
- Respond to incorrect information that may be circulating as necessary.
Ross Coyle is an Account Supervisor at Sterling Communications. Follow him on Twitter at @rossjcoyle